Almost every parent is horrified by the idea of unschooling

Monday, November 2nd, 2020

One popular variant on homeschooling, Bryan Caplan explains, is unschooling:

The practice varies, as practices always do. The essence, however, is that the student does what he wants. He studies what he wants. He studies for as long as he wants. If he asks you to teach him something, you teach him. Yet if he decides to play videogames all day, the principled unschooling response is: “Let him.”

Almost every parent is horrified by the idea of unschooling. Even most homeschoolers shake their heads. Advocates insist, however, that unschooling works. Psychologist Peter Gray defends the merits of unschooling with great vigor and eloquence. According to unschoolers, the human child is naturally curious. Given freedom, he won’t just learn basic skills; he’ll ultimately find a calling.

On the surface, unschooling sounds like Social Desirability Bias run amok: “Oh yes, every child loves to learn, it’s just society that fails them!” And as a mortal enemy of Social Desirability Bias, my instinct is to dismiss unschooling out of hand.

One thing I loathe more than Social Desirability Bias, however, is refusing to calm down and look at the facts. Fact: I’ve personally met and conversed with dozens of adults who were unschooled. Overall, they appear at least as well-educated as typical graduates from the public school system. Indeed, as Gray would predict, unschoolers are especially likely to turn their passions into careers. Admittedly, some come across as flaky, but then again so do a lot young people. When you look closely, unschoolers have only one obvious problem.

They’re weak in math! In my experience, even unschoolers with stellar IQs tend to be weak in algebra. Algebra, I say! And their knowledge of more advanced mathematics is sparser still.

Staunch unschoolers will reply: So what? Who needs algebra? The honest answer, though, is: Anyone who wants to pursue a vast range of high-status occupations. STEM requires math. CS requires math. Social science requires math. Even sophisticated lawyers — the kind that discuss investments’ Net Present Values — require math.

Won’t kids who would greatly benefit from math choose to learn math given the freedom to do so? The answer, I fear, is: Rarely.


Mainstream critics of unschooling will obviously use this criticism to dismiss the entire approach. And staunch unschoolers will no doubt stick to their guns. I, however, propose a keyhole solution. I call it: Unschooling + Math.


  1. Kirk says:

    We don’t have an education system, anymore. What we actually have is a system of credentialing that is not that far removed from being a series of diploma mills that produce very expensive and entirely meaningless paper.

    Unschooling as a phenomena? Merely a symptom of a far greater malady–The fact that what we think of as “education” ain’t actually happening in the institutions we fantasize existing to provide this service to our young minds.

    The majority of what I know I know not because it was presented to me in schooling; instead, the vast majority of it came through either hard knocks or personal curiosity. The time I spent in classrooms was almost entirely wasted, and I would have been far happier doing something else besides the rote lock-step that permeates the entire process. Original thought is not only discouraged, it is extinguished.

    As in society at large, so too in the military. The US Army has this massive edifice they called the Non-Commissioned Officer Education System in my day; that “system” mirrors civilian education in that it’s mostly a lockstep waste of time. The official courses that were supposed to be teaching me technical skills did nothing of the sort, but they did serve as gateway events–Without them, no advancement.

    It’s highly ironic that the most productive four-and-a-half weeks of “NCO Development” that I had in the Army were run by a seriously iconoclastic senior NCO that managed to do more in that time than the rest of the Army-mandated training schools I attended. He’d managed to piss off everyone in the unit via being a man of integrity that wouldn’t look the other way when a commander and company senior NCO were doing some very shady things, and as a result, they had to find some role for him in the battalion that didn’t involve anything at all political (as in, unit internal politics…). What they found for him was a mandate to set up an internal prep course for the external NCO academies that had an absolutely abysmal pass rate going on for the battalion. This was mostly due to the rock-like nature of many of the people sent there, but nonetheless…

    With that mandate, Master Sergeant Gunther proceeded to put together a pair of courses that were actually more intense and a hell of a lot harder than the official ones, not the least because they were highly compressed. If you passed his courses, you were pretty much set to be competitive to become an honor graduate at the official ones, if you did your work there. The squad-leader level course actually taught me more about my job than the later, officially-sanctioned and mandated platoon sergeant-level course did, when I went to it. It also included a lot of practical things like “How to use Prusik knots to get under a bridge span in order to do reconnaissance and place charges on structural members”, which were never, ever trained anywhere else in my memory. Dude knew his stuff, and was scary-smart. MSG Gunther was a guy who was using computers well before anyone else in the Army was, at that level–He’d also been given a set of blueprints for a rappelling tower that were in SAE, and converted them over to metric in a long weekend so we could build the damn thing there in Germany. Later, it turned out that he’d done it so well that there were precisely zero mistakes in the conversion, and he’d caught several minor (and, very expensive…) errors in the SAE drawings from the Army Corps of Engineers. When they went to build the damn thing, it went up like clockwork. When I left Germany, the set of parts they’d sent over from the US in accordance with the SAE ones were still in a state of disassembly, because they wouldn’t go together (those “errors” were kinda major…).

    So, to be truthful, I’m not at all a fan of the “Ofeeshul Edumication System”. Anywhere. As a lifelong victim, and student of reality outside the system, I consider my time within it to be mostly wasted. You can do more for getting yourself a real education through observation, taking up challenging jobs, and a freakin’ library card than you ever will by going to school to get a certificate of some sort.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    I would argue that everybody needs arithmetic, but most people don’t need algebra. Double entry bookkeeping is far more generally useful than algebra.

    Not every child wants to learn. Not every child wants to learn a particular subject. Should they be forced? Forced by whom? Forced for what purpose?

    If a child asks, “what am I ever going to use this stuff for?” he is dismissed as a smartass with a bad attitude. I say God bless the smartasses.

    If a kid really wants to learn all about something that doesn’t matter, like dinosaurs or pokemon or 70s trivia, that’s arguably a bad thing – but only if he does it to the exclusion of some other field of knowledge that actually applies to real life.

  3. Kirk says:

    If a student can’t see the utility of something they’re being taught, then the failure isn’t on the student’s side, but the instructor’s.

    Most math pedagogy is bullshit, reducing the subject to the same sort of inane games they play with teaching languages. Who the hell cares about word jumbles and “find the words” in a block of random letters? What use is that, once you’ve learnt how to spell?

    It is unfortunate that most of education is dominated by the female mind, that which delights in the endless little make-work tasks like the fussy cutting-out of things and pasting together scrapbooks; the misfortune of being male in an environment that caters to that sort of mindless rote-work is beyond description. The unsuitability of this manner of instruction for little boys is the primary reason so many of them turn against learning and come to hate school. It’s also the reason that math becomes a hated subject–There is no connection between what you’re being taught and the real world. You can’t see the utility of it, at all.

    Frankly, it wasn’t until I had to do demolition calculations and engineer reconnaissance tasks that math and algebra really “clicked” for me–Finding that it made my life so much easier when I could play around with the various area and volume calculation formulas, and then get correct answers more easily without having to measure *everything*? Yeah; suddenly the whole thing came into clear focus, and math wasn’t just a really stupid game the teachers wanted me to play.

    Frankly, had someone had me out doing things with math as a teenager, I’d have paid a lot more attention to it all. Trigonometry is a pointless game–Until you need it to calculate the angle you’re joining crown molding at.

    Where most primary-grade and high-school math instruction goes off the rails stems from the fact that most people teaching it are objectively not practical people who do things; they’re teachers, and by personality type, they’re the sort of useless pedants whose sole purpose in life is to obfuscate and obscure facts so that they can maintain a sense of self-worth and superiority over their students.

    I’m convinced that if you were able to test for and eliminate the sort of person who goes into teaching because they feel inferior and inadequate to everyone else, and love the feeling of being able to lord over and dominate their intellectual superiors because they’re adults given authority over children and adolescents…? We’d probably lose about nine-tenths of the teaching profession.

  4. Dave says:

    One thing that annoyed me about home-school gatherings was that mothers always tried to turn them into a classroom, despite the children being of all different ages and abilities. Just let the kids play and socialize; they have plenty of time for lessons at home!

  5. Harry Jones says:

    The problem with teaching is that the people who know what they’re talking about are too busy doing actual work. They don’t have time to teach. The ones with time to spare aren’t the ones who know what they’re talking about.

    I see the same problem with experts on TV.

    Maybe retired professionals could create self-learning materials. That might work.

  6. Kirk says:


    There’s also the phenomenon that you have to take into account when dealing with any sort of “master of the art”: Not all of them can teach.

    I’ve observed that teaching and training others is a discrete skill which is not at all inherent or included in the ability to do the job at a high level. Indeed, you’re often going to observe that the “master” level guys are so ADHD and egotistical that they are unable to impart much in the way of skills to others, and are actually highly counterproductive when it comes to doing it because of those ego factors they’ve got going. You run into this in everything where there is a skill required, even skateboarding.

    A lot of the time, you’ll find that the guys who are not quite at master-level with a skill are better teachers than the master-level dudes. Some of those master-level guys are naturals at their area of expertise, and never, ever had to “learn their way through” things. The guys who have to fight for every bit of their “mastery” are the ones you will often find doing a better job of teaching others–Quite often, they’re more humble, and they’ve done a lot more thinking about what they do than the “natural masters”, which makes it a lot easier for them to help others work their way up the skill ladder. The guy whose skills “just happened” often doesn’t know how the hell that “happened”, or what he did to get there–Which is why he has so much trouble coaching and mentoring others. This is the same sort of guy who teaches a math class and leaves out a half-dozen steps on the board because the implications of what he sees are clearly visible to him, and he’s got no idea that everyone else is going “WTF?!?!?!!!????” as they hear him say that something is obvious when it really isn’t.

  7. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Just a casual question — In order for a kid to follow his bliss down the halls of learning, he has to be able to read. How did he learn to read?

    My guess is that someone taught him — and probably the old-fashioned way.

    One of the issues is that we don’t know what we don’t know. How would a little kid become aware that the Ancient Greeks wrestled with many of the same moral issues as we do today? And what is a moral issue? And where is Greece? It seems that some sort of guidance would be very valuable, to set the child on the trail of things he might find interesting.

    Building on Kirk’s comments, maybe a plan for guided unschooling of boys would be intense instructions in the 3Rs, probably including second language instruction while the child’s brain is still plastic, followed by shop and a large chunk of outdoor activities (hunting, geology, forestry, animal husbandry). All with extensive conversations with a range of appropriate adults with the skills to use a very light touch.

    All in all, proper unschooling would probably demand more resources and adult time than the current girl-focused shambles in dysfunctional classrooms.

  8. Bob Sykes says:

    China not only will be the next hegemon, it deserves to be.

  9. Harry Jones says:

    Wondering why Bob is a China fan.

    They’ve got a terribly dysfunctional writing system, for starters.

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