The Unschooling Thought Police

2009 November 17
by Evan Lenz

I’ve seen an ironic phenomenon among unschoolers (in books, blog articles, and at unschooling conferences) that I can only describe as the “unschooling thought police”. People react when certain terms aren’t used in particular, predefined ways.


I’ve noticed that a lot of unschoolers have an aversion to the word “education” (largely due to how John Holt chose to use the word in Instead of Education). On the one hand, this is to be expected, since “education” represents so much of what unschoolers reject (compulsory, teacher-led curricula, etc.). On the other hand, it’s just a word, and traditional schools don’t have a monopoly on it. It can and does mean much more than traditional schooling. Rather than reject the word, why not reclaim it? If you’re an unschooler, wouldn’t you agree with someone who said that unschooling is a legitimate educational choice? (Or would you derail the conversation by telling your story about how you dislike the word “education”?)


There’s also an aversion among unschoolers to the term “teach”, but what the aversion really represents is an underlying insight that learning does not necessarily require teaching. (In fact, it almost always doesn’t require teaching.) So rejection of the term “teach” is a crude reaction to the generally held belief in our society, whether conscious or not, that learning requires teaching.

But notice that the insight is not that there is no such thing as teaching or that teaching is bad. It’s true, we probably don’t need nearly as much of it as we thought, but if I wanted to learn a specialized skill and I knew someone who could teach me it, then I’d be glad to have that option. Wouldn’t you? (Or would you continue to shun “teaching” and pick a different hobby?)

Of course, experience can be a “teacher” too, as in, “that experience taught me that…”. In that particular sense, teaching happens all the time. Either way, the word “teach” is, like any other English word, perfectly useful and can mean many different things. I give you permission to use it.

“Unschooling” vs. “Radical unschooling”

“Radical unschooling” is a useful term, in that it designates a specific flavor of unschooling. More than an educational philosophy, it describes a philosophy of parenting or even a philosophy of life. Among other things, radical unschoolers eschew the idea of parental authority. The fact that “school” is part of its title is a historical accident. Radical unschoolers see their philosophy of life as a natural extension of their educational philosophy (though, again, they may choose not to use the term “educational”).

“Unschooling” without the “radical” part is also a useful term. A broader group of people self-identify as unschoolers than as radical unschoolers. They represent a wider variety of parenting styles (including approaches to discipline). Moreover, the fact that “school” is in the title is very useful, as it designates an approach to education. It provides an answer to the question: what do you do for (or how do you approach the question of) education and school and stuff like that?

Some (notice I didn’t say “all”) radical unschoolers may take issue with the above distinction, perhaps even going so far as to say that someone who is not a radical unschooler is not a “true unschooler”. But language is more democratic than they realize. “Unschooling” can and does, for many people, mean the approach they take to education. It doesn’t necessarily denote their all-encompassing philosophy of life that trumps everything else. (That’s why adding “radical” was a useful thing to do.)

“Rules” vs. “Principles”

This, again, is a useful distinction. The idea here is that rules are situationally specific and extrinsically motivated. (“No hitting.”) Principles are broadly applicable and intrinsically motivated. (“Act lovingly.”) Read Sandra Dodd’s summary of the discourse among unschoolers on this point.

Now here’s my complaint. This distinction has become so overused that “We live by principles instead of rules” has itself become a rule! What was a helpful distinction has become ironclad dogma. It degenerates to: “We never use rules.” “Rules are bad.” “Rules are always bad.” “If it’s a rule, we don’t want it.” Thinking goes out the door.

Yes, please live a principled life. But what kind of principle is “rules are always bad”? Does that mean laws are always bad too? There’s really no need to paint with such broad strokes. You only end up painting yourself in a corner. There’s no need to make mental contortions like, “If we ever do anything that looks like a rule, we’ll be sure to call it something else.” Wouldn’t you rather be free to use whatever term you want? Access the inner rebel that led you to unschooling in the first place. Think and speak freely, and if some vocal unschoolers react in a knee-jerk fashion to your choice of words, call them on it. Tell them to follow their own principle and quit acting like it’s a rule.


Go beyond what words people are using and listen to what people are actually saying. Terminology is important, yes. If we don’t share a common language, then how can we understand each other? And how could a movement grow without a search-engine-friendly name (like “unschooling”)? But use words lightly. Don’t let them master you. Don’t let useful distinctions turn into dogma, helpful insights into ideology. Otherwise, we may as well stop talking to each other.

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21 Responses leave one →
  1. November 17, 2009

    “Don’t let words master you” is one way of looking at things. Another way is realizing that words have incredible power. They do. And what word you choose to use can make a huge difference in how what you’re saying is interpreted by those around you. Jumping on other people because of their word choices? Maybe not such a great idea. However, I make a point of paying attention to the language I use, since as both an unschooler and an anarchist, I have very strong opinions about things, and I want the language I use to reflect my values, not just perpetuate all of the stale ideas of this culture. So that means that sometimes I decide to use certain words carefully in context, so they mean only what *I* want them to. And it means that sometimes I decide to stop using a word entirely, or almost entirely, if I feel that its commonly held meaning, that I strongly disagree with, is too entrenched in most peoples minds…

    From your comments, it seems you misinterpreted what I had to say as meaning that I thought everything should be learned *on your own*, simply because I don’t like the word teaching, and that couldn’t be further from the truth! I’ve learned much from many people. I even occasionally use the word *teacher*, as in my sister’s drum teacher (who has now become more of a mentor than anything). I just don’t usually use the word *teach* because I find it calls up different images, conveys different things, than I want it to. It’s as simple as that. I am very glad that this conversation now spans several blogs. Very interesting!


    • Evan permalink*
      November 17, 2009

      Hi Idzie, thanks for your comments. I guess what I’m really hoping for is that we extend freedom of word choice to ourselves as well as to others. Conversation works best when we don’t require others to use words the same way we do. Not only don’t jump on them, but give them the benefit of the doubt. Apply vigilant scrutiny to your own word choices, but be lenient with other people’s choice of words. It strikes me that the Robustness Principle could be applied to conversation as well: “Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send.”

      I think it’s unfortunate when one person’s negative connotations (e.g. with “teach”) effectively get foisted (whether intentionally or not) on other people, who then start editing their choice of words in group-think fashion. You personally have no trouble with the concept of learning with other people’s help, but others reading your blog may take things the wrong way and start building up an unnecessary psychological resistance to the concept of learning with other people’s help, since possibly for them, that’s what “teaching” encompasses.

      • November 17, 2009

        Yet everyone who commented on that post clearly knew what I was talking about, and that I didn’t think there was anything wrong with learning from people, just the word teaching… So clearly most people had no trouble understanding what I meant! I don’t quite get your point, or what you think needs to change. I should use every word out there no matter what it’s widely held meaning, so that I don’t influence others thinking by using only select words that I personally like and agree with…? Seems like a strange argument.

        • Evan permalink*
          November 17, 2009

          I guess re-read my comment’s first paragraph. I’m definitely not saying you should use words you don’t like or that carry connotations for you that are antithetical to what you’re trying to communicate. That’s what I meant by “apply vigilant scrutiny to your own word choices.” In other words, I totally agree with your policy of using certain words carefully in context or not at all. In fact, I agree completely with your entire comment.

          But I take issue with what you wrote in your blog:
          “I was thinking about the word “teaching”, and trying to figure out if there really is anything *wrong* with it…But I’ve come to the conclusion that no, it isn’t just an unfair bias.”

          To me, this implies that you would take issue with anyone else, particularly an unschooler, who uses the word “teach” in a positive light. Even if that’s not your intention, I think it can be easily misconstrued as such (as I may have done).

          • November 17, 2009

            Ah, thanks for the clarification! I don’t consider myself to be taking issue with the individual when I take issue with a word, anymore than I’m attacking a student in school, for example, when I attack the schooling system! I see your point though, and I’ll try and make it clearer when I write about such things in the future that my issue is *not* with the individual.

          • Evan permalink*
            November 17, 2009

            I actually wasn’t making that distinction (the individual vs. their action). To “take issue with a word,” particularly as a general policy—that is what I have a problem with, in a nutshell. We may end up agreeing to disagree. :-)

  2. November 17, 2009

    This is a really helpful contribution to this discussion. I am torn on some of these, because, although sometimes words are taken too seriously, they do also have the power to shape our thoughts. And, so, we need to be careful about what habits we get into. This particularly goes towards the teach/learn discussion that I’ve been involved in (see my blog and Idzie’s blog at I am of the opinion that learning and teaching are a symbiotic relationship. It’s just that unschoolers believe the “teacher” is usually not a person. As you pointed out, it can be an experience (or, a book, an animal, or, even, a person). In my last post on this topic, I talked about how learning draws out teaching, not the other way around.

    I, along with most of us, use the term “teach” differently than the rest of the world. So, you’re right, we need to give some leway to each other in these terms and offer the benefit of the doubt that we are still living a learner-led life. I think unschoolers want to be so specific about this and about using the term “teaching” less and “learning” more, to emphasize how we are different.

    I have to admit, your section about rules vs. principles is really refreshing. I absolutely agree with you, though I didn’t have the words before. I almost feel like I can breathe a little easier because I don’t have to hold myself to this really high standard of ALWAYS having a principle.

    • Evan permalink*
      November 17, 2009

      Hi Cassi, thanks for your contribution too. I’m starting to get a bit clearer in my thinking on this, thanks to yours and Idzie’s comments. Like you said, I think it comes down to giving people the benefit of the doubt and not requiring them to use words the same way we do.

  3. November 17, 2009

    I wonder if this is more about the need to set parameters/rules about the groups the words define, than about the use of the words themselves. I’m someone who just lived her life while doing what is apparently now called “radical unschooling”…or, wait, maybe it’s “whole life unschooling”…or…. (And who detests labels but thinks words are important to creating change.) AndI understand that people to need to find their tribes, but I also wonder sometimes if we’re too apt to slice and dice. (And that compartmentalization is something we learn to do in school, so it’s no wonder we’re touchy about it and how to describe it!)

    • Evan permalink*
      November 17, 2009

      Great point, Wendy. I suppose the fundamental insight is that “the map is not the territory”. Words are useful, essential, unavoidable, but they’re never adequate. Sometimes terminology can get ossified, which then promotes intellectual laziness. We scan for the right keywords and size people up based on whether they’re using them in the right combinations. I do this as much as anyone else. And it’s not necessarily even bad, but it’s good to be aware of and to consciously resist at times.

  4. November 20, 2009

    Great post. It’s a tough discussion. It *is* important to use words that accurately describe ourselves and our actions. But it’s also important to give some leeway and let go of our judgments when someone doesn’t. And it’s important to create NEW definitions with old words!

    Judging can be a good thing when it tells us what wouldn’t work for us. But it’s a bad thing when it throws up walls instead of opening lines of communication.

    Labels are both helpful and not helpful. Words often have more than one meaning. Life isn’t so cut and dry. And beyond making the choices that fit ourselves and our famlies best, we need to make sure we aren’t alienating others that we may inspire or be inspired by.

    In short, everyone is wrong and everyone is right and that’s SO COOL! 😀

    • Evan permalink*
      November 20, 2009

      Heh, well said, Tara. I was starting to feel a bit giddy myself about the miracle and paradox of verbal communication. Words, labels, terms, concepts: can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. :-)

  5. November 20, 2009

    Words like “teacher” don’t really bother me. I have my own definitions and ways of using them. What I do is try to make my meaning clear and help shift the meaning of the words toward more positive meanings, i.e., “teach” transforming to “help learn.”

  6. November 25, 2009

    I think a lot people who are new to unschooling benefit greatly from avoiding words or concepts like ‘teaching’ or ‘rules’. It’s kin to packing up/throwing away/lending out all your packaged curriculum & textbooks until you are convinced that learning really happens without all that, lest you be tempted after a week of ‘nothing’ but Legos & Cartoon Network to start trying to use them again.

    It’s easier to find the *need* for & Joy of classes while fully submerged in an unschooling life, than it is to find the *need* for and Joy of an unschooling life while fully submerged in compulsory schooling.

    For those of us who ‘get it’, it can seem overkill to eschew certain words…but over seven years ago (before I was a mother) when I started hitting the discussion boards and being reprimanded or corrected for word usage & certain beliefs, I was extremely grateful for the wake-up call. Having the words I use & the meanings I attach to them challenged was a good thing.

    I hate that I have been doing this for so long that I’ve almost become ‘sloppy’ with word choice & communicating my Value Set of Anarchism & Radical Unschooling…conversations like these are necessary more for those of us who have been at this awhile than for newbies.

    I know my son *teaches* me tons of things on an almost daily basis. I choose to listen & *learn*, because I am genuinely interested in what he has to share (usually).

  7. November 30, 2009

    Thank you SO much for this post. All the terminology rules are really annoying to new unschoolers. It’s like walking on eggshells. The last thing anyone wants is to feel like we need to try to “fit in” (like in school…)

    • Aravinda permalink
      September 28, 2010

      Well said, Bethany. Thanks Evan for an insightful article.

  8. Nat permalink
    December 2, 2009

    I address this to the school of radical unschooling… From my brief foray into the (un)enlightened cyberworld of radical unschooling I can safely say that I have never seen so many people talking such utter bollocks whilst convinced of the utter importance of what they have to say. So many words yet so little substance. Bogged down in semantics, perfectly rigid and anally retentive under the guise of ‘liberation’, tunnel-visioned and painfully neurotic….hmm, have I stumbled upon a group of right-wing conservatives … oh no, my mistake, it’s just their mirror image on the left beating the same path to failure as their ‘right’eous brothers and sisters.

    I’m so tired of factions of rabid ‘pros’ and ‘antis’, each one depending upon the other to justify their existence or their message, dancing a not so merry symbiotic dance until the end of time, revolving but never evolving. Anyone can set themselves up as the opposite of something, and radical unschooling simply sets itself up as the polar opposite of traditional schooling. The real art and creativity, the real way forward is when someone actually has an original idea, a spark of brilliance in their philosophy, the likes of which has never been seen or heard before, and whose message touches people effortlessly in the very core of their being. We need positive, fresh, new ways of approaching the education (aagh! the forbidden word!) of our children, and adults for that matter. Radical unschooling strikes me as being anything but fresh, new or positive. It’s just another ‘anti’ group trying to negate traditional ways in the rather traditional fashion of all the other ‘anti’ groups that have preceded it.

    Sorry to burst your bubble, you well-meaning folks but all this nonsense reminds me of an episode of South Park where everyone in the town became rabid hybrid car drivers convinced of their righteous goodness, the result of which created a dangerous cloud of atmospheric ‘smug’ which threatened to collide with the growing cloud of ‘smug’ drifting over from San Francisco with catastrophic results. In the end it seemed as if the hybrid cars created a kind of ‘smug’ that was just as hazardous as the crap that spewed out of the gas guzzlers. I fear the radical unschoolers may be brewing up unsustainable levels of ‘smug’ that may prove just as catastrophic as for the poor citizens of South Park…

    • Evan permalink*
      December 2, 2009

      I’m sorry to hear you’re so turned off by the discourse. The thing to remember is that it’s just a label. If you took a peek in the homes of, say, three different “radical unschoolers” you’d see three very different families. The map is not the territory. I can relate to your frustration when people start to confuse the two. Intellectual honesty entails admitting that we’re all still learning—even on questions of educational philosophy. To talk as if we’ve got “whole life learning” all figured out is nonsense. To have figured it all out is to stop learning. Share insights along the way, yes, but don’t stop learning.

    • Aravinda permalink
      September 28, 2010

      Hi Nat, I agree that the cyberworld can feel like that but share the hope that as Evan said, if you meet the people in real life they aren’t self-righteous or tunnel-visioned. I’ve met a few and when they aren’t trying to “convince” someone of something they are quite interesting people.

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