I found a despairing comment yesterday on the internet from a woman who deeply regretted unschooling her two children; the reason being that she had an unexpected circumstance that required putting her son and daughter into the public school system. The girl was eight years old and was far behind her peers in every subject. This mother felt betrayed by her unschooling community, who had assured her that her children would learn everything they needed to know on their own. She implied that this is magical thinking.
The son eventually did okay catching up with his school peers, but the daughter was so traumatized that her mother had to pull her back out. The mom felt like she had failed her children. Her heartache was palpable. So is this a cautionary tale against unschooling?
The first thing to consider is that the intention behind unschooling is not to make sure that children are working at grade level or to prepare them to one day enter a public school. At eight years old, I think it's too early to judge the success or failure of unschooling, or any homeschooling method. However, if a child has not even begun to learn to read, write, and learn basic math skills by the age of eight, I think that is a red flag. Barring a learning disability, the readiness should be there. But what if the interest is not? Radical unschoolers would say to leave the child alone until he shows an interest. Is this wise?
It's important to set goals for your homeschooling. The Catholic perspective is that the primary goal of education is faith formation and getting one's children to Heaven. That is the desired, end result. Academics are secondary, but they are important. The Church has a centuries long tradition of classical learning, what today we call a "liberal arts" education. By this process a person developes a well-formed mind, capable of logical thought, discernment, and the keen ability to think for oneself. Knowing how to learn is set above acquiring knowledge, because the ability to learn will result in the possibility of deeply attaining a body of knowledge. The mind will be thirsty for information and naturally curious about the world. Mastery of a few subjects is prized over a cursory knowledge about many things. Unlike today's college instruction in the humanities, however, true classical education has as its foundation the study of classical languages such as Latin and Greek. America's founding fathers were classically educated. Classical education forms the mind so that a person can express himself eloquently both in speech and writing. This is not the education received in today's public schools.
We can't foresee all that life will bring us. If our children did have to go to school at some point, it is hopeful that homeschooling will have prepared them well enough academically that the transition would not be too rough. But consider that children struggle in the public schools, academically, spiritually, and socially. Our nation performs at a mediocre level in every key academic area, on the low end for a developed country. The common core curriculum that will be implemented in the coming school year in at least 47 states is eliminating most classic literature in favor of "informational textbooks". This will not result in greater literacy. This will not result in well-trained minds that can think for themselves, that understand what it means to be human. This will not feed the hungry soul.
Parents have a tremendous responsibility to teach their children. Unschooling can provide some good tools for accomplishing your educational goals, but you must define those goals and determine how best to reach them. I am not suggesting a rat race mentality of cramming your child's mind with heaps of information in order to cover everything exactly at "grade level", in the event that she might have to go to a public school. I don't believe in forcing children to learn any more than I believe in forcing potty training. True learning does not happen by force. What I do believe is that teaching is an art. It requires diligence, practice, creativity, commitment, energy, focus, patience and love. Learning from another requires the habits of attention, willingness, and obedience (but perhaps respect is a better word) on the part of the child. In this way, parents and children are partners in education, but the authority belongs to the parents. How might a mother entice her children to wish fervently to learn?