To display our differences, I’ve included the Political Compass Test’s outline, which is recognized as solid footing in underlying political beliefs (although the test questions are disputed for accuracy.) I’ve highlighted (poorly) — in my view — how school belief systems align. Obviously, this is highly debatable, but these quadrants demonstrate some key differences between progressive education, unschooling, and traditional education, as well as showcase potential commonalities.
Both progressive education and unschooling are rooted in anti-authoritarianism. We both see national and state heavy-handed standardization as detrimental to student and teacher success, rooted in implications of societal control by elites. We both question the “knowledge-based” principles of defining what is important to learn versus what isn’t. And we both believe in choice/consent for learners in their education.
A fundamental difference is the left/right paradigm. Now, this is a broad brush — certainly there are left-leaning unschoolers. Essentially, this implies why progressive educators almost universally support work by say, John Holt, but not Bryan Caplan. And many will choose to homeschool while simultaneously supporting and integrating progressive education, and vice versa.
This article is not meant to assume that all homeschoolers or all unschoolersbelieve these extreme viewpoints. I believe the majority don’t and would actively call out these beliefs. And some believe these concepts for entirely different reasons. Nor is the intent to paint unschoolers or homeschoolers as “the enemy” of public schools. Further, to state that unschoolers align themselves with these views as a whole would be the same as lumping all progressive educators with those who promote SEL for test anxiety or portfolio-based learning for standardized test scores. The intention is to specifically target a small wing of this fraction.
However, there is a place for progressive education to distinguish itself from the extreme-wing within unschooling/homeschooling circles that find themselves associated with:
Progressive education believes in tolerance of all religions, including those who don’t believe. Many against the public school system take issue with the perceived “attack on Christianity.” Notably, they mention a lack of explicit Christian mentoring. Michael J. Metarko, an ex-public principal and current homeschooler, writes in IndoctriNation how public education is a Trojan horse:
“…what I found was indoctrination in an anti-Christian worldview called humanism…”
Later adding that a statist education system is leading to former Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network director Kevin Jennings (President Obama’s Safe School director) “possessing great power and authority over schools” — adding disparaging remarks on the “homosexual movement.” To substansiate this view, Metarko adds that schools:
Teach “revisionist history”
Focus on self-esteem and what “feels right”
Promote feminization of boys and masculinization of girls
Acceptance over tolerance
“Misguided environmentalism” (Earth over God)
Rebellion against the family
This tirade concludes with an attack on schools “removing God from the Pledge” and removing nativity scenes. Outside of the completely inaccurate portrayal of the Pledge (“Under God” was never intended to be included), this entire account assaults a communal vision of schooling. I don’t mean to imply that all homeschoolers, or even a majority of homeschoolers, agree with these views — but it’s worth noting that progressive education is opposed to them.
Being able to have an accepting learning community — where children value, care, and support one another is an underlying goal of the education system. This includes respecting people for who they are — being open to listening — and not fetishizing or demeaning lifestyle choices. Christians aren’t targeted in progressive schools, they’re simply accepted along with all other belief systems and lifestyles. If students cannot accept those of different beliefs, it’s up to educators to encourage acceptance. Likely, this is counter to the power structure much of “the right” implores. We want students to have authority figures who not only demonstrate accepting behaviors, but mentor and guide students down that path. It is absurd to me that we would promote behaviors that target gay, trans, or androgynous students, let alone restructure schools to make those oppressed even more so.
Sometimes these beliefs are deemed “humanist” — as they don’t allow explicit religious instruction in schools. (Although that term by militant activists seems to imply hate-mongering toward Christians, which is the fragility of power being lost by this author.) In addition, all these views tend to avoid discussing all the other belief systems students have.
Social Justice Implementation
On School Sucks (which I was just on and hope to discuss more about!), Brett Veinotte speaks with Jay Dyer about “social engineering” in schools, using the Tavistock Institute as a means to rationalize their argument. If you’re not aware, a conspiracy theory exists that Tavistock was developed to brainwash people toward statism. While I agree that schools prop up a neoliberal agenda toward accepting war and patriotism, the counter-rationale by this crowd is further including that “social justice warriors” are brainwashing children by teaching acceptance.
Sometimes used as demeaning toward these instructors, opposers call identity politics instruction in schools as “post-modern.” Progressive education explicitly notes the need for teaching acceptance, as well as the realities of our race, gender, and socioeconomic histories — which will include blatant understanding of our country’s fractured history. As bell hooks states,
“When everyone in the classroom, teacher and students, recognizes that they are responsible for creating a learning community together, learning is at its most meaningful and useful.”
In order to create a purposeful learning community, social justice will be taught in schools. Allowing for racist, gendered, or homophobic responses is unabashedly counter to principles of mutual care at the core of a human-centered education. So although progressive education is incredibly anti-authoritarian toward the state deciding what is and isn’t knowledge, and does not value a teacher enacting authoritarian control of the classroom, prog. ed. still puts a learning community at the center. That practice isn’t possible without an explicit understanding of social justice.
Furthermore, to ignore these issues is society is to simply promote the current structures that exist. I believe, as many progressive educators do, that schooling is a place to counteract hate and promote the social good. This may have authoritarian tendencies (who chooses what “the social good” is?), but societal cohesion is necessary for tearing down discriminatory practices that exist in our daily lives. Critical pedagogy opens opportunities for students to recognize these practices and act on them, without being similarly marginalized by their instructor.
Ending Public Education
Obviously, I am not for an end to public education — I am a public school teacher. One can critique and want transformation without advocating the dismantling of an entire system.
Some homeschoolers see no value in the public school system. They see it as a place for indoctrination. In some cases, that is true. Many succeed in spite oftheir education. However, to destroy the school system would further inequities in society — especially when pockets of educators are doing so much to help their students.
The school system is stuck in a loop surrounding neoliberal practice — ranking and filing kids, placing a teacher at the center, supporting “core knowledge”, judging on subjective grades, and inequitably funded. Most traditional teachers don’t see themselves doing any of these things. They don’t see themselves as colonizers — they believe they’re doing what’s right for kids. Dismantling this notion and transforming the pedagogy within schools is the cornerstone of progressive education.
This discussion between Sean Illing and Bryan Caplan on Vox, author of The Case Against Education summarizes this debate well:
“Illing: Here’s where I think we disagree: You think we have too much education, and I think we’re doing education wrong. In other words, you want less education, and I want better education.
Caplan: My response is that doing less education is easy, and improving the education system is hard…We’ve got very clear evidence that we’re wasting a lot, but we don’t have a clear idea as to what would be better. All we know is that the system we have now is grossly dysfunctional, so I don’t think we should keep pouring money into it.…
Illing: You think of education as a rote technical enterprise, so it’s all about skills and productivity and the labor market. I think a good education is about cultivating wise citizens, people who appreciate democracy, who are discerning and not easily hoodwinked. That we’ve failed to do this doesn’t mean education is a waste of time; it means we’re doing it wrong…
…I also worry that a massive public disinvestment in education would widen many of the inequalities that already exist in this country. In your ideal world, people with money would continue to receive a good education and the people who don’t would be left further and further behind.
Caplan: …Today, because education levels have risen so much and because of the power of the kind of signaling I mentioned earlier, not finishing high school virtually destroys any chance you have of getting an interview for a decent job. Employers can easily dismiss high school dropouts precisely because education levels have increased dramatically.
This is why cutting education across the board is the only way to level the playing field, because it changes what the degrees mean and the way employers think about who’s worthy of being interviewed or hired. In a world where no nurses have bachelor’s degrees, hospitals can’t say, “We only interview nurses with bachelor’s degrees…
…I’m willing to stick my neck out and say that we should have separation of school and state, just like separation of religion and state, and that government should just get out of the business and leave it to customers and charity to handle it. To be clear, this conclusion isn’t implied by the data I cite; this is my personal political philosophy.”
Much of Caplan’s calls for removing public education as he does not believe it is doing a good enough job — particularly for the labor market. We both believe that we can do better — and just as Illing states, education is about a lot more than jobs. Without public education, society would only become more inequitable. Those who can afford expensive charter schools will be placed further ahead, and those without the means or wherewithal to navigate the system will be pushed further behind. Education is meant to be a leveler in society — a way for everyone to have the same equitable opportunities as everyone else. This is not the case now, and it likely won’t be for quite some time, but our goal as educators is to make this a reality.
As in the previous notions, this brand of homeschooling tends to place the individual at the center of everything. This is counter to progressive education, which places the community at the center of everything. As already mentioned, this means accepting others and being assumed to help each other. Perhaps this is “socialist” — but cohesive societies require caring communities.
Perhaps part of this dismissive structure is rooted in white fragility. It isn’t every case, but almost every single writer on entirely dismantling public education, promoting religion, focusing on individualism, or against social justice education is a white male. Outliers do exist, but there is a prudent point to analyze surrounding why those privileged in the United States would make claims on how they’re being “held back” by accepting and supporting those in an inferior power structure. Dismantling public education would further push an inequitable society that already festers systemic racism.
Therefore, despite the anti-authoritarian commonalities that exist between progressive education and this belief system, it is hard for the two to coincide. While both recognize that traditional schooling is doing a disservice to the majority of students, and both want to see drastic changes to benefit the individual, we completely disagree on the means to get there.
The silver lining is there are many unschooling advocates who support public schools and progressive education. Despite neoliberal organizations profiting off their brand of “progressive schools” — there are plenty of advocates working throughout the country to build human-centered schools who don’t perpetuate a system that causes children harm.
We can build a better system together — one that has school choice, public schools, and homeschooling — where no matter who you are or where you live, you have access to a quality education system that won’t make your child hate learning. This school system will help students navigate their purpose in life, while simultaneously exposing them to diverse viewpoints and peoples to live positive lives.