When I opened the latest issue of my trusty Outside magazine, I thought the worst in bad-parenting outrage I’d have to face would be found in the letters column. Readers wrote in protesting the recklessness that writer Ted Conover had written about in an earlier issue, a monstrous and self-serving article called “This is How We Roll” about how he tried to recapture his youth train-jumping out west … and as an added twist, brought along his teenage son. Outside ran an admonishing letter from a train safety expert an then ran a response from Conover that brought back to my mind all the worst elements of his piece:
Readers of my piece will know that its recurring theme is misgivings over my son’s desire to follow my footsteps in an activity that I acknowledge repeatedly is dangerous and illegal. I write about keeping him safe while not being a hypocrite; I express relief when it’s over. I am grateful we could do this together and agree about the danger: this was not just another travel adventure.
But it turns out that wasn’t the worst the magazine had in store for me – not by a long shot. A few pages later, there’s an article by Ben Hewitt called “We Don’t Need No Education” that at first glance I took to be a parody of some kind. It was only when I settled down to read it that I realized the author was completely serious.
Completely serious about a new yuppie-prepper fad called unschooling. Not homeschooling, where parents opt to keep their kids out of public or private standardized go-to-a-building schools and instead instruct them at home, following some kind of board-approved curriculum. I’ve had my reservations about home-schooling, but it turns out unschooling is something quite a bit worse: it’s where you take your kids out of public or private standardized go-to-a-building schools, keep them home, and then proceed to teach them … nothing at all. The movement is based on the idea of letting kids – the author’s two boys are 9 and 12 – decide entirely for themselves how they want to spend their days.
Not for Hewitt’s two boys the ho-hum time-wasting of memorization or test-taking; they don’t read, they don’t study, they’re as ignorant of literature or higher mathematics as a hare in a field. As Hewitt emphasizes over and over, they’re too busy communing with the natural world for any of that cut-and-dried standardized stuff other, less enlightened parents inflict on their kids. Hewitt’s sons can tell how severe the coming winter will be by the thickness of the tree bark in the woods; they can differentiate moose-crap from deer-crap at fifty yards; and they strike the author as so much happier than most kids.
He has a dream for them, you see:
This is what I want for my sons: freedom. Not just physical freedom, but intellectual and emotional freedom from the formulaic learning that prevails in our schools. I want for them the freedom to immerse themselves in the fields and forest that surround our home, to wander aimlessly or with purpose. I want for them the freedom to develop at whatever pace is etched into their DNA, not the pace dictated by an institution looking to meet the benchmarks that will in part determine its funding. I want them to be free to love learning for its own sake, the way that all children love learning for its own sake when it is not forced on them or attached to reward. I want them to remain free of social pressures to look, act, or think any way but that which feels most natural for them.
All of which sounds very high-minded, and none of which changes that fact that Hewitt is taking entirely egotistical advantage of the fact that no state in the Union has yet thought it necessary to draft laws specifically preventing this kind of child abuse. The two poor boys on which Hewitt is inflicting his delusional nostalgia about what an idea childhood should be – well, those two boys are almost automatically consigned to a very, very small adult world, one lived entirely on back-country trap-lines and at local feed stores swapping local stories with the locals over local matters. Despite the fact that Hewitt makes a point of giving them regular ‘social time’ with schooled children, he’s systematically unfitting them for Western society – in order for himself to feel good about the eight years of their childhood, he’s robbing them all but one or two dimensions of the sixty years of their adulthood. So they’ll know how to fish in forest streams, and they’ll be able to tell from the behavior of moss whether or not a storm system is coming – but they’ll not only have no idea how to study, how to concentrate on things that don’t immediately interest them, how to compete, intellectually, with their peers, they’ll have absolutely no interest in doing any of those things.
Aside from outrage, my main reaction to the article was a somewhat urgent hope that this fad dies a quick death. American schoolchildren are already among the dumbest in the civilized world – a movement that aims to make them even dumber, to return them to some kind of quasi-primitive Neverland existence right out of James Fenimore Cooper (do Hewitt’s kids know what an iPad is? Do they think it’s alive? For God’s sake), is just about the last thing the country needs.
“What if they want to be doctors? They will be doctors,” Hewitt writes. “What if they want to be lawyers? They will be lawyers.” He doesn’t say how on Earth this might happen, with his boys drying beans and discussing pine moss all day every day. They might need help to become those things; they might need instruction, and they certainly can’t look to their cravenly irresponsible father for anything like that.