Autonomous learning, autonomous life

From the archives: a workshop given in September, 1989, at a home educators’ gathering

In his book, Escape From Childhood, John Holt described “The requirement that a child go to school, for about six hours a day, 180 days a year, for about ten years” as “such a gross violation of civil liberties that few adults would stand for it. But the child who resists is treated as a criminal.” (Chapter 24: The right to control one’s learning, p. 241)

He rightly pointed out that:

“A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.”

“As adults,” he said, “we assume that we have the right to decide what does or does not interest us, what we will look into and what we will leave alone.”

Then he suggested that this right to freedom of thought is so obvious that during the founding of America, no one thought that anyone would be so tyrannical as to try to control people’s minds – what they thought and knew. “That idea,” said John Holt, “was to come later, under the benevolent guise of compulsory universal education.” (Chapter 24: The right to control one’s learning, p. 241)

And here is where I part company with John Holt. Did the thought control idea really only happen when universal education came in? Or did universal education come in because parents already believed in controlling children’s minds?

If parents believed in freedom of thought for their children, how could they even think of making their children go to school?

The idea that children were free to pursue their own interests autonomously until governments introduced universal schooling is absurd. 

As John Holt himself said:

“The right I ask for the young is a right that I want to preserve for the rest of us, the right to decide what goes into our minds. This is much more than the right to decide whether or when or how much to go to school or what school you want to go to. That right is important, but it is only part of a much larger and more fundamental right, which I might call the right to Learn, as opposed to being Educated, i.e., made to learn what someone else thinks would be good for you.” (Chapter 24: The right to control one’s learning, pp. 242-243)

It’s not just school, as he said. The right to freedom of thought implies autonomous learning – learning what interests you, not what someone else thinks you should learn.

And what I want to argue today, is that there is no freedom of thought or autonomy in learning unless there is freedom and autonomy in life. 

Some home-educators who like John Holt’s writings seem to draw a distinction between education on the one hand, and life on the other. 

In this sphere, they say, the educational sphere, you have complete autonomy. We do not agree with educational coercion. We will not interfere with your educational freedom. You can choose what to learn, how to learn, and when to learn. We uphold your right to freedom of thought.

They say they uphold their children’s right to freedom of thought, but they don’t! 

You can’t say your children have freedom of thought or are learning autonomously if they are not free and autonomous more generally, because our minds are not conveniently divided into autonomous regions of thought – our thoughts are all connected to each other. The mind doesn’t distinguish between thought that you classify as Learning, and thought that is not learning related.

Parents who like autonomous learning but who are otherwise like parents who force their children to go to school, do things like refusing to have a television in the house, or docking their children’s pocket money if their children don’t do their assigned chores, or they make them go to church or they make their displeasure felt when their children want to stay at home instead of going on the family trip. I’ve even met some autonomous learning enthusiasts who hit their children – only “when needed”, though! (Maybe I should hit them, in accordance with their idea that hitting effects positive change in the person you are hitting?)

How is this relevant to autonomous learning, you may ask. Well I for one learnt heaps from staying at home when my parents went out or away (who knew that a plate glass door window would break if you do a handstand against it?!). And I learnt heaps from television and radio programmes too (and not just the nature documentaries either!). If my parents had not allowed a television in the house, none of that learning would have happened. And it was learning I wanted. How can you call it freedom of thought, or say that your children are free to learn what interests them, if you refuse to allow such a valuable source of learning into your house?

What did I learn from spending time at home without my parents? I learnt that I am very capable of looking after myself. I gained confidence. I thought about and fantasised about life outside or after the prison of childhood. There is so much I learnt from it! It was real preparation for adult life in a way that being coerced and bossed about and managed and monitored and locked in school never is.

How do assigned chores interfere with learning? On the mercifully few occasions in my childhood when my mother tried to insist that we children do a chore, the burning memory I have of those times is the anguish I felt at being dragged away from my book. To this day, I read every spare minute I get. I hate having to stop mid-flow. Though I did not have to do housework as a child, and I was quite free during the holidays and at weekends, my mother did in effect force me to go to lots of extra-curricular activities, from ballet to violin lessons. Oh how I hated that my time was stolen in that way (on top of school and homework). It was torture. 

How do your children have freedom of thought if you are bossing them about and stealing their time by making them do chores and other things, when they would rather be reading a good book or watching an interesting TV programme or seeing a friend? How can you be sure that all the bossing about is not affecting your children’s thinking and learning? 

When I said I was free during the holidays and weekends, I meant that my parents were usually not bossing me about at such times – I was free to come and go and read and do what I wanted. But my mind was still not really free even in those times, because having to go back to school would so hang over me every Sunday, and during the holidays, that I was often (especially on Sundays and towards the end of the holidays, too busy worrying about and dreading having to go back to school to do much free thinking. When I think about what a terrible effect the unfreedom of school had on my learning outside school – no child should have to go through that. 

But it is not just school. The chores you make your children do have the same effect on their freedom of thought and learning as school does. As do forced extra-curricular activities, sports, ballet lessons, music lessons, and even forced social activities and family trips. Refusing to have a TV in the house is the same. 

How can your child possibly be free to think his own thoughts, and free to learn autonomously, if you are coercing and managing him in any way? If you are happily thinking your own thoughts, pursuing your own interest, you are learning. If now along comes your parent and tells you off for having your elbows on the dinner table, your thinking has been abruptly interrupted and brought to a halt. That is not freedom of thought.

The idea that your children can have freedom of thought and autonomy in learning without being autonomous and free in life is deluded. The idea that learning is separate from the rest of life makes sense if you see education as being school, but it makes no sense at all otherwise. Are we about school, or are we about education otherwise? [This workshop was at an Education Otherwise gathering.]

How does it make sense to have freedom of thought and autonomy in learning but not otherwise? How can someone own their thoughts and learning but the rest of their life? By what right do parents coerce their children? It’s the child’s life, not the parent’s.

In How Children Fail, John Holt made a very important point about parental coercion of children, that I think may be worth quoting here:

“The idea of painless, nonthreatening coercion is an illusion. Fear is the inseparable companion of coercion, and its inescapable consequence. If you think it your duty to make children do what you want, whether they will or not, then it follows inexorably that you must make them afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t do what you want. You can do this in the old-fashioned way, openly and avowedly, with the threat of harsh words, infringement of liberty, or physical punishment. Or you can do it in the modern way, subtly, smoothly, quietly, by withholding the acceptance and approval which you and others have trained the children to depend on; or by making them feel that some retribution awaits them in the future, too vague to imagine but too implacable to escape.”(1982 Edition, pp. 294-295)

What does this so-called subtle withholding of acceptance and approval do to children? When my mother exuded disappointment in me, it was mental and emotional torture even though she was not making threats or hitting me. It stopped me thinking about anything else. How does that not adversely affect learning? You can’t learn if you can’t think. How is that “freedom of thought”?!

When I was a child, my friends told me many horror stories about how awful their parents were – all the bossing about, the micromanaging, the insisting on this or that. Those parents were sending their children to school so you may think this doesn’t apply to you, but if you believe in autonomous learning but not autonomous life, it does apply to you. My friends would tell me about how their parents expected this or that of them, and how they psychologically pressurized my friends to do what their parents wanted them to do, and how it was a miserable experience to try to argue with them. How does that not adversely affect children’s thinking? I felt miserable just hearing about it!

The feeling children have, when they are unfree, is misery. Resigned deadness. How much learning happens when you are feeling like that? 

John Holt told a story that breaks my heart when I think about it. 

He asked a class of children: “If you could legally live away from home, how many of you think that at least some of the time you would do so?” 

“Every hand shot into the air, so quickly and violently that I half expected shoulders to pop out of joint. Faces came alive. Clearly, I had touched a magic button. […] I think that they were… saying that they want to live, at least for a while, among other people who might see them and deal with them as people, not as children.” (Escape From Childhood, Chapter 2: The institution of childhood)

What does that say about their home lives? What does it say about how free they feel to learn, to live?

Would your children’s hands also shoot into the air if asked that question? Or are your children free, autonomous, loved and supported in what they themselves want to do and think about? Children are people, and they should be treated like people. Free people, not incarcerated people.

[The response to what I said was depressingly hostile. Someone pointed to my tiny baby asleep in her carseat on the floor next to me and said something like, “Come back and talk to us when your baby is 8 months old. THEN you’ll be singing a different tune. By then you will have had to smack her.” And everyone clapped. In a workshop on autonomous learning, in a gathering of radical unschoolers! As so often happened in those early days, I went back to my room and cried. They were so wrong about how my views would change, but I could not really articulate why. When I later told David Deutsch about it, David of course pointed out that they were making an argument from the authority of their experience, and that that is fallacious. David, of course, also had a far superior understanding of how learning is not and cannot be separate from the rest of life, as you will discover if you read more of this site.]

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1989, ‘Autonomous learning, autonomous life’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/autonomous-learning-autonomous-life/