On Schooling (coerced learning) vs. 

Unschooling (self-motivated learning)

An open letter to all parents

Henry H. Lindner

Do you think that "discipline" and schooling are the right and necessary means to your child's mental and emotional development? Do you believe that parents and teachers must force children to do and to learn what is good for them? Do you believe that children are lazy and stupid and won't learn anything unless forced to do so? If so, you've imbibed societal delusions that have no relationship to fact. Your false beliefs and coercive approach to children are a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you treat children like lazy idiots, they come to define themselves that way, and that’s just what they become. There are two and only two paradigms for child development and learning:

1.     Coercion – The child is born lazy and stupid, and must be forced to learn the facts, rules, and behaviors that adults and society think are “good” for them.

2.     Respect and Support – The child has a natural desire to learn, to love, and to mature. Our job as parents is to supply all their needs and support their self-directed, self-motivated development.

There is no middle ground between the two positions—you may think there is, but they are contradictory. Which is the correct approach? Which approach produces the kind of child and adult that we all want? Consider the following: What are the mental/emotional qualities are most necessary in a young teen about to leave home and live on their own? What do they need in order to become moral and responsible adults? Let's enumerate:

1.     Self love and respect: They must love themselves, believe in their essential goodness, and believe in the efficacy of their own minds. If so, they will follow their own intuition and reasoning, and question every dubious belief, idea, or procedure that they encounter. They will be concerned with truth, not with bolstering a low self-image.

2.     Rational selfishness: Believing that they have a right to be themselves and to enjoy their own lives as long as they allow others to do likewise

3.     Rational self-protectiveness: Knowing what is good for them and what is not good in the short and long run.

4.     Rational assertiveness: Able to assert their own wishes, needs and desires in their relationships with other persons so that they are not unduly influenced to their own detriment, used, or abused by others.

5.     Curiosity and inquisitiveness: The desire to know and understand all things that touch upon their lives. Self-teaching. Perpetual learner.

6.     Healthy ambition and energy: the desire and the motivation to achieve something that is good for themselves and for other persons.

7.     Carefulness and cleanliness: Loving their surroundings, their work, their abode, and their belongings as they love themselves. Taking care to avoid mistakes and injuries. Watching out for themselves and their belongings.

Now I assert that forcing a child to obey your commands as a parent, and then sending them to school to obey adults for the rest of their formative years either inhibits or completely prevents a child from attaining every one of these criteria of healthy psychosocial development. Let's take them in order:

1.     Self love and respect: If you constantly try to force an immature human being into mature or socially-conditioned modes of behavior, you send them the message that they are not Good. You inform them that their natural inclinations, desires, and behaviors are wrong and that they must now, and for the rest of their lives, suppress their natural self and be what you and others want them to be. This is self-loathing, not self-love.

2.     Rational selfishness: If you teach them not to be "selfish" but instead to share their toys, do what's good for others instead of for themselves, and obey parents and adults, you are preventing them from developing a healthy and natural ethical personality. Your message: Life is not about people cooperating to mutual advantage, it’s about using force to make everyone do what you think is “good”.

3.     Rational self-protectiveness: If you force children to obey yourselves as parents, and to obey teachers in loco parentis, you prevent them from being aware of, and protecting themselves. You destroy their will at great peril, for they will be incapable of protecting themselves from the desires and coercion of others for the rest of their lives.

4.     Rational assertiveness: In order to create obedient children, parents and teachers must break their wills. What school allows children to voice their objections to being controlled all day every day? If you want assertive children, you must let them be assertive, from birth on.

5.     Curiosity and inquisitiveness: A child can turn their attention to the richness and mystery of the world only if their needs are being met and they are free to think and to grow. Forcing a child to memorize reams of data for hours everyday, before and apart from their own questioning, only makes them sick of all “learning”. No wonder schooled children never touch a book outside of what they’re assigned to do. Once removed from school, it takes months for a child to regain their curiosity and motivation to learn about their world. And if they’re over 13 or 14 years of age, they may never regain it.

6.     Healthy ambition and energy: 17 years of daily coercion in the home and school are enough to drain even the most energetic child of joy and energy. They become quite cynical and do little but game the school system in order to get their degree, get a job, do the minimum necessary, and amuse themselves with mindless entertainment and sport.

7.     Carefulness and cleanliness: These require self-love and respect. If you have these, you also care about your house, your work, your belongings, etc. If you loathe yourself, you don’t care about much else either.

Look at the evidence. Look at the mentality of high school graduates in America today. Look at their inability to organize their own lives and protect themselves. Look at teenage pregnancies, drug abuse, violence, and suicide. On the contrary, look into the biography of nearly every great thinker and innovator and you'll find a lack of formal schooling or a hatred of same. If you're an American, start with our own. Mark Twain, one of our greatest wits and writers quit school after 6th grade. Thomas Edison was expelled from school after a few weeks of second grade and was home schooled—he became the greatest inventor in American history. Ben Franklin: one year of grammar school, one year of tutoring, no formal education after age 10. George Washington attended school irregularly. In England, Michael Faraday practically created modern electromagnetics. He performed all the seminal experiments that Edison later repeated. He never attended any school. I could go on and on. Einstein stated that schooling almost destroyed his interest in knowledge. Find an innovator or free thinker and look into his childhood. Read the works of adults who have taught and raised children and realize just how destructive the process of schooling is. Read John Holt, Grace Llewellyn, John Taylor Gatto, A.S. Neill, and others. Do your research.

I propose that all true knowledge and understanding is self-desired, self-sought, self-discovered, and self-assimilated. School "learning" is performance of tests and task under coercion. It is false learning, it looks like learning but it's merely performance. Consider carefully what you, and the adults you know, actually remember and use from what was learned in school. Consider how little interest most adults have in truth, even when it comes to things they encounter everyday in their work. Most of them just go on following some routine or other and never think much about it. Few ever pursue any new knowledge or understanding.

Compare what you learned in school with what you’ve learned by your own initiative since you graduated. Which of these collections of knowledge is more meaningful and useful to you? How many adults are doing any job that depends on any courses they took in school? How many adults need or have any interest in any mathematics beyond simple arithmetic? Math is, unfortunately, used as a tool of authoritarianism. It's something that adults can force on children to assert their power over them. Imagine the response if the government were to propose that all adults take high school exams in math, and that those who scored below 70 be required to attend night school! Can you hear the screaming? And what would this achieve? What do we achieve by forcing math on children? Nothing but making them hate math, as with all knowledge that we attempt to force on them.

Let me tell you about my journey. I was raised in a supportive but very controlling, conservative home environment. I was a straight A, 98th percentile, top-of-the-class student through high school, college, and medical school. I excelled in math, and first year college physics was the easiest course I ever took. I got great grades because I had an insatiable curiosity to learn everything, and an ambition to excel. (Unfortunately, I made other students feel quite inadequate.) Since I excelled in the system, I never lost my belief in my ability to learn and understand things as well as anyone else. Most kids are not so fortunate. Around the age of 23, in med school, I began reading books on my own; whatever interested me. I combed through bookstores and read psychology, politics, philosophy, economics, physics, cosmology, etc, and I haven’t stopped yet. I realized that through all those years, with all those great grades, I hadn't really gained much understanding of the important things in life. I realized how school had given me a superficial, forced familiarity with all knowledge, but no understanding of anything that mattered--not to mention a lot of false ideas and a deeply ingrained tendency to conform to other's wishes.

As I built my own base of knowledge and understanding, in my own way, I realized the extent to which understanding can only come from within, from one's personal questioning and search for answers. I realized how school was a process of forcing answers on kids when they're not even asking the questions--answers that never mean anything and are quickly forgotten, answers and interpretations that are often wrong. I've learned much more about this natural, unforced process of learning from my first experiment, my 8 year-old daughter, who has become a good reader and highly knowledgeable about the natural world without any "teaching" whatsoever. (It would be OK if she weren't reading yet; I mention this just to show how false is the claim that children need to be schooled to learn to read.)

Most of us were raised in coercive households and schools. Even though of us who know that that system wasn't right retain many of the prejudices and beliefs that we inherited from our parents and the system. It's perfectly understandable. We think that our children must learn this and that, because that's what society says--that's what the schools teach them. And in Pennsylvania, the law attempts to force us to run them through a standard curriculum, just as the Prussians who invented universal schooling intended. So even though we want our children to have a freer, happier life, we're caught in a bind. We want the child to learn freely and naturally, yet we want to assure that they learn everything that the school kids are being forced to learn. We give our children a MIXED message, "Learn what you want to learn, when you want to learn it, but make sure that you teach yourself x, y, and z or I'll be very disappointed." So which is it: Are children to be trusted to learn what they need to learn to get along in life, or must they be forced to learn what you or other adults think they must learn, before they have any need of that knowledge?

In a word, most of us are caught between two INCOMPATIBLE theories of child development--the schooling theory and the natural learning theory. As far as I'm concerned, the schooling theory doesn't even deserve serious consideration--it's part and parcel of authoritarianism and has nothing to do with any concern for the child's development. It presumes that children are born lazy and stupid and must be pushed to learn everything that adults thing they "should" know—as soon as they are capable. It is born of, and requires disrespect for the child as a person. It produces adults who have little intellectual development, no curiosity, and no will of their own. To force learning on a child is to contaminate their self-image (they're too lazy to learn this "important" stuff), destroy their love of learning, and severely limit their future ability to learn and grow.

Feed them whatever they're interested in until they're satisfied. You (and all we adults) have no idea what they're learning or what effect it is having, or what they'll grow up to be. We happen to live in a world where all this TV programming and computer gaming is available, to ration it is senseless and only frustrates the child. It’s best to let them get their fill so that they can move on. Let them enjoy it until they become bored with it (they will).

Of course, always involve them in the real world as much as possible--even if that is just having them do their part in household maintenance. Take them places, do things with them, buy them books, CD's, and video games. Make sure that they have access to nature and science shows on TV.

In my opinion, ADD is itself a reaction, a rebellion against being coerced and controlled. After all, no neurological cause has ever been detected. Some children’s personalities appear to be such that they tune out or act out when controlled, whereas others can be compliant with little outward sign of disorder. Some children have high energy levels and are irrepressible. Society gives the non-compliant behaviors a syndrome name so that they can treated (suppressed) with drugs. Society doesn't ask if the universal, 12-year sentence of total behavioral control and forced data memorization may itself be the problem.

I say never force children to learn anything outside of their necessary duties in the family and home. The child can see and understand the need for these tasks. He cannot see the need to learn who George Washington is and what he did, and he will not until he is much older and begins to wonder how his society got to be what it is. To force him/her to learn such answers before he can even ask the questions is to forever prevent him from ever having any curiosity regarding the subject. To associate knowledge with coercion in your child's mind is one of the worst things you can do to him. Coercion prevents and perverts the child's emotional/intellectual growth. All meaningful learning is the child's own accomplishment. It is initiated and directed by their own curiosity.

After a child has been schooled, it takes a long period of non-coercion before they can regain their curiosity and desire to learn things. Schooling/coercion produces a serious personality distortion that does not disappear overnight. There's nothing you can do to shorten the length of recovery except to avoid further coercion. Let them lie around all day--after they've done their chores. Let them watch TV or play computer games. They apparently never got enough in the past if they want so much now. Let them become so familiar with games and cartoons, plots, and gags, that they become bored with them. They WILL eventually get bored and start looking elsewhere for mental stimulation.

Once they are given freedom, they will eventually realize that they alone are responsible for their own lives--what they do, what they learn, and what they become. This realization will bring a great change in their behavior and attitudes. The longer a child has been coerced at home and at school, the more difficult, prolonged, and partial is the recovery. At Summerhill, A.S. Neill noted that after the age of 13 or 14, coerced kids could not recover completely, they simply could not become self-motivated, self-directed, self-regulating individuals.

If your children are demonstrating active or passive resistance, ask yourself what they're resisting. What are you trying to force them to do or learn? Why are you doing it? Do you think you must because that's what schools do to children? As parents who love and respect our children, the only thing we should demand of our children is that they respect our rights and manage their own and the household's affairs to the extent that they are able. We should never, ever force them to do or learn anything beyond that. Life will make its demands on them soon enough. We should not burn them out on obedience and performance before they even need to face adult responsibilities. Let reality be their guide. Keep them out of school. Buy or borrow any book, CD, or device they want inasmuch as you can afford. Take them places, expose them to the world of nature and to technology. Answer their questions honestly.

Yes, I'm saying that what society is doing to every child, what it did to each of us, what it taught us to do to our children, is all completely wrong and destructive. However, just consider our past. Consider where the human race has come from in its long history of Kings and Queens and total control of slaves, serfs, and citizens. Human society has a long way to go before it realizes that is must replace coercion with cooperation. We are fortunate if we can see what is wrong with our society and protect our children from its worst effects.

So take your kids out of school. Please stop pushing your children just because schools do. When they no longer have any coercion to rebel against, you'll see how they will slowly recover their natural love of life and learning. Then you can sit back and watch them learn and grow.

As to how to produce the paperwork needed to keep your kids out of school, that's a manageable technical issue about which many people have written at various website and in e-groups. Check out the homeschooling websites and forums in your state.

What must we, as a society, do to correct this institutionalized abuse of children? It’s quite simple. Eliminate coercive government schooling; put an end to the government monopoly; apply the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution to children and free them from 12 years of involuntary servitude to the State. We must free parents and children so that they can produce a new society based upon love and mutual cooperation. Let the free market produce every variety of childcare and learning centers. Let us reintegrate children into society. Let every adult who wants to teach do so. Remove all legal barriers to work and apprenticeship. Our children have nothing to lose but their chains.


Let me know what you think.