What’s Wrong With School? Nothing.

People often ask me why we unschool our kids. I offer multiple reasons, but I have always felt that none of these reasons really define the core philosophy that compelled us not to send our kids to a formal school. Here’s the most important reason: we unschool because we want our kids to be entrepreneurs.

Another question I get asked often is, “what’s wrong with school?” I can describe many things that I think are wrong about school, and I can bring up facts and stories I’ve read in the news and in books to exemplify my arguments. But people would often try to dismiss it by saying things like “it doesn’t happen at our school”, “it all depends on the school”, “private schools are better”, “the teachers at our school are better”, etc. The discussion ends up going nowhere. And only now have I realized what the correct answer is: there’s nothing wrong with school, it all depends on your vision for your kids’ future.

Historical background

If anyone is interested in the history of modern government schooling, I strongly recommend reading “Underground History of American Education” by John Taylor Gatto. Gatto is one of the authors whom I respect the most, and his book is an eye-opener. He describes how modern compulsory schooling emerged during the time of the Industrial Revolution and was actively promoted and supported by American corporate and industrial magnates as the most efficient way to mass-produce the human resource: compliant factory and mine workers. He writes, “Unless Yankee entrepreneurialism could be extinguished, at least among the common population, the immense capital investments that mass production industry required for equipment weren’t conceivably justifiable. Students were to learn to think of themselves as employees competing for the favor of management. Not as Franklin or Edison had once regarded themselves, as self-determined, free agents.”

Lest you think that factories and mines are all in the past, that we now live in the computer age and schools have evolved to be a better place, let’s not forget: the underlying forces that bring about historical events remain unchanged, so the main principles on which mass schooling was built still stand. Yesterday, schools were training factory workers; today, schools are training corporate employees.

Organic relationship between school and corporate life

School is set up to produce workforce, and it perfectly emulates the day job environment. School teaches to obey authority. School conditions kids to get used to be told what to do. Children have to adapt to the collective, blend in with the group. It’s all about the team, not about the individual. Kids learn from a very young age that all they have to do in order to succeed in school is to please the teachers and to get good grades.

Now, think of a typical office environment. Corporations, even small and progressive startups, usually have some kind of hierarchy. Employees must obey their managers. For the most part, employees only make minimal decisions and don’t have to think much. They have limited responsibility and are narrowly focused on their field of expertise. Employees often do things not because it’s good for the company, but because it pleases their managers and makes them or their departments look good. Needless to say, at the end of the day what nearly all employees worry about most is their paycheck and a good score on their performance reviews. Do you see the similarities? Corporate life is a logical, organic continuation of the school life.

There’s nothing wrong with school, just like there’s nothing wrong with a corporate job. If you want your kids to get into a good college and then get a good day job, by all means, send them to school. I once had a friend, an army veteran, who told me that she wanted others to think for her and tell her what to do. Over time, I realized that many people prefer the same, and it doesn’t feel senseless to me anymore. There’s nothing wrong with following someone else’s decisions and orders, with being part of a group under the leadership of a manager. It can provide a stable life with more or less predictable rewards dispensed by the manager, such as promotions and raises. Not having to worry, think, and make decisions certainly results in a better night sleep.

However, there is another kind of life. Just like us, you may want your kids to have a vision, to learn to think for themselves, make their own decisions, and shape their own lives. You may want your kids to be able to find and follow their own paths, to lead rather than to follow, and to swim against the current (not merely for rebellion’s sake, but if it’s necessary to uphold their principles and follow their vision). This is a life of entrepreneurship, independence, and self-sufficiency.

Contrast between school and entrepreneurial life

In school, kids answer questions posed by a teacher. They solve problems presented to them in a test. They strive for goals set in front of them by the school system. They compete against each other. Everything, down to their daily routines, is predictable. There are always right and wrong answers. If students answer a question or solve a problem or achieve a goal, they get a certain and guaranteed reward. If they fail, they get punished and discouraged from probing the same approach again.

Entrepreneurship requires individual competence and independent thinking. In entrepreneurial life, no one tells you what to do. You don’t learn things by textbook, and no such textbook exists that can teach you. You are not supervised by teachers or by company managers. You have to set your own goals and invent your own ways to achieve those goals. You have to solve problems that no one sets in front of you and no one even knows exist. You have to answer questions no one has answered or even asked before. More importantly, you have to find your own questions to answer. You have to think outside the box. Often, there’s no right and wrong answer, and you have to probe your way through experimentation and discovery, by trial and error. You must learn to fail and deal with the consequences of your failure. You must train yourself to rise up from failure and try again. You have to develop solid judgement and a sense of responsibility. You must condition yourself to take initiative. You have to develop a vision and be able to lead other people towards that vision. You have to go out and see the world and figure out a way to make yourself useful. You have to learn that your life is not as much a competition with others as it is a competition with yourself. You overcome yourself and work on achieving better results than you had before. School, even the best one, teaches nothing of that.

Entrepreneurial life is full of surprises and unpredictabilities. It’s a life where nothing is guaranteed, where rewards are not dispensed regularly and are much harder to get. But rewards can be great, with the best reward being an empowering sense of pride that stems from the ability to claim ownership of your life, of your achievements, and of your decisions.

Unschooling is more helpful than schooling to get started as an entrepreneur

Of course, it is not a given that unschooled kids always become entrepreneurs, and unschooling itself does not guarantee that your child will necessarily become one. There are many who do not. Unschooling parents should constantly guide, encourage, and inspire their kids within the framework and towards the vision of entrepreneurship. Nethertheless, unschooling by itself provides a blank canvas, a clean state upon which it’s easier to build the foundation, and grants the best tools to do it, such as freedom and flexibility. Some accomplished entrepreneurs already recognize that fact and unschool their own children.

True, even those people who are the products of school can later become entrepreneurs. But somehow school seems to be a hurdle which they must overcome, nothing more than a necessary waste of time. When I read biographies of entrepreneurs, school doesn’t seem to play an important role in their success. Many either drop out of school to dedicate themselves to their business full time, or run their venture on the side, after school. And let’s not be fooled by those activities that schools run occasionally, such as an “inventor” fair, a simulated stock trading class, designing a video game for a pretend company, or other mock projects and activities. This is pretend play which has nothing to do with the realities of running a business, because school is not, well, real life. I’ve never heard of school actually facilitating real-life entrepreneurship.

One seems to become an entrepreneur despite school. Both my husband and I are entrepreneurs, though we attended school, and I must confess that to become successful, we had to recover from many stigmas instilled into us by school. We had to teach ourselves anew to be curious, to think out of the box, not to wait for orders, not to expect others to tell us what to do. We had to learn to study on our own and not to expect someone to teach us things. We had to get used to searching for knowledge instead of waiting for someone to spoon-feed knowledge to us. We had to learn to deal with unpredictabilities and failures. We had to get used to the fact that there are no teachers and no management to please, and no rewards to expect of anyone but ourselves. In short, we had to undo what school has taught us, and learn things the other way. Why waste time and effort? Isn’t it best if kids never have to go through this, and instead learn the right habits from the very beginning?

In and out of the bubble

School is a bubble where students don’t have to go through the struggle of independent thinking, of finding their own paths in life, of shaping their own visions. Someone else has thought it all out for them. All they need is just follow the path paved out in front of them, answer the questions, please the teachers, and do what’s expected.

As a matter of fact, unschooling alone does not guarantee that there will be no bubble. I’ve seen many unschoolers and homeschoolers do what the school does: create artificial fantasy worlds of prolonged childhood where their kids are sheltered from the realities of life and occupy their time with simulated activities that are anything but useful, productive, and real.

It’s comfortable to live in a bubble. Many people continue living in the bubble well into their adult years, and it’s fine if some parents want this kind of life for their kids. There is nothing wrong with that.

However, this is not what we want for our kids. We want them to face the realities of life with its issues, difficulties, contradictions, unpredictabilities, and complexities. We want them to witness many rich experiences that real life provides. We want them to get used to swimming in the big waters, because this is what they will face in life, and if they start early, it will be easier for them later. We want to be next to them to gently guide them in the ocean of life and help them along the way. We want them to develop a solid judgment, a set of values, an intellectual and moral clarity to tell right from wrong, which schools don’t teach and which is essential for navigating the complexity of life and for making the right choices. We want them to become independent thinkers, responsible adults, innovative entrepreneurs. And the necessary first step towards that vision is to get the kids out of the artificial bubble called school.