Sunday, February 22, 2009

On Autonomy and the Politics of Unschooling

I'm lifting this post from an unschooling list where the list-owner understandably prefers to keep political discussions off list. Neither the quote nor the response in the box below are my words, but I've had some ideas floating in my mind as a response to this particular post and others for the past couple of days, and here seems as good a place as any to explore them and get them out of my head. I jump around quite a bit, and this is as much a genealogy of my own foray into the concept of autonomy as it is any kind of coherent statement; think of it as a citation of sorts of my sources. I do hope to draw the threads of my thoughts together by the end, but I make no promises. Mostly, I'll just be impressed if anyone gets to the end.

And yet we all have that need, to greater and lesser degrees, to have relationships be on our terms.

It's a luxury, to have anything on one's own terms. It's an exception in the history of the world.

The fact that having something on one's own terms is a relatively recent phenomenon doesn't make it any less worthy a goal. For the founding fathers of the United States, the ideals of self-governance were something worth declaring and fighting for: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The fact that those men fell short of imagining how these revolutionary ideals might extend to women or people of color does not detract from the import of the ideals themselves. The fact that the world is still in a state of becoming does not detract from the appeal of the dream.

We have come a long way towards the guarantee of those inalienable rights within the United States, and though we still have far to go, we can choose to stop and savor the idea that perhaps—even if not exactly linear—there is progress and hope for improving and going beyond what our forebears might have been able to accomplish or even imagine in their cultural moment. Here in America, we're lucky enough to be able to homeschool and even make claims to the notion of autonomy; that's certainly not the case everywhere in the world even today. We have gone from black slaves building the White House to a black family living in the White house, and although this is not a fulfillment necessarily of Martin Luther King, Jr's dream, it is definitely a watershed moment.

Dreams of a better and brighter future are always worth having, and dreams that encompass humanity and social justice are by their very nature political. I believe that our choices and actions every moment of every day reflect our own dreams and ideals of humanity and social justice. The personal is political.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk once nominated by Dr. King for the Nobel Peace Prize, together with a small group of his fellow monks developed the idea of "engaged Buddhism," a way of imagining the religious and the political together in the face of an ugly war where the people were hurting. This need to meld religious practice with political action was a direct reaction to the apolitical nature of Buddhism that was abandoning the people of Vietnam. Engaged Buddhism encouraged monks to speak out against government atrocities and engage in efforts to alleviate suffering, turning their personal practice into political statement.

bell hooks, African-American teacher and activist, imported this idea of engaged Buddhism into the classroom, calling for what she termed "engaged pedagogy," or a form of teaching that has at its core the self-actualization of both teacher and student, transforming the classroom into a place where relationship and learning are central and extending the notion of "classroom" out into the world. bell hooks and other educational activists like Paolo Freire, Henry Giroux, Gayatri Spivak, and several others explore the political nature of the intersection of teaching/ learning/ culture, and each has in common a recognition and insistence that personal practice is political, that teaching and learning and dreaming are themselves political acts.

Unschooling, for me, is fundamentally a political act. Choosing not to send my children to the state-run schools was and is a political statement. Of course, that's not all it is, in a reductionist kind of way; it's lots of other things as well—a way to continue the connection with my children that we enjoyed when they were little, a way to preserve and protect their freedom and authenticity, a way to offer them the chance to grow into themselves unfettered by others' expectations. That, and much, much more.

Each of these things is political in its nature in large part by virtue of the fact that they run counter to the norm of society, so even to make those decisions is to reject at some level the cultural conventions that prevail. To make these choices is to make a stand, and the very visibility of that stand makes a statement. Each time my kids and I are out in public, people are reminded that they, too, have choices. True choices, though, depend upon the freedom to make those choices, the personal autonomy to make those choices, and that's a word that's become a bit of a bugbear in certain unschooling circles recently.

Autonomy isn't a new concept. It's been around since the 1600s and came into vogue with the Enlightenment and German philosopher Emmanuel Kant's exploration of moral philosophy. These ideas were circulating at the time the Declaration of Independence was written, and the idea of the autonomous individual is fundamental within the context of American political thought. Indeed, the very idea of "the individual" behind the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness is a product of Enlightenment thinking. Prior to that time period, people tended to be thought of in context of community, class, family, church. The dream that a person could step outside of that structure and define himself was pretty revolutionary.

"Put most simply, to be autonomous is to be one's own person, to be directed by considerations, desires, conditions, and characteristics that are not simply imposed externally upon one, but are part of what can somehow be considered one's authentic self." America itself was founded on these ideals, and the American dream is inextricably caught up with the notion of the self-made man and the colonial context that provided the material trappings of his making. The fact that the autonomous individual was always a white male, usually from a colonial power, within these discourses (with the notable exception of Mary Wollstonecraft's feminist treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) has been a particularly problematic legacy for thinkers like bell hooks, Paolo Freire, and others who have simultaneously embraced the idea of autonomy and critiqued the oppressive power structures of its cultural legacy. They have sought through their own revolutionary discourses to claim access to and ownership of the notion of political autonomy with the classroom as the locus of their intervention.

During the 20th century, the idea of autonomy as a basic human need emerged within the field of psychology under the Self Determination Theory, which has, in turn, sent the concept out into all kinds of arenas ranging from education, as in hooks and Freire, to health care to parenting. Within this context authors like Alfie Kohn, Naomi Aldort, and Marshall Rosenberg have discussed children's autonomy both in relation to schools and to their parents, and their work has been influential on a number of other writers and parents alike. Autonomy has become a fundamental term in educational theory and a definite trend in alternative parenting theories, and the notion of supporting children's autonomy rather than gaining authority over them has become commonplace in this genre.

The question for me, and others I think, is whether we haven't sacrificed something by adopting the dream of the autonomous individual. Enlightenment ideals encapsulated by the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness sound grand and lovely, but they are inherently defined against the notion of an oppressor, operating within the master/ slave dialectic: we're either autonomous or we're oppressed. That dichotomy is problematic and, largely, what I personally am seeking to move away from in the way I choose to live with my children.

But there's a paradox here for me: the way I seek to live in partnership and respect with my children seems to have the notion of autonomy as its foundation—the idea that children are people and that people have a basic need for for respect and self-determination. I'm caught up in the power matrix by virtue of living in a culture that defines parenting in adversarial and authoritative ways. I'd like a new term, a new image, a new model of mutually respectful interdependence, but at this point I can't even imagine what a truly communal identity would look like outside the tyrant/ victim worldview. I suspect, hope, believe (or perhaps console myself) that this new concept is still in its early stages of becoming, still in its own imagining and that the choices we're making as unschoolers are part of bringing it forth into the world. The every day act of living in partnership with our children whether we name it or not gives birth to this new way of being.

I have more ramblings having to do with John Holt's Escape from Childhood, but this is long enough already. I'll post more later this week as I sit with these ideas a bit.

There are times when I fear that someone reading this, even if not yet totally converted to neoliberal pragmatism but perhaps somewhat contaminated by it, may think that there is no more place among us for the dreamer and believer in utopia. Yet what I have been saying up to now is not the stuff of inconsequential dreamers. It has to do with the very nature of men and women as makers and dreamers of history and not simply as casualties of an a priori vision of the world. ~Paolo Freire


meredith said...

Danielle, have you ever read any of Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zone writings? I think some are available online - I came across a few links when I was searching for articles on autonomy. I'm not sure I should give anything away... they revolve around ideas of individual autonomy, art, poetry, sex, politics and... everthing else. Quilting and dinner parties. You might have fun with them, anyway.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to share how much this post resonates with me...very well written.

Andrea said...

Thanks for a great post. It is exactly what I needed tonight. I am up late thinking about Honduras, my children's education and the "radical" in unschooling. This gives me some more things to think about.

Thanks again,

Unknown said...

You're not alone in your quest. I've just begun homeschooling and deschooling and hope we can drift into an unschooling life. Your words are inspiring and your blog/website is very encouraging to me. Thank you!

Laura Rockow

Kelly Newcomer said...

After reading this, and seeing the names of so many authors I read in college... I wonder if I'd be attracted to unschooling if it wasn't for my background in cultural studies at the University of Minnesota. Interesting how it all is circling back around to Antonio Gramsci and Paolo Freire and bell hooks, Gayatri Spivak, even Hakim Bey! Wow. I am a circle within a circle...