Astra Taylor Advocates ‘Unschooling’ at PSU Event

The Pomona Student Union (PSU) started its programming for the year Sept. 20 with a talk by Astra Taylor, a documentary filmmaker and writer, on the topic of “unschooling.” 

The term “unschooling,” as opposed to homeschooling, refers to a system of education not necessarily located at home but drastically different from the mainstream school system. It is a system funded entirely by the government in which students are left to their own devices to pursue their own interests, reasoning that knowledge is best acquired when the student chooses to learn.

Taylor, who was educated partially in the unschooling model, now advocates the alternative system.

“We would investigate what we wanted to investigate when we wanted to,” Taylor said at the talk. “[We] taught ourselves math, rode bikes, played and did nothing.”  

Educator John Holt coined the term “unschooling” in 1977, and the movement has influenced the growth of democratic schools, which give students more freedom to pursue their own academic and nonacademic desires. 

“I like the philosophies of democratic schools,” Taylor said, but she admitted that they are expensive. 

Under her system, the government would subsidize education. 

Taylor was herself taken out of traditional school as a young child. Not yet in third grade, she was recommended by her teacher to advance to the third-grade math class. The principal refused, arguing that for the rest of Taylor’s educational career, teachers would have to accommodate her difference in math abilities compared to those of other students her age. 

“That was the last time I had to go to school,” she said. 

Taylor spent the next several years without tests, grades, wake-up times, bullies, latest fashions, “pencil chewing, trying to look busy [and] wishing to escape through the window,” she said.  

Joseph Glickman PO ’13, who organized the talk, said that he supports the ideas Taylor advocates. 

“[One] way to think about [her philosophy] is to take a personal approach and think what we should do with our own kids,” Glickman said. “I am sympathetic to that approach. I think there’s something remarkable about the idea of a family working in education together. You don’t have to waste time in subjects you’re not interested in at the time, and you can make tons of progress when you are captivated by something.”

Many educational institutions today, Taylor said, are “based on threats,” with students told to get good grades or face the consequences. 

Taylor said that when she was 13, she decided to attend public school because she was worried about what “doors would be closed” to her as an “unschooled” child. 

She said that she thought the other students would be jealous of the “freer” schooling she had experienced, but most of them were horrified. The students who could relate to her were the ones who did not earn the highest grades, not because they were any less smart or eager to learn, but because they were bored, she said.

In high school, Taylor found herself consuming information “instrumentally,” she said. She did not encounter a “nurturing intellectual community,” but instead one that focused on Advanced Placement tests. 

However, she continued with her schooling and was accepted to Brown University, where she said she was appalled that the school insisted its students were there because they were the “best.” She disagreed, and soon dropped out.

Taylor said that her philosophy revolves around trust. She called herself an “optimist” and said that as more people dispense trust to others, more will see that they deserve it. 

Pomona College politics professor David Menefee-Libey, an expert on education policy, said that Taylor should continue to promote her views on education, even if they are unpopular.

“I am skeptical that a lot of Americans would agree with her view on what Americans want for their children or that her proposal is sensible,” Menefee-Libey said. He added, however, that Taylor’s proposal “provokes very productive investigations and discussions about education reform.”

Taylor’s talk was the first of four or five events PSU is planning for this semester. 

Gabi Hybel PO ’13, president of PSU, said that the organization “strives to bring about dialogue on campus by bringing in speakers that have a variety of different perspectives [and] push students to challenge their assumptions.”

Unlike with this event, PSU often hosts more than one speaker at a time to provide a variety of perspectives on an issue. 

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