On home schooling and anarchy
Do schools provide the best education possible for children? My guest today believes schools are the greatest barrier to education. Simon Springer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Victoria, Canada. He advocates and practices with his children a concept he calls un-schooling, but which also goes by the more popular name de-schooling.
Simon’s research agenda explores the political, social, and geographical exclusions that neoliberalism has engendered, particularly in the context of contemporary Cambodia, where he emphasizes the role of violence and power. He cultivates a cutting edge theoretical approach to his scholarship by foregrounding both poststructuralist critique and a radical revival of anarchist philosophy.
In today’s show Simon discusses his new co-edited volume, The Radicalization of Pedagogy: Anarchism, Geography, and the spirit of revolt (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).
Before starting the show, I want to apologize for the high pitched sound that you’ll hear throughout the interview. Since this is a no-budget show that doesn’t record in professional sound studios, sometimes these technical problems happen. I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but I decided to play the interview as-is because Simon’s ideas are worth considering.
Citation: Simon, Springer, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 31, podcast audio, June 6, 2016. https://freshedpodcast.com/simonspringer/
Will Brehm: 1:36
Simon Springer, welcome to FreshEd! In your new co-edited volume, you call for the idea of de-schooling, what is deschooling? What do you mean by this?
Simon Springer: 1:48
I mean, actually I have two co-editors along with me, Marcello Lopez D’Souza, he’s from the Federal University of Rio and Brazil, and Richard J White, who is from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. And we’re just thinking through some of the possibilities of anarchism and its relationship to geography. And going back to the early anarchists and anarchist geographers in particular, they had a very keen interest in pedagogy. And it’s something that’s been at the root of anarchist philosophy since its inception. So we started to think about this idea, and really, just moving through some of the existing literature and trying to find out how it resonates with contemporary anarchist thought and historical anarchist thought as well, and just coming upon people like Ivan Illich, in particular, and his idea of deschooling which of course, he articulates his quite well-known book, Deschooling society. And we kind of pick it up from there and, and thinking through, you know, what are the ongoing implications of that? I can’t remember when that book came out.
Will Brehm: 3:10
I think it was 71?
Simon Springer: 3:11
Yeah, so the early 70s. But, I mean, it’s been, it’s been taken up in various forms, obviously. And Illich has been quite influential, but within contemporary geographical scholarship, he hasn’t been at the forefront of thinking about pedagogy as you might expect it to be. So trying to think of how we could incorporate that into how we were thinking about anarchism and how we’re thinking about geography in particular. And, really, I mean, our view of deschooling, I mean, for me, personally, in particular, I think about unschooling rather than deschooling, just removing the idea of school all together. And really, in a sense, that’s what Illich is asking for, as well. But in terms of my own views on pedagogy, I kind of advocate for an unschooling approach, which really is just, some people don’t like this where they get a little bit thrown off by it, “unschooling, what could that mean?”, but it really is just a learner-centered approach. So in terms of how I teach my own children, and the kind of view on education that my partner and I have taken, it really is just a child-led learning approach,
Will Brehm: 4:33
Do you send your children to the institution of public schooling?
Simon Springer 4:37
We don’t, our kids are at home. And I mean, they have various programs that they go to throughout the week, they’ve got a biology buddies class, and they go to a crafty class where they make crafts and things. They’ve got a gymnastics class that they attend, and that sort of thing. But otherwise, most of the days are spent hanging out. We live in Victoria, BC, Canada, so the west coast of Canada, and it’s a beautiful, natural environment. So when it’s not raining, a lot of time outdoors, just exploring and going for walks and, you know, “Learning through the soles of your feet,” which is the name of my chapter in the book. And we spend a lot of time at the library and just getting out books. My kids are voracious readers, and it’s just kind of letting them explore their interests and go with the things that they’re most keen on learning about. And, and then my partner, of course, I work for the University of Victoria, and I’m not home with them all day. But my partner, she spends the necessary time investigating. If the kids are interested in one particular theme, she tries to learn as much as she can about that theme. So she can help facilitate the learning that the children want to engage as well.
Will Brehm: 6:03
So you’re saying that your children get to decide the direction of their education?
Simon Springer: 6:10
Yeah, there’s no curriculum. We just learn math by counting rocks on the beach, and the kids, they intuitively pick these things up, right, the things that they’re interested in. So I mean, for us right now, and for a long time, it’s been reading, right. And so the interests shift and turn. Right now, my son is really interested in The Legend of Zelda and the mythology that goes behind those games that, the Nintendo games, games that I played when I was a kid. And now he’s interested in those but not just playing the video game, but also reading the various comic books and novels that have been associated with that video game and really digging into that. So just exploring through his imagination at this point. And yeah, in terms of, I mean, in terms of other interests, we really see our role as parents is just to provide them the kind of, here’s the range of opportunities and things that you could potentially explore and be interested in. And really let the children decide where their interests lay, and over time that shifts and turns. So I’ve said what my oldest son is interested in. My daughter is, she’s not quite as into reading as my son, she’s more into working with her hands and exploring, you know, who she is and what she’s all about through art and sewing in particular. My partner and I don’t know how to sew. So we’ve sought out somebody who sews and she’s taking a class with her and finding out, you know, the basics of sewing. And when she’s at home with us, we bought her a sewing machine for Christmas this past year. And she spends a lot of time just sitting on her sewing machine and, you know, making, making clothes for her stuffed animals. And she’s made some shirts for her brothers and things like that. And she just goes for it.
Will Brehm: 8:20
Do you ever feel anxious about the lack of structure? So like, public school provides a level of structure in families’ lives.The children wake up and go to school. The parents can work, you know, the parents don’t have to worry about where their kids are, the kids aren’t allowed to sleep in and, there’s this level of, I guess, security in the structure that exists in the institution of schooling. Do you ever feel anxious that you don’t have that?
Simon Springer: 8:48
I don’t ever feel anxious about structure itself. I mean, the structure of schooling is a structure that’s designed to suit capitalism, right. That’s the history, the history of schooling as an institution is effectively, the sort of kindergarten, if you will, for the industrial workers. So coming out of the experience of industrialization, where you have to have, you know, a particular class of workers involved in the functioning of capitalism, the school is sort of the breeding ground for that sort of temporal limitation on people’s time. So effectively getting children ready to be proper workers within a capitalist system. And that’s something that you know, has never sit well with me. I don’t think that our temporality should be constrained around the idea of work itself, right, that there’s more to life than that. And certainly, I’m a wage slave, if you will. I worked for the university and we require my wage to actually live in the world, but my partner is that at home with the children and their days are spent, the kids get up when they get up, and they, if they have particular activities in the morning or whatever, obviously, there’s mornings.
Yesterday morning, my daughter, for example, had a ballet rehearsal, a dress rehearsal for a performance that she’s doing later this week. And so we had to get up really early. And, but those are rare days. And, the kids don’t mind on those days. But I mean, we have different circadian rhythms. My daughter gets up early every single day and as do I. And my partner and my two sons, they tend to sleep in a little bit more. And so that means they’re up a little bit later at night, and we just follow those, sort of, bodily patterns for the children anyway. I’m not for myself, I’m working within the capitalist system, so I’m not able to do that like they are. But just allow them to follow those body rhythms and let that be part of the experience of life itself, right.
And so in terms of that kind of structure, I’ve never worried about that. I mean, sometimes I have my anxieties, because the main discourse in society is that kids need to be in school. And that this is, you know, there is no future without school. So it’s an ongoing struggle to sort of relax a little bit and realize that kids can make it, right. When I think about my education experience growing up, now I’m a professor, it’s the last thing when I was in high school that I ever aspired to be, or thought I would do as a career. And that’s because I didn’t get a lot of value out of my schooling experience that, you know, part of the value is socialization. I don’t have so much of an anxiety, but society has this anxiety, well, how will your kids socialize? And I can answer that in a moment. But in terms of the curriculum and the content, there’s nothing that I learned in school, I don’t think that I couldn’t have learned just through living life itself. And I see that manifesting in my children, they’ve learned how to read without school, they’re learning math without school. They’re learning what they need to know, at this time in their life, and mostly what I think children need to know up until, of their teenage yearsat least, is that they need to learn how to play right. But this is a critically undervalued concept within North American society anyways, that there’s just not enough time for kids to play freely and explore.
Will Brehm: 13:40
And what’s the value of play?
Simon Springer 13: 42
Well, the value of play, I mean, it’s intuitive, right? All creatures on earth play and to some extent, well, in mammals anyways, you can see play as a very prevalent feature of the experience of mammals. But without wanting to make a socio-biological argument, because I don’t want to go there. The value of play is just that this sort of free exploration that children learn boundaries, they learn that social interaction with other individuals, whether it’s siblings or not. And they learn various skills through that, I don’t think we need to quantify necessarily what those skills are, but they learn how to be in the world and how to explore different ideas. I mean, the games and sort of themes that my children come up with, from day to day, it’s a wide range of things. Anything from, I mean, sometimes to my chagrin I suppose, even learning modes of capitalism. They set up a little lemonade stand in front of the house and hope to get some money from that, or whatever. And other times it’s, I mean, yesterday, they were fighting off zombies and things like that. So it’s like a free exploration of their imagination. But other times, the message is behind that, is interaction and exploring their bodies for one and the limitations, like climbing trees, what do we get out of climbing trees? Well, sometimes you get a broken arm if you fall, but you also learn the limits of what’s possible for you. So the value of that we might take that only as a physical, but that comes into, it plays into the psychology of the child as well, of what they’re actually capable of and what they can do in their lives, so building confidence, and yeah.
Will Brehm: 15:13
So turn to the socialization issue.
Simon Springer: 15:16
Yeah, there is this idea that unschooled kids or homeschooled kids, I mean, there is this, that they’re not getting the socialization that they need. And there’s this prevalent sort of caricature of home schooled and unschooled kids that they’re weird as a result and unable to, you know, just social misfits or what have you, but it’s just not accurate at all. And here in Victoria anyways, there’s quite a large homeschooling community. There’s not so many unschoolers, there are some others in my family, but there’s a very large homeschooling community. And, I mean, my kids have a really big social network of other kids that they play with on a regular basis. Lots of play dates that are involved in the same activities, whether it’s ballet, or crafty class, or gymnastics, or whatever it might be. So there’s those kinds of opportunities for socialization. But the other thing that’s problematic about school is, and the institution of schooling is this assumption that it’s only other children that children should be socializing with.
So what the experience of most school children is is they are divided into cohorts of children who are all the same age and that’s their socialization group. They get the one or two teachers who they interact with. And sometimes, there’s some cross-pollination between various grade levels. But for the most part, it’s like your group of friends and, and your group of peers, or this single cohort of individuals, all the same age. And in some ways, I think that’s a deprivation of the kinds of socialization that exists in the world after you exit schooling right? Because not everybody is the same as you, or gone through the same sort of experience and is of the same age that it limits the kind of social interaction that you can engage with. So when you’re, you know, so my kids aren’t in school, they are just living through the day, as, as a reality of the needs that we have, right. So sometimes it’s going shopping. And that means interacting with people at the grocery store, and whatever it might be. It’s a range of individuals that they’re socializing with, rather than just other children the same age. And within the homeschooling and unschooling groups here in Victoria, you know, the kids play together, they don’t discriminate, my youngest son is four, and my daughter is the oldest of my children, and she’s nine, and they play together quite happily, there’s no, you know, you’re too young to play with us sort of thing. And their groups of friends range from, I mean, my kids are quite happy to play with one and two year olds as well. But anywhere up to you know, they play with 12 year olds as well. And there’s no sort of limitation on age there.
Will Brehm: 18:39
In school, though, don’t students and children interact with teachers?
Simon Springer: 18:44
Yeah, of course, they interact with teachers, but there’s one teacher for 30 students sort of thing and that one individual is kind of the only person, the only adult that they’re engaging with throughout the day. Whereas, my kids are, you know, it’s going grocery shopping or going in and to the various activities that they’re doing throughout the day, that there’s much more opportunities for them to engage with a variety of different ages and people from different backgrounds and that sort of thing, than there is within the context of school. So, I guess from my perspective, it’s just not a concern, the idea of socialization. I mean, human beings are social creatures and that’s what we do. Everyday, there’s an opportunity for socialization right, whether it’s just within the family itself. If it’s a really rainy day and we happen to be staying home well, there’s you know, the socialization taking there as, of course, there is within the context of school or if we’re out, as my children are, you know, on non-rainy days just within the community then there’s lots of opportunities for socialization. So it’s something that’s, I think, just inherent, part of the human experience and not something that needs to be worried about too much.
Will Brehm: 20:09
Right, school doesn’t have a monopoly on socialization. So what’s the difference between homeschooling, deschooling, and unschooling? Because we’re kind of throwing those terms around without necessarily, because you purposely say you are unschooling so what is the difference between unschooling and homeschooling?
Simon Springer 20:30
Yeah, homeschooling, I mean, there’s shades and degrees to all of these things. That homeschooling there’s not just one version of it, and unschooling as well, there’s not one version of that. I mean, there’s some people who call themselves just unschoolers, and there’s others who like the term radical unschooling. And within homeschooling, there’s a whole spectrum there as well, that some people very distinctly might follow a curriculum. And it might be, you know, the exact sort of same temporal process as regular school, except that it’s happening at home. In other words, you’re getting up and your day begins at 9am. And you’re studying at home with your, with your mom and dad, or whoever, until 3pm, or whenever school goes out. And other homeschoolers, you know, might loosely follow a curriculum, I mean, among our group of friends, there is a spectrum as well, that people are engaging the idea of homeschooling in different ways.
And, as well with unschooling, again, this spectrum that some people are absolutely no curriculum. I mean, I’ve said that, you know, we send, my daughter goes to a sewing class, and they kids go to, you know, the younger ones, they call it biology buddies, and for the older ones, they read up at homeschool science. So they go to those sorts of classes, which are more, sort of, formalized. And some unschoolers might reject the idea of these types of classes at all. And, I mean, for radical unschoolers, I think, extend this to things like no set bedtimes, and just letting the children completely decide when they go to bed, and that sort of thing. And my partner and I like to have a bit of time for ourselves in the evenings. So we still have bedtimes for the kids and they’re not hard and fast bed times, they’re flexible, but you know, there comes a point where we’d actually like them to be in bed. But the difference then between unschooling and homeschooling is really just around curriculum, that unschooling in general just doesn’t follow a curriculum. Again, really just another word for childhood learning, allowing the child to decide where their interests lay. And as facilitators of that, just providing them the range of opportunities that exist and showing them various things through you know, throughout the day, and throughout the course of their childhood of, there’s something you could be interested in. And if that interest really starts to take off the nurturing that and if that interest wanes, then well, that’s okay, because there’s another interest to replace it.
Will Brehm: 23:25
Does British Columbia have a mandated examination, school examination?
Simon Springer 23:31
No, BC is probably one of the easiest places in the world to actually be an unschooler or homeschooler. I mean, in Canada, education is the domain of the province rather than the federal government. And within BC in particular, there’s a whole lot of flexibility and freedom for parents to decide on the process of their children’s own education. So for us, we do have to register with a school, so our kids are technically registered in the school, but all that means is that for us anyways, I think it’s a once a year, sort of annual bit of feedback to the school, here’s the kinds of things that we did and whatever. Whereas for other homeschooling kids, you know, it can be more rigorous than that, there’s weekly checkups or sometimes they are physically in the school and some days, they’re physically out of it, but everybody has to be registered in a school. But beyond that, the way that these “schools operate” is to, again, a full spectrum of no being formally in a classroom or a once a year, you know, here’s a rundown of the kinds of things we did that year.
Will Brehm: 24:58
Right. So you ground your ideas of unschooling in the theories of anarchy? What is anarchy?
Simon Springer 25:07
Yeah, well, the theory of anarchism, anarchy and anarchism I guess, are two sort of different things. Anarchism being the philosophy of anarchy, I suppose, but, and the actual practice therein. So I mean, anarchism is a word that scares a lot of people. And there’s been a lot of mud slung at the term from the mainstream media and what not for a very long time. But anarchism means for most people, probably the exact opposite of what they actually think it means. So the cartoon version of anarchism that’s peddled in, you know, mainstream news and other media outlets is this idea of chaos and violence and that sort of thing. But that actually has nothing to do with anarchism as a political philosophy or anarchism as an actual, everyday practice. Instead, what anarchism means and I mean, if you don’t like the word anarchism, I would say you don’t even have to use it, because what it actually means is just an idea of mutual aid and cooperation and voluntary association, reciprocity, self management. So the kinds of things that most people, if you couch it in those sorts of terms, will just nod their head to because these are the kinds of things that we all actually practice on every day sort of basis. That there’s, there’s no one among us who isn’t actively engaged to anarchism in some way or another. We come from families, we have friends, so we’re necessarily engaging in, in mutual aid of some sort. And that’s kind of what sits at the core of anarchists, thought is just the idea that practices of mutual aid and cooperation, that this is how societies should be oriented, rather than in the competitive sense of capitalism, or the hierarchical sense of the state. That we can organize for ourselves, by ourselves that we don’t need particular forms of authority to actually compel us to do things that we are quite capable of getting on with things without formal authority. So, anarchism, if we look at the etymology of the word, I mean, anar- meaning “against,” and archy just means system of rule. So examples are hierarchy or monarchy or patriarchy that we can do without these particular systems of rule. And effectively, you know, rule, not necessarily rule ourselves but do without do without rulers? So anarchists still engage with ideas of rules that there are, there are forms of conduct that we agree to, but its rules without rulers.
Will Brehm: 12
Your critique of schooling through anarchism lead you to the idea of unschooling. Could you also get to the same place by using Marxism as a critique of schooling?
Simon Springer 28:31
Well, I mean, I’m a hard person to ask because I’m not a Marxist. So, the version of schooling that Marxists might envision, there are some parallels between Marxism and anarchism, obviously. But I suppose you could arrive at the same sort of choice. But I think for even for some anarchists that they haven’t necessarily thought through the possibilities of unschooling per se that, including in the literature. I mean, in my chapter in the book, “The radicalization of pedagogy”, my chapter is sort of critiquing, even the historical anarchist thought that continued to perpetuate the idea of school being a necessary function, if you will. And so anarchists, I mean, they have in the past thought about the idea of free schools, and I have no real problem with that. I think that there’s a range of opportunities and educational perspectives and forms that we can take up. And for my family, thinking just what was going to work best for us, it was the process of unschooling and so I don’t necessarily think it’s going to work for everybody on planet Earth. I mean, there’s a geography to that, certainly, that we’re located here in British Columbia, where it is possible to do that sort of thing, where we have a community around us, who allows us to engage in that kind of cooperation and the mutual aid that I was talking about.But in other contexts, like a lot of my research, as you know, is in Cambodia, and to suggest the idea that unschooling would be the proper sort of protocol or process for a rural Cambodian family to take up I think, is pretty problematic. That it’s not something that would necessarily resonate with their perspective on what they might like to see for their children. But also, it might just not be a possibility within their everyday lives, if both, particularly if both parents are involved in wage labor.
So and that holds true here for Canada as well. There’s certainly a particular privilege that comes with being able to unschool. That I make enough money at my job that we can get by on a single income. So in some sense, it’s a sacrifice that my partner has made, or at least it’s a sacrifice for more income that my family has made. But for my partner this is, you know, being at home with the kids is where she actually wants to be. For her, it’s the most emancipatory space that she could find herself in because she’s not subject to having a boss or the oversight of someone else. But as for Marxist perspectives on homeschooling and unschooling, I don’t know, I guess you’d have to ask them of how they would see this fitting into their worldviews.
Will Brehm: 31:47
So in your chapter, you connect the work of Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich to anarchism, and those two names are pretty well read in schools of education. But at least, when I went to school and did my master’s degree and my PhD, they’re very rarely connected to anarchism. So how do you see the connection between Paulo Freire and his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and Ivan Ilich and his notion of deschooling really connected to the philosophy of anarchism?
Simon Springer: 32:21
Yeah, it goes back to the idea of anarchism itself. I mean, for me, fundamentally, anarchism isn’t a fixed ideology, or it’s not something that’s ever set in stone that anarchism is really more just an expression of an attitude. And that attitude is found in the work of Illich and Freire. So, I mean, did they use the word anarchism? I’m not sure that they ever did use that word. But, the spirit of these ideas was nonetheless resonating within their work. And so, at the same time, I mean, anarchism as a word, some people don’t like it. And as I’ve said, that’s fine. You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to use it. I use it because it’s essentially a placeholder, if you will, for a set of ideas that really resonate with me. So ideas of cooperation, ideas of mutual aid, ideas of self management, and voluntary association, and these sorts of things. And that critique of hierarchy that comes within anarchism, and the critique of authority. And certainly, that’s at the basis of the perspectives of Freire and Ilitch that they’re fundamentally questioning the kinds of the systems of hierarchy and the systems of authority that are embedded within the institution of schooling and within certain ideas of education. So that’s the connection for me.
Will Brehm: 34:08
When your children get older, do you envision sending them to school? Or do you think the deschooling and unschooling will be able to exist for their whole secondary education?
Simon Springer: 34:20
Yeah, I mean, ideally, for me, I mean, I would hope that they would want to choose the unschooling path but we’re open with our kids. If they ever want to choose schooling and give it a try, they’re more than welcome to, that it’s not, for me, necessarily to decide that you can’t do this, if it’s something that they want to explore, then certainly will give that option to them. And so we have some friends in our homeschooling unschooling group here in Victoria, where their oldest daughter, I think she’s 13, or 14 now, and she decided that she wanted to give school a try. And she did it for about a year, and then decided that she didn’t want to be in formal school anymore. So they gave her that opportunity. And she explored it for herself and found that she liked being outside of that context more than being inside of it. So the same thing with my kids, I mean I have my certain ideals, but I also don’t want to necessarily force that upon my kids. So I’m quite open to the idea that if they want to, if they want to go and try school, they can certainly go and give it a try. And if I’m to project for it, I think they’d find the same thing that they might enjoy it for a time but then they would probably want to go back to exploring for themselves. And this is effectively within the limits of what I can do within the university setting. This is the pedagogy that I take from my own students, that we have fixed classroom time, but I like to give as much space for free exploration of ideas as possible, within that institutional context.
So for example, I teach a course called activism and community based planning, and kind of my role in that class is to sit back and effectively just be a cheerleader for the ideas of students. So all I really asked of them is to go out into the community and create positive mischief of some sort, right. To get involved in some kind of direct action activist kind of project, whether that’s to link themselves up with an existing organization, or to build something from the ground up as a unique, individual grassroots project, but so they collaborate in groups, and they go about these various projects, I give them a whole list of ideas that I think they could potentially explore. And the students inevitably come up with much greater ideas than I’ve provided in the list and they just get out there and just do it, right. And I sit back, and we have weekly sessions where they come and ask me questions, and mostly I just say, yeah, why don’t you try that? Go for that, that sounds like a really good idea, you should explore that option, right? So it’s a lot of just free flow. And the same with the assessment as well, I asked them to do, well they have a sort of group presentation at the end, but I asked them also to keep an activist journal. And they asked me about what the journal should look like. And I tell them, whatever you want the journal to look like, right? And so some students do that a traditional sort of written journal where there’s weekly entries, but I’ve had students do blogs. I’ve had students, one student in particular, I remember, he really loved his guitar, and he wrote a bunch of songs and recorded them on, he gave me a CD at the end of the year, and a little workbook with lyrics in it to the songs that he wrote, reflecting on his experience of this course. And that to me was totally fair game for him to express himself in that way. So some students get a little bit nervous about that openness. But I think by the end of the course, there’s a lot of buy into this idea of being able to explore for themselves.
Will Brehm: 38:26
Well, Simon Springer, thank you very much for joining FreshEd.
Simon Springer: 38:30
Yeah, thanks so much for having me.