I remember sitting in the library one night early in my graduate school career. I was writing my first 20-page seminar paper on a topic with which I was wholly unfamiliar (Hellenistic painting). I had questions: about the topic, about the assignment itself, about the source material. Sadly, however, I was having a war with myself inside my own head. One part of me was urging the other part of me to get up, go to the professor, and ask questions. Seek clarity!! The more timid side of myself was too afraid. Afraid of being judged a fraud for being accepted to grad school at all; afraid of being yelled at or belittled; afraid to appear anything less than being in complete control. The more sensible part of myself was using logical arguments to encourage the timid me to get the help I needed. "That is what professors are there for! What's the worst that can happen? What has made you so afraid? You have expertise that the professor doesn't have, after all. Someday she might come to YOU to ask for help. Her job is to be there to help you in situations just like these and you are in graduate school to seek the mentorship of these professors. What the hell is WRONG WITH YOU?!!"
What the hell WAS wrong with me?
This internal argument was new, to tell you the truth. Throughout my life, through all previous years of schooling, the timid voice had been the only voice…at least the only voice I can now remember ever having. It controlled my environment for learning and kept me neatly on the straight-and-narrow path of good grades, high test scores, raising my hand, answering when called upon, and generally trying to remain unseen while getting by with the very minimum of effort. Schooling was a game of test-taking and regurgitation. Learning, if it happened at all, was simply a by-product. Even in my way-too-expensive college years, for which I have only just now paid off my student loans, I avoided any interaction with professors, took classes that I felt (sometimes wrongly) that I could easily pass, did the bare minimum, and graduated with a degree in Ancient Greek at the usual and expected pace of four years with exactly the number of credits I needed to emancipate myself. I did not travel or taking advantage of any extras. Extras would have required undue "adult" attention, and I was a professional at avoiding that. I only had the one voice inside my head at that time. "Stay invisible," it said, "and do only what is necessary to get a good grade. Then you can succeed and move on to the next phase of life."
Flash forward the eight years; I was 30, in a prestigious graduate program for archaeology. In those eight years, I lived in New York City and worked in a meaningful, well-ish paid career that required specialized skills (and I was really good at my job). I had, in that time, survived and moved on from profound personal disappointments and heartache. I had grown used to seeing myself as a competent adult, with thoughts and interests that were beginning to emerge from the deep recesses of my psyche. This is when the more sensible voice started to make itself heard. At first a whisper…but by the time I got to graduate school, it was insistent that my conditioned, timid voice listen up. "WHAT THE HELL is wrong with you? Why are you so AFRAID to be seen and heard?"
That night in the library, a cascade of understanding came down on me and, for the first time, I was able to answer that question for myself. I saw that my long years of schooling had conditioned me to feel this fear and anxiety of "teachers." I was able to see clearly this and other "habits" in the way I think about learning and realized that school had taught them all to me, either in an explicit fashion or implicitly in its organization and structure. The habits of schooling I've identified:
Once I realized that schooling had created these assumptions in my mind, and that all of them were deeply flawed (if not outright lies), the questioning voice in my mind became dominant and I walked, that night, to my professors office -- overriding my 30 years of school conditioning by self-force -- and got the help I needed on my seminar paper. From that day forward, I did not allow myself to be guided in graduate school by my conditioning, and thrived because of it, despite the fact that graduate school was still trying to fit me into the "school" mindset of control, testing, competition, and fear. But I was free. I saw it clearly for what it was. I was also able to set it aside and leave academia when it no longer suited me.
Do any of these thoughts that I've outlined above sound familiar? More importantly, are any of these "habits of schooling" controlling parts of your life?
There are so many people choosing to unschool their children these days. But I see a lot of parents struggling to hold this new path, or struggling to decide about whether or not homeschooling/unschooling is right for them. Much of the time, these frustrations and insecurities that parents struggle with are a result of their own schooling and the expectations that they carry forward. All kinds of insecurities rise to the surface: Is my child at grade level? Are they learning normally? Are they well-rounded enough? Will they get into their next phase of life (usually college)? Am I hampering their ability to succeed in life (read… will they be able to earn money)? What about socialization? How can I teach my child biology -- I majored in poetry? Will people think I'm weird or that my kids are weird? I don't want to be weird. How can I do this and maintain my family's standard of living? What if I fail? Aren't I going against what I've been told is normal and good in the world? Won't the adults (the state, older family members, respectable community members) judge me if I choose this path?
If any of these thoughts (and probably many more I haven't explicitly stated here) are bubbling up inside of you, you might want to consider trying a deschooling process on yourself. You might be unschooling your children, making this choice for you and your family, but if you spent time in school at all when you were younger, deschooling yourself is probably the best thing you can do. And frankly, if you have removed your kids from school or are thinking about it, the deschooling process is well underway! And, truthfully…? It will never be complete, not really. Or at least it has never stopped being necessary for me, and I've been working on it for the last 20 years of my life. I am still constantly catching myself in "school" self-talk. It is like a wound-turned-scar that is always there, making itself known when the weather changes or in times of stress.
If you aren't one of those people who have decided to unschool your kids…well, you might want to deschool yourself as well. These habits keep us from being our best selves, from achieving, from listening to our inner-voices, to hearing the validity in the experience of others, to connecting deeply with the natural world. Unlearning the habits you learned in school might be some of the most important work you do in your life.
I will give you some pointers about how to begin this process and resources to do some deeper exploration in my next blog post. Or two. This is an enormous topic. Book-worthy in fact. Hmmmmm……..
This is part 1 of a 4 part series. Part 2 can be found here. Part 3 and part 4 are forthcoming.
Image: Tom Woodward/Flickr Creative Commons