A Brief Biography of a Latter-Day Unschooler

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wikimedia commons, The Dunce (1886), Harold Copping

by Charles Warcup, Germany

I should like to share these remarks as a snapshot of what, as I suspect, mirrors the experience of many people who attended ‘normal’ or relatively normal schools. Why should I do that? The point is, it took many years — in fact decades — for these things to become clear to me, and only then because fate took great pains to rub my nose into it all. So I suspect there are still an awful lot of people who simply don’t realize just how pointless-to-harmful their school experience was. That realization isn’t all that nice and it’s also quite sobering, but on the whole I think it’s worth getting there — especially for parents who are looking for appropriate schooling for their children.

Since September 2014 I have had the privilege of being a staff member at Bavaria’s first democratic school modeled on Sudbury Valley School, called the Sudbury School Ammersee. This experience represents the high-point to date of my coming to acknowledge the facts about my schooling. It’s not an acknowledgement that I really wanted to make, but the evidence, when viewed dispassionately, does seem rather overwhelming.

I would be interested to know if this rings a bell with anyone — well, as I’m sure it will, I’m actually interested in knowing how many bells it rings, and in which countries around the world.

To learn more about Democratic Schools, click to explore the Alternatives To School site.

In the 1950s and 1960s I went to a normal middle-class primary school, a minor public (= private) school and a grammar school turned comprehensive (i.e. an academically oriented secondary school that for political reasons had been converted to a non-selective secondary school). Then I studied mathematics, if that is the right verb to use.

About thirty years later a vague feeling of unease that had been with me all the time struggled up from my subconscious mind into my conscious thinking: I started a serious examination of the quality of my school education. Until that time I had, if I thought about them at all, attributed various scholastic disasters pretty well entirely to myself. And it must have been as much a puzzle to my parents as it was to me: He’s obviously quite intelligent — permanent place at the top of the class in the public school etc. — so how come he only just managed to scrape through university by the skin of his teeth? Delayed-action genetic defect? Too much time spent in the pub?

Now even more time has elapsed and I think I’ve understood what happened. I simply had a thoroughly ineffective school and university education that almost entirely failed to address my true needs and desires. I’m quite happy to take responsibility for my path in life and really don’t want to blame anyone else for things that didn’t go quite right. Nevertheless, I am now sure that my school education in particular was pretty much as useless as it could be. The strange thing is that for many years I thought it was quite good.

Poor bloke, you might say, had a bit of bad luck. But as indicated above, the terrible thing about it is that I am sure I share this fate with very many people. Probably millions, and most of them also think that their schooling was at least adequate, or even quite good as I did. How come? Why did it take me so long to recognize that my schooling was almost completely misdirected (rather than me)? Perhaps some of these reasons apply:

My schooling…

  • was supplied by people whom I didn’t always like, but whom I generally trusted.
  • was never seriously questioned by anybody around me. (There was a lot of moaning going on, but nobody thought of questioning the basics.)
  • was passed on to me in a tradition that appeared to be substantial and valid.
  • appeared to be confirmed by continuously growing prosperity in society as a whole.
  • appeared to be without an alternative. (My world view did not encompass any other ideas.)

Perhaps my near-failure at university should have given me pause for thought — after all, it was a clear indication that something was amiss. In contrast to that it is certainly more understandable when people who finish their main education with satisfactory or even good results don’t bother to question its validity in retrospect (even though they are sometimes unsatisfied, unfulfilled or unhappy in their later lives).

Clearly, there are strong forces at work within us that prevent us from doubting the efficacy of mainstream education.

I should like to use my own example to show how far apart assumptions and reality can be.

For many years during and after school I held fast to a variety of convictions, e.g.:

  • I am quite good at mathematics.
  • Everyone needs quadratic equations (taking these as representatives of middle-school math) in later life.
  • The English language is a useful vehicle, but not very interesting as an object of study.
  • I will never achieve good command of a foreign language.
  • Geography is rather boring.
  • Music is uninteresting.
  • Biology — yawn …
  • Art — forget it.

These convictions came, as far as I can judge, exclusively through the schools that I went to. Obviously that was not what was intended, but the fact remains that the convictions appear to count amongst the few things that my schools managed to inculcate into me effectively.

None of them is true or valid as the case may be:

  • I should never have studied mathematics. Success in school mathematics led me up a completely wrong path. I think it is great that some people understand higher mathematics, but to be honest it doesn’t really interest me in the least.
  • For several years while I was a teacher of mathematics I tried to sell quadratic equations to myself and my pupils. Afterwards I spent a long time in quite technical jobs and never once needed to solve a quadratic equation or anything of that kind. I still find them quite fun, but not exactly vital for a fulfilled life.
  • I still can’t imagine wanting to study English as an academic subject, but as a huge, squirming, many-headed monster, sometimes roaring and sometimes like a gentle breeze, inventing and reinventing itself every few years now — it’s absolutely fascinating!
  • I had four years of French in school and still don’t speak it very well (despite quite a few opportunities later on to iron out what the school messed up). On the other hand, I wrote the original of this article in German, of which I only had a few weeks in school, and I can read Dutch well enough to translate it professionally, despite not having had any formal training in it (OK, I know, maybe it’s because I never had any formal training).
  • During my later professional career I ended up having great fun writing a book about geographic information systems (in German, incidentally). These days I find geography highly interesting.
  • To my sorrow I don’t play any musical instruments. After leaving school, though, I found that I really enjoy a wide range of musical genres.
  • In one of various professions that I have pursued I discovered that biology is potentially very exciting.
  • I am secretly very proud of a little book that I wrote (if that is the right word) that consists almost entirely of images that I created myself.

In addition I have the feeling that my personal development was stunted or at least considerably delayed by my school experience. A different school environment would probably have been beneficial for many a useful step and enabled me to avoid quite a few pitfalls (and I have some concrete ideas about what such an environment may look like).

So as painful as the question may appear, I have to ask myself: What on earth was the point of my school education? Couldn’t it have achieved at least a little more benefit?

How about you? Do you also carry a bagful of convictions around with you that turn out to be largely false when you look closely? Or were you lucky enough to go to a school that basically gave you what you needed for a fulfilled later life? Honestly?

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Charles Warcup grew up in a middle-class area of South London and for many years took it for granted that that little world, albeit not perfect, was more or less as things should be. During periods of work (and being out of work) as a teacher, a programmer, a GIS-specialist and a translator in various countries he came to see many things differently, including his time at school. He is married and has an adult son and has lived mainly in Germany since 1980. He is currently a staff member at Bavaria’s first democratic school, the Sudbury School Ammersee.

Comments

  1. I was a straight A student through high school and college. I realize now that I was afraid to take risks, afraid to study what I loved because I might not get good grades. I missed opportunities that I might never have again. I learned to comply, do what teachers taught, and never realized until later that I could learn and study on my own. I still remember one of my most vivid school experiences. In seventh grade we changed math textbooks (Saxon incidentally) and I realized I could read the explanations and do the assignments without any help from my teacher. I STILL remember the excitement and shock that I could learn math on my OWN! I had never considered this. School exposed me to ideas and information and to a few wonderful teachers, but mostly it has been years of undoing the lessons I learned. I too have a list much like the Mr. Warcup and I am also working on re-writing that as I home school my own 7 children. We let our children direct their own learning (sometimes my schooling kicks in and scares me and I give them some copywork and require reading), but most of the time I try to let them learn on their own and they amaze me. Thanks for this article!!

  2. I definitely feel I was damaged by my years in school. I was labeled as “smart” at a young age and the fear of losing that label kept me from truly challenging myself far beyond school. In high school, I just wanted to be invisible. I don’t remember much about the classes I took, but I vividly remember a daily fear that people would realize that I was pretending to be cool. The pressure to wear the right clothes, listen to the right music, etc was awful. School taught me that I was constantly being graded and judged. I’m a pretty sensitive individual and found school to be very painful. I have a six year old that is also quite sensitive. Thankfully, my husband and I are able to homeschool him.

  3. I feel much the same way about my own education. Thank you for sharing. Your list of reasons why the realization may be so difficult to come to was especially enlightening.

    I had always felt confined by traditional education, but didn’t know what to do about it. I always assumed most other people felt the same way, but later learned that many, maybe even most, people aren’t even aware of the limits of their education, let alone being dissatisfied about them. They don’t even see the box they’re putting their children into, let alone wonder if it’s the right box.

  4. Thank you, Charles, for these very insightful comments about your own experiences and introspections. I think that most adults who have experienced some years of life post-school would come to a similar set of conclusions about their past schooling, if they thought honestly about it as you have. In her book, Wounded by School, Kirsten Olson reports on her study of many interviews, in which she found that most people, in one way or another, felt that their schooling had inflicted some lasting damage. -Peter