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Unschooling from an
African-American perspective

Spring has sprung and the rising temperatures remind us that summer vacation is just around the corner. At this time of year, many homeschooling families are making plans for the prom and high school graduation. This is also the time of year for homeschool conferences and conventions, and for families to evaluate their homeschool and make plans for the next school year.

While my own children are far from high school graduation, I am often asked by friends with children in traditional schools, how unschooling – to them, a seemingly unconventional educational path – can prepare my children for college and life beyond. Can an unschooler successfully compete with traditionally schooled applicants and gain admission to college? Can an unschooler fulfill the rigorous requirements to complete a college degree? What kind of future awaits a young adult who directs her own education?

My answer to them is that unschooling creates life-long learners. For an unschooler, high school and college diplomas are not ends of themselves but mere tools for the real goal, which is living a full life and fulfilling one’s God-given destiny.

There is no curriculum for creative genius. Genius does not need to be taught, for it is already in us. Unschooling or self-directed study allows for the God-given genius in us all to come forth. The word genius comes from the Latin Ingenium, meaning origin, nature, instinct. People are not empty glasses that must be poured into, we come fully loaded, pre-packaged with many skills and talents that just need to be nurtured and allowed to develop. No curriculum was followed to create electricity, the telephone or the automobile. Someone saw the world differently from others and pursued their unique vision of the way things could be.

On October 6, 2003, MIT News reported on one such person, “A 22-year-old MIT professor whose work fuses art, science, work and play [and] the recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the ‘genius’ grant.” Erik Demaine, an Assistant Professor in the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the youngest recipient of the prestigious “Genius Grant,” was unschooled by his single-parent father from age 7 until he was 12 years old and began his university studies. The unschooler earned his bachelor’s degree at age 14, followed by a master’s degree in math at age 15 and his Ph.D. at age 20.

A February 17, 2002 article in The Boston Globe stated, “The father's educational theory went like this: Apart from one hour of home schooling a day, the child should pursue his own interests.” Martin Demaine, Professor Erik Demaine’s father, is a visual artist without a college degree but has a background in physics and law. “We would go to a museum,'' Demaine said. “Anything he pointed to or mentioned, I'd go to the library and find a book and leave it on the table. Sometimes after three days the books would disappear…The result, according to Erik Demaine, is that he pursued his own interests, circumventing years of cramming for tests and memorizing facts. ‘Memorization is not such a big deal. You remember what you need to remember and look the rest up,' he said. ”

For some, unschooling proves that immersion may not just be the best way to learn a foreign language or culture, but for everything else as well. What better way to learn than by doing and to be surrounded by others who are actively engaged in real work in the real world? The oldest method of passing on skill and knowledge is through apprenticeship. In unschooling, children have the freedom to do more than just “school work” but to apprentice to life.

So what does the future hold for my unschooled children? I do not know. Periodically, I will ask my older, Saved children if God has spoken to them about their destiny. I remind them that God has a good plan for their lives, a plan that was well thought out long before they were in in my womb. I remind them that God does not deal with age, He deals in time. That Kings David and Josiah were young but friends of God from an early age, and He used them in a mighty way to benefit many people. I give them my testimony of how God spoke to me when I was their age.

Only one of my children has declared an interest in pursuing a specific career path. One daughter wants to be a veterinarian or a zookeeper. I have told her that she can start now. Since she has an interest in animal science, that is what she pursues. It is her goal and as she presses towards it, her curiosity and interests lead her across a lot more than just animals. Her reading comprehension is well above grade level, thanks to the wealth of information she comes across in scientific journals. She has learned an incredible amount about anatomy, and not just flash memorization with mnemonic tricks, which usually result in bingeing now and purging the information later. She has even had opportunity to dabble in algebra and chemistry, something usually reserved for children much older.

Admittedly, unschooling can be intimidating. It can be a daunting choice: the security of a prepackaged curriculum created by experts with a track record in hundreds of classrooms, versus the unknown, uncharted territories of the whole wide world, the universe as classroom or Unschooling. God only knows where the child’s interests and abilities could lead! Nevertheless, my faith is in God. I know he has a good plan for my child’s life. I do not always know where my own path is leading, let alone someone else’s. Therefore I trust God to make provision for whatever we encounter on the way. He has not failed us yet. And our journey continues…

S. Courtney Walton lives and learns in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband and five children. An advocate of Unschooling, Courtney is the founder of a national support group for African-American Unschoolers and serves as the Unschooling Advisor for the National African-American Homeschoolers Alliance.

2004 S. Courtney Walton, All Rights Reserved.