Wild Child

For Quinn Eaker, a son of the radical "unschooling" movement, school's out forever

The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained and he only holds the key to his own secret.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

According to a recent story in Mothering magazine, the U.S. Census Bureau in 2001 reported that more than 2 million children were being homeschooled in the United States. More astonishing: That number was rising at a rate of 15 to 20 percent a year.

Quinn Eaker had his own spiritual awakening in Los 
Angeles, where he was pursuing a modeling career.
Mark Graham
Quinn Eaker had his own spiritual awakening in Los Angeles, where he was pursuing a modeling career.

Tim Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Coalition and an unschooler since 1984, estimates that perhaps only 5 percent of those parents are radical unschoolers. One measure of interest is that Holt's books are more popular than ever.

Many parents who start homeschooling in a structured way often move toward unschooling as their kids get older, Lambert says. Often teens will become "apprentices," volunteering or working with someone to learn a trade or master a craft.

Tracy Wallace, a Lakewood mother who unschools her 10-year-old son Galen, takes an academic approach. "In some unschooling circles, it's almost negative to say the word 'curriculum,'" Wallace says. "If it works for us, we're going to use it."

Gail Paquette, a homeschooler and founder of the Web site Hometaught.com, is a critic of unschooling. "A child-led approach may develop the child's strengths but does nothing to develop his weaknesses and broaden his horizons," she recently told Salon.com. "I [mostly] disagree with the premise that children can teach themselves what they want to learn, when [and if] they want to learn it. Certainly children do learn some things on their own, but their often roundabout way of going at learning is not necessarily the best way."

Linda Dobson, author of a number of homeschooling books, offers another view. "What I would counter that criticism with is that the child is learning how to learn," she says. "If kids are allowed to learn how to research, to learn critical thinking, to question things, they can take those skills and apply them in the future to whatever they need to learn. They can conquer math in two months or six months or a year, instead of 12 years. They retain it. The difference is night and day."

For Lundgren, unschooling meant relinquishing her expectations for her children's lives. A collector of adages and aphorisms, Lundgren has clung to a quote from John Holt. During one of his lectures, a parent posed a question: "What are the things you think every kid should know?"

"Nothing," Holt replied. "There is absolutely nothing every kid should know."

It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mostly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.

--Albert Einstein

In the state of Texas, thanks to several decades of litigation, there are virtually no requirements of homeschooled kids. Parents don't have to be certified teachers. They don't have to devote a certain number of hours each day to instruction. Their children don't have to use certain books or pass any tests. As far as the state is concerned, homeschoolers can study one day a week and watch TV and play videogames the rest of the time.

Some do, but the expectation usually is high achievement. Many unschoolers point to the success stories like Jedediah Purdy, unschooled until high school and author of the best-seller For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today, and Christopher Paolini, author of the best-selling fantasy books Eragon and Eldest. Another best-seller is Homeschooling for Excellence, by David and Micki Colfax, who unschooled their three sons into Harvard.

Few have been in the trenches as much as Lundgren, who, for the last nine years, has been one of the producers of "Rethinking Education," a national conference on unschooling. This year's conference, held in September at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Irving, attracted about 450 people from around the country.

Along the corridors of the Sheraton, Lundgren posted favorite sayings about life and education. Some of the sessions would have been popular with hippie parents in the '60s: Learning as a Subversive Activity, Nonviolent Communication, Simple Living, Animal Communication & Muscle Testing. Teens can attend discussions on dating violence or participate in "late night earth drums." Quinn did a class on applying body art with henna, a ceremonial form of decoration from India.

While many attendees have been unschooling for years, others are homeschoolers investigating the more radical approach. The discussions tend to meander but always center around how to guide children without stifling their natural curiosity and inner spirits.

Many unschoolers now call Lundgren for advice and guidance, something Lundgren resists. The whole point, she says, is for parents to follow their own path in uncovering their children's passions.

What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.
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