The Elitism of Hackschooling, Unschooling, and other Fads

On the surface, this is a perfectly valid perspective on education.

“Hackschooling” is clearly working out perfectly well for this kid, and I don’t have any doubt that his education is probably far superior to what the median American kid receives. But the secret sauce in this education stew isn’t some cutting-edge theory. It’s actually just the lavish expenditure of time, money, and human capital to purchase a cutting-edge education most families cannot afford.

Think about it this way: public education is designed to capture economies of scale. Want to educate a whole country: design one curriculum and teach it to all of them. When you upgrade from public education by spending more money what you’re basically getting is a combination of prestige and personalization. Personalization works because of smaller teacher:student ratios, but also because the expense of private education means you end up with a much more homogenuous student body, and so the educational experience can be customized to a greater extent. You spend money, you get personalized education.

The thing to realize is that this “unschooling” (or “hackschooling” or whatever) is not any different. It’s the exact same idea, but taken to the extreme. Sure, there might not be a huge outlay of cash, but there is definitely a huge outlay of time. We’re talking about a student:teacher ratio of something like 1:3 or 1:4 (depending on the number of kids involved) and you can only swing that if you’ve got a single-earner making enough to support the whole family. You might not be writing a check to a private school for tuition, but you are having one spouse opt to not bring home a paycheck at all. That’s the tuition of homeschool.

But there’s more to it than that. A lot of the experiences this kid talks about are clearly not experiences you can get if your family is not well-connected and knowledgeable. At 13-years old I couldn’t have gotten a job at all, much less an internship at a quirky specialist manufacturer of some kind. The best I could swing was a job as a janitor when I hit 14 and it was legally allowed. Your parents have to have the social circle and the know-how to set up these awesome experiences, and that’s basically a requirement of human capital.

I’m not criticizing this family’s choices. I think that homeschooling is awesome when done right. What I’m criticizing is the kind of snake-oil approach that says there’s some kind of theory or trick to awesome education. There isn’t. Not really. It’s just a question of quantity of resources that you have to throw at the problem. And, from that perspective, this kid’s education is about the most elite and expensive you can imagine. Good for him that his parents can afford it, but let’s not kid ourselves about the price tag. For most Americans: it’s out of your reach.

5 thoughts on “The Elitism of Hackschooling, Unschooling, and other Fads”

  1. I think you’re right that many parents don’t understand how the information age affects educational opportunities, and much of the trends map right along with household income. Many parents also don’t understand how the public education system fails. But the parents at any income level who figure it out first (maybe after TED talk inspirations / maybe through dedication to their kids) are going to have kids with more developed skills. Because of these skills, I believe more kids will be able to get internships/apprenticeships as the augmented-education paradigms evolve. Who you know will always matter, but the internet is connecting people with common interests over great distances. Does that mean that any poor kid in West Virginia can get an internship at Nike in Portland? The chances are slim, but I think the slim chances are increasing just a little bit. Your post is a little more pessimistic than I would expect. What I take away from videos about homeschooling is that parents need to step it up.

  2. I’m glad that someone expressed this viewpoint. There is a financial reality to this type of schooling. Honestly, I really enjoyed Logan’s speech and found it refreshing to listen to a bright, articulate and motivated 13 year old. If you read any of the articles about him you will see that he is an outdoor sport enthusiast (skiing, mountain biking, SUP) and films and edits his own ski videos. Clearly he has lots of toys which says to me that his parents make a very decent living. Take his toys away, would he be so happy? A sad reality when wealth = happiness.

  3. Huh, I’m a single Mama of three boys living on $300 per week in child support. My kids have never been to school. We take advantage of free opportunities, my family helps us out with tuition sometimes (we always ask for ‘experiential gifts’ for birthdays and Christmas). I helped found a homeschooling co-op that has been super for us – we trade skills.

    I’m a thrifting addict, we freecycle, we pare down to things that are few but beautiful. I sew a lot of our clothes. I make a lot of our toys. We live in a two-family house with my mother. We grow and can a lot of our own food (chickens coming in the Spring, too!!!).

    Now, our life *probably* doesn’t look like Logan’s, but you know, if my 7-year-old were to really get going about fencing or reptiles, or my 9-year-old about birding and all the cool birds he’s seen around the world, we’d sound pretty wealthy too. And that’s because we *are* wealthy…just not in terms of dollars.

    Homeschooling would be easier if money weren’t so tight, that’s for sure, but I don’t think the kind of hack schooling you see Logan talk about is our of reach for most. It just takes dedication to the important things and letting go of the ‘keeping up with the Jonses’.

  4. I can’t comment on your particular situation–and it would be disrespectful to even try–but I do think you’re right when you say

    we’d sound pretty wealthy too. And that’s because we *are* wealthy…just not in terms of dollars.

    Privilege isn’t just about money. It’s about access to resources, where–for example–having a stable family situation where relatives are willing and able to help is a huge boon that not everyone has. It’s also about freedom from obstacles, like serious health concerns. Someone battling either a major illness or living without a vibrant social network to fall back on is truly impoverished in ways that have nothing to do with dollars.

    My overall point wasn’t that this takes a lot of cash, but that it takes a lot of resources. You have to have human capital, as the parent, to know how to form relationships, network, and find opportunities for your children. You have to have a social network to rely on. You have to have freedom from debilitating illness so that you have time. Money can help with all of those, but there’s more to it than money.

    So I’m not really convinced. It still seems to me like this is a scenario where the relative elite (which is to say: healthy, educated, socially connected people with at least a bare minimum of monetary resources) can take advantage in ways that the less lucky/privileged/blessed cannot.

  5. Of course the very saddest thing about what you are saying is that it can be said of every type of schooling – there is an ugly class and racial divide in our culture that the idea of public schooling really *should* have fixed. And *could still * fix if we got our priorities right: pour money into public schools, use public funds to educate teachers excellently, untie funds from specific locations, bus teachers not kids, get rid of (or minimize) testing, allow great teachers great freedom to be innovative, pour resources into the communities that need it the most. How FANTASTIC would it be if we put federal dollars into training and paying one parent to stay at home in low-income families so that they could support their children after school, make them healthy meals, take them on walks in the park?!. There’s a lot we could do, but we don’t.

    The bare fact is that my kids will do relatively well and get a relatively good education just because of their genetic and social inheritance. You are absolutely correct about that.

    However, what excites me about these ideas that are gaining traction – ideas like hack schooling and life learning, and charter schools that focus on art or Waldorf methods – these ideas are changing the conversation. I understand what you are saying, that stepping outside the ‘norm’ is a luxury for the privileged, but I think that’s changing and fast, and the implications for that are exciting. People like me, the ones that have many of the privileges you speak of – enough anyway to opt out – we’re changing what people are demanding from public education because now public education has started to fail the complacent middle class. Kids like Logan have free access to schools that are the best of what public education can offer, and *it’s not good enough* anymore.

    No one takes on homeschooling because it’s easy or cheap. People are desperate enough to work around the obstacles you cite. I know homeschooling families that have two working parents, that have major illness (even those who have lost a parent to cancer), that are minorities with a challenging education background themselves learning right alongside their kids. People like me who ended up unwillingly single and living with a lot of public assistance. Public education is going to have to change in response, and that’s exciting.

    So, I guess I agree with you, but really wish you’d taken your observations about Logan’s story and tied them into *all* education opportunities in the US. There are just as many stumbling blocks for getting your kids in to a ‘good’ public school – you have to be able to afford a house in a ‘good’ community, and have all the contacts and background that got *you* the education or connections to get to a place of getting the house – all the same stuff.

    So I’m sorry I hijacked your blog – it’s only because this was one of the first things that popped up when I Googled ‘hack schooling, unschooling, life-learning’. (But thanks for the conversation!) I responded because I’d hate to see someone read your post and be discouraged from trying to take a leap of faith and go outside the box to build something better for their kids. Yes, you need at least the resources to even ask the question in the first place, but I believe cobbling together an excellent education for your children isn’t out of reach for most, and the more who try it, the closer we’ll get to forcing a real change in public education in the US.

Comments are closed.