“Unschooling” is an educational philosophy and practice that allows children to learn through natural life experiences. Play, games, fantasy, hobbies and social interaction are supposed to take the place of traditional schools. The theory is that current curricula and grading systems are counterproductive to the goal of a broad education.
The term “unschooling” was coined in the 1970s by educator John Holt. It’s not to be confused with “homeschooling” where kids are taught standard curricula by parents. Critics of unschooling have concerns that unschooled children will lack social skills, structure, and motivation — especially in the job market. Proponents of unschooling maintain the exact opposite — a self-directed education in a natural environment makes a child more equipped to handle the real world.
Many of us run our creative lives like unschooled kids. We work for joy, go here and there, treat our work as a hobby, indulge in wishful thinking, and have lots of social interaction. The question is — if unschooling is so effective and superior, how come there aren’t more brilliant artists around? More to the point, how come there’s so much substandard art out there? Further, what type of education makes for superior art?
Fact is, great art comes from both the schooled and the unschooled. It may have more to do with the old business of “character.” In our game, character is the confluence of four virtues: high motivation, high curiosity, high work habits and high ego force. Funnily, among the folks I compete with, those four virtues are most often found among the unschooled.
Another interesting aspect of unschooling has to do with credentialism. Unschooled folks enter the jobosphere uncredentialled. They may have no degree, affiliation or parchment to back up their capabilities. Recent studies in the field of medicine, of all places, have revealed a few surprises. In some cases, the least credentialed doctors had the best human skills, on-the-job learning capabilities, and most success with treating patient maladies. In my case anyway, I’m not quite ready to allow a non-credentialed proctologist to practice proctology on my precious proctor.
PS: “What makes people smart, curious, alert, observant, competent, confident, resourceful, persistent — is not having access to more and more learning places, resources, and specialists, but being able in their lives to do a wide variety of interesting things that matter, things that challenge their ingenuity, skill, and judgment, and that make an obvious difference in their lives and the lives of people around them.” (John Holt)
Esoterica: In measuring yourself for those four virtues — motivation, curiosity, work habits and ego force — you can get an idea how your own chances stack up. Then again you might just become a roaring success by being lackadaisical, ignorant, lazy and without confidence. In the funny game we call art, it’s been done. Regarding ego force, we don’t always like people who have it. If you have it, and need to be liked, you ought to consider letting most of it come out the end of your brush.
Appreciation of John Holt
by Ellen Shipley, Santa Clarita, CA, USA
We loved John Holt. My husband and I read all his books and even contributed occasionally to his newsletter, “Growing without Schooling.” We unschooled our son, augmenting his public school education with life experiences and trips to museums. We followed his interests, much as we follow our own. He didn’t turn into a painter, but he’s a poet and a musician. We owe so much to John Holt’s teachings.
Unschooled and unskilled art
by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia
I suppose there are many unschooled artists who have made it big time, through lots of brush time, determination and of course a passion for what they do. I think it is unskilled art that is the most frustrating. The dark, unfathomable, grotesque, ordinary and totally unskilled art seems to get the nod today. The art world has become the modern day version of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” story on a grand scale and the voices against it are few.
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The brilliance of unschooling
by Steve Sedam, Murrieta, CA, USA
As an artist, printer, designer, and father of two unschooled children, I took an interest in your topic, “The unschooling of art” — and took umbrage with your characterization of unschooled kids.
Your initial description of the philosophy behind unschooling was right on the money, but your follow-up misses the mark. You state, “Many of us run our creative lives like unschooled kids. We work for joy, go here and there, treat our work as a hobby, indulge in wishful thinking, and have lots of social interaction.” Yes, unschoolers work for joy, but you imply that otherwise, unschooled kids run their lives like dabbling, unserious Sunday painters. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Unschooling provides for kids to find their talents early, build them and focus on becoming experts in what they do best. Unencumbered by time-wasting, soul-sucking requirements of the failed educational system, they blossom into individuals who are curious, sensitive, and intelligent, who pursue their interests with deep passion and persistence. They are the avante-garde, the innovators, inventors and authors who have marked our culture. They are the DaVincis and Edisons of their day. In fact, take DaVinci as an example — one out of so many cultural figures we would now describe as “unschooled.” Apprenticed at a young age, he lacked what we would today consider a “well-rounded” education — but he learned his craft and his genius was allowed to blossom. And no one cares what his SAT scores might have been.
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Uninhibited and unguided
by Lynda Davison, Covington, TN, USA
I am one who falls into the “following your nose” category of artists. Never had lessons, never refer to a color wheel, I don’t “draw,” I don’t “blow up” images from photos and paint them, I can’t name many artists or styles. I just put the paint on the canvas as my nose leads me. I like to think it lets me be free to “explore” art as I go uninhibited, unguided, and all over the place. I began painting about seven years ago to prepare for retirement, knew I would need some type of creative outlet. Now having been retired for two years, art is at least a part of my day — every day. Unschooled — but I guess it works for me.
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by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
Having spent most of high school in the boys bathroom, which was populated with budding artists poets and singers, and having graduated from University without ever reading a book (I have made up for lost time in that respect), I am an ardent unschooler.
The traditional approach in school is the opposite of creative. We are taught to please other people and to integrate their standards of good and bad, right and wrong and to match them. We are taught that mistakes are bad and learn to fear making them. We learn to do the right thing, give the right answer. This is true even in art school. But in art there is no right answer. There are no rules. For every rule of color harmony, composition or perspective I can show you a great artist who broke it.
Once, say in the 1950s, completing school was an almost certain guarantee for finding a job. This is no longer the case. No one is sure of getting a job after graduation and there is a very low percentage of people who actually work in the field they studied in University.
One can learn to be a good or competent artist in school but no form of education will teach how to be a great one. How do you teach someone to bear their soul, or even to be in close touch with it? It takes a lifetime and, unlike most disciplines which become easier with time, painting becomes harder as you go on in life. Harder to go forward, and deeper, to evolve in an organic and sincere way.
One reason that there are not more artists in spite of the number of students spewing out of art schools each year is that they are not equipped for life as a professional artist. It takes tremendous courage and faith to live and work hard with no security and often little or no respect and recognition. It takes a level of creativity equal or above that which goes into the painting to live as an artist.
Re high ego: This is probably helpful on the marketing side and we see it in artists who rise to the top, but in my personal experience the creative drive comes from damaged egos. It is a search for love and acceptance for individuals who feel unworthy. This feeling of unworthiness and need for love cannot be satisfied by one person. The artist seeks (subconsciously sometimes), acknowledgement from the entire planet and for all time; to enter into the history of art.
Finally it would be nice to have a more positive name for the process than ‘unschooling’ like “experiential education.”
(RG note) Thanks, Jeffrey. In fact, a term now often used is “experience-based learning.”
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But where do we get the rules?
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
I was asked to judge a show yesterday at a gallery. The artists belonged to a local art group. This was my first judging experience and I was a bit apprehensive. I felt the need to put aside some of my bias and be more open as less ‘judgmental.’ Odd how that works! Looking at a hundred paintings in an amazing conglomeration of styles, I was struck by how primitive many of the paintings looked. There was certainly not an excess of schooling going on. I thought about all the ‘rules’ that were broken, all the design ideas not considered, all of these limitations that would have been helpful in upgrading the final results. It made me consider the value of the rules and ideas of painting. Knowing the rules hasn’t crippled me but NOT knowing them didn’t appear to be helpful.
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Running the gauntlet of art school
by Cindee Moyer, IA, USA
I was an art school student in the ’70s when that ‘unschooling’ became popular. Looking back, I feel I missed out on some much needed ‘schooling’! As a painting major, I recall my very first painting class. We were told to ‘paint.’ Arghhh… what? With what? And why? Looking around the room I watched as everyone else seemed to dive in confidently. I had honestly expected some instruction (whatever was I thinking?). My first painting began as a Gibson Girl portrait because that’s what I was interested in at the time and my instructor walked up to me and said, literally, “What the hell is that?” Hmmm. I guess I wasn’t supposed to paint that. He walked away and I began to scrape up oil paint with my palette knife and began letting my frustrations slam onto the canvas in living color. He loved it!! And thus began my first semester as a palette knife painter. The colors were beautiful I have to say. Alas, second semester, new instructor, new painting style. It was all about the grade and I seemed to gravitate toward a second painting style to survive.
I did learn one thing. I never would have tried the palette knife if he had even said, ‘I don’t hate it.” He challenged me to go outside my comfort zone even though I didn’t know it at the time and all because I wanted that approval. Today, although approval is great, it is my own satisfaction with the end result that I measure. By the way, I don’t paint any more, I make dolls.
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Schooling the social skills
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
It wasn’t until I was forced to learn about developmental disabilities that I became aware of the importance of social skills. This is not something you learn from being schooled or unschooled, it’s something you’re born with. Children along the autistic spectrum have only one thing in common, lack of social skills, but if they are diagnosed in a timely fashion, they can improve this function. It doesn’t matter if you have good work habits, curiosity, talent, intelligence and a five star education, without social skills you will never reach any success in your chosen field, (with the exception of the remarkable Temple Grandin). We’ve all read about the wildly successful business geezer who flunked out of high school but somehow managed to put together a multi-billion dollar business empire. We’ve also read about the starving artist who worked as a busboy in the N.Y. restaurant frequented by blue-chip artists and ended up becoming one himself. These people have excellent social skills and are able to persuasively put themselves across to the people that count.
Why does this matter to artists? I submit that the artist who gets out of the studio and connects with galleries, art dealers, famous collectors and makes himself a likable character in a genuine way, stands more of a chance of success than the introverted but wildly talented artist who doesn’t like socializing. I sympathize. I find it extremely draining to stand in a gallery where I don’t know anyone and make small talk with whoever passes by. But I’ve seen successful artists in action, and they appear to enjoy the attention, and more importantly, they seem to effortlessly connect with the folks that matter. They seem to have a built-in navigation device to attract the politically powerful, the socially prominent, the gallery movers and shakers. Whether you are in school or not, your ability to socialize with the folks on the top of the totem pole is more important than all the talent in the world.
Where do we learn how and when to talk about our art? How can we pick up on the subtle body language and the innumerable social cues amongst the swirling mass of humanity at a big gallery opening? How can we come across as a genuine person and not as a smarmy salesman who repeats the other person’s name so many times you want to scream? Why are some people so magnetic when they’re just standing there saying nothing? What kind of school is going to teach us this stuff?
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Report of a successful unschooler
by Gail Nagasako, HI, USA
I enjoyed this piece but need to give you a little more input on “unschooling.” I unschooled our son — he only attended school for 1 1/2 years in high school, mostly because if he didn’t then he wouldn’t have the experience of school at all and we both felt it was something he’d want to have experienced. He got a 3.8 GPA while there (a B in a class that he did a sloppy job on the busy work).
But what I want to share is that unschooling is not the same as “just work for joy, go here and there, treat our work as a hobby, indulge in wishful thinking, and have lots of social interaction.”
It is about experimenting, finding your passion, having the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, to indulge in a much wider variety of activities than schooling would permit and to participate in schooling when that serves your need.
You ask, “The question is — if unschooling is so effective and superior, how come there aren’t more brilliant artists around?” The answer to that is that perhaps these people probably are products of the school system and have lost that natural curiosity and intense passion that young children have. Ever notice how kids “binge” — they are really into one thing for a short or long time and then another. But in school, we are pushed to do an hour of this and an hour of that all day. So we become dilettantes. Those “unschooling” artists are likely just spending their hour doing art, and then on to something else.
Our son was into bodyboarding and rollerblading and became a professional rollerblader, competing in X-games, Gravity Games, and competitions all over the US and in Europe and Moscow last year. He only placed out of the top ten in the world once because he had an injury. Otherwise he’s been in the top 5-8 worldwide since turning pro 10 years ago. But he also found a passion for videography filming his skating. Now he is a very in-demand videographer, doing mostly high end weddings but also music videos, executive events, Xterra, segments for TV and real estate tours. His websites are
See how unschooling works. I hope this helps clear up the reputation of us real unschoolers.
The Ancient Ones
acrylic on rice paper/printmaking paper
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Lang Wing Shen who wrote, “Learning specific skills and techniques in our particular field cannot be avoided if you want to produce decent work.”
And also Ole Petersen who wrote, “I’m one to follow my nose and I don’t care if it’s good or not as long as I don’t get too frustrated and not have a good time. Okay?”
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