Thursday, April 5, 2007

My Ishmael

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago and never got around to posting it:

I read My Ishmael yesterday (yep, the whole book). Logan was sick so we cuddled on the couch, he watched cartoons and I read. I found My Ishmael to be a more optimistic book than Ishmael. Maybe because it was told from the point of view of a child? I particularly liked this book because he gave more details about tribal culture and how they handle things like laws and education. I think I found the book more optimistic because in my family we handle rules and education in the same way the tribal people do.

Tribal cultures don’t have laws that they know people are going to break (according to the book). They know there are things people are going to do and if you make a law against it, you are setting people up to fail. Instead, they have a plan of what to do when someone does a certain thing, a plan that minimizes the damage done. Take for instance physically fighting, instead of having a law saying people can’t fight since sometimes people will fight, they have a plan to minimize the damage to all parties when a fight occurs. It makes so much more sense to me than what we do here. We make laws we know people are going to break and then we have to punish them for breaking them. Nothing is really learned and people don’t really take responsibility for making moral decisions for themselves. So, we end up having to make more and more laws that get broken, so we have more and more people to punish. And now we have this huge prison system that still isn’t big enough to handle all the rule breakers. Now, I know our culture is more complicated than tribal culture, but is it possible some of the reason for the complication is all the laws we have and not the other way around?

In our family we don’t have rules for our son. Rules are things you know are likely to be broken and so you then have to have a consequence for when the rule is broken. To me having rules is saying I don’t trust you to behave the best you know how so I’m going to come up with all these rules to tell you how to behave. With Logan, we believe he will behave the best he knows how, so we don’t have any rules about behavior. Sometimes he does do stuff that we aren’t thrilled about, but we ask ourselves, is this a behavior he didn’t know about? Did he forget? Or is it unrealistic to expec t a child his age to be able to do this? We’ve never had some of the problems friends of our have had. People at my husband’s work will ask him how we handle when Logan does a certain thing and mos t of the time my husband’s answer is Logan would never do that, it doesn’t make sense. I t hink that is a big part of it, we expect Logan to do things that make sense and most of the time he does. I don’t believe Logan is naturally better behaved than most kids. But he has been treated as an equal partner in our family. He knows his opinions matter and that he will be listened to. He doesn’t need to act up in order to get attention, all he has to do is speak and he has our attention.

If we are going somewhere where certain behavior is expected, like tomorrow we are going to brunch with my whole family (grandparents, aunts etc) at an officers club. Logan will be expected to behave a certain way. So we will discuss what is expected of him and come up with a plan for if he is having trouble behaving that way. The plan may include me reminding him of the expectation, or taking a break and going outside for a bit, or maybe just going to the bathroom and letting him run around in there for a few minutes. But we will discuss it and have a plan for if it is becoming hard for him to fulfill the expectations. And if it doesn’t seem worth it to him we will skip whatever the event is. The expectations will be pretty high tomorrow but it is worth it to him because he adores his grandpa and his aunt and they will both be there. We may, however, end up leaving early.

Tribal education is also something I find interesting. Education isn’t separate from life for them, life is education. Children learn by living along side the adults, by watching what they are doing and imitating them. Children learn what they need to know when they need to know it. No one decides all children need to know how to do blank by a certain age. All the children learn at different times, but they all learn what they need to know when they need to know it. And their education is never done, they keep learning new things when they need to know them. The thing I found interesting is that the goal of tribal education is for a person to have all the skills they will need to survive. So that if they found themselves totally alone, they could survive. They know how to build a shelter and find food and make a fire. Our education system is so different. We aren’t trying to prepare children to survive, we are preparing them to enter the job market at the bottom rung. And I think this is a problem, because most of us don’t know how to survive we have no choice but the enter the job market, earn money, and buy food. We don’t know how to find our own food, or most of the time even how to grow our own food, so we have to work.

We unschool Logan, meaning he learns what he needs to know, when he needs to know it. He lives along side us and learns through life. We have no curriculum for him and there is no forced learning. I trust he will learn what he needs to know when he needs to know it.

Since I wrote this, I’ve also read The Story Of B which seems to be the last book in the Ishmael series. It wasn’t as good a book as the other 2, but it was a very good conclusion to the series. I don’t really feel anymore optimistic about the hope for our culture, but I do believe man will go on. I think it is all a matter of how painful the downfall of our culture will be. There are some really good ideas in these 3 books and a lot to think about. I highly recommend the whole series! I’ve got Beyond Civilization, another book by Daniel Quinn on hold at the library and will share my impressions when I’m done with it. I’d love to get other book recommendations along the same lines, anything that others have found life-changing.

Oh, and the brunch went great! Logan had no trouble behaving as expected and even had a good time. We brought some things he could do quietly at the table if he got bored. I was prepared to leave if needed but we stayed the whole time with no incidents. No need for rules or threats of punishment.


SagePixie said...

That was eloquently put. i agree with everything you said. I haven't read those books yet, though they sound rather insightful.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Love and Laughter,

Wendy said...

Some things about our civilization I would not be sad to see gone. The national, public education system is one of them.

Lori V. said...

I am fascinated with the concept of "unschooling" a child. My main question is this: If you are letting him learn alongside you, how is he going to learn the knowledge/skills necessary to possibly become a pharmacist, a doctor, an architect? Do you routinely encounter enough instances in which you speak latin, or do geometry, or calculate the chemical concentrations of substances to say that he will be learning it? I guess I just don't see how this type of "learning" prepares him for anything in life but what you or your husband do for a living; you can't possibly expect that he will learn enough to become a senator by going with you to the voting polls, or enough to become a doctor by going with you to your appointments, can you? I don't necessarily agree that the public school system works for every child, but it certainly does for a lot of children.

Christy said...


This is a common concern with unschooling. My answer is he will learn the skills he feels are valuable. If he wants to become a doctor then he will be motivated to learn what he would need to know. Schools expose kids to many things, but how many kids can do those things you listed? How many of those things can you do? The only 1 I can do of your list is calculated chemical concentrations and that is because I teach college chemistry 2 nights a week. I never learned latin or geometry despite having a PhD in science.

My son at 7 knows more anatomy than most college graduates because anatomy interests him. He may never know any geometry but I don't see a problem with that, if he never needs it for anything why spend time learning it?

It is a very foreign concept for most people. We seem to over estimate what kids are actually learning in school. To me exposure to something is not the same as learning it. Unschooling does involve a lot on work on my part as the parent. If my son expresses an interest in something it is my responsibility to find resources for him. I believe unschooling opens the world to my son instead of limiting the world.

I'd be happy to answer any other questions you have.

Lori V. said...

Will he not have to take a "core curriculum" in college that covers basic subjects? If he's never wanted to learn math, how will he handle the core math college course(s)?

Christy said...


Good question. If he wants to go to college, he will become aware of the core curriculum classes he'll need to take. If he is interested in doing well in those classes he'll start learning the math necessary. There have been a number of studies that have shown that all of high school math can be learned in 4 weeks.

Also, more and more college freshman are having to take remedial math classes before they can take their core math classes because they aren't learning the basics in school. If nothing else, Logan can join the other hundreds of students in the remedial math class. At the college I teach at, the remedial math class starts at addition and subtraction and goes from there. Logan already knows addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and some basic stuff about fractions. All of it picked up from daily life.

College professors are finding students less and less prepared for college every year. I truly believe my son will be more prepared for college (should he choose to go) than most of his schooled peers. He will know who he is and what he wants in life. He will know how to find information on topics that interest him. He will know how to think and form opinions on his own. And he will know how to find unique solutions to problems. These are all things that can't be learned in a classroom being told what to do all day.

Lori V. said...

I appreciate your taking the time to answer all these questions, and for being so patient with them, Christy! I agree with a lot of what you're saying, but there's still just something in my gut telling me that unschooling absolutely would not work for my children. I guess that's my prevalent opinion, that there is a school situation more ideal for each child as an individual. I believe, for example, that my oldest son would not thrive as an unschooler because: (a) he is very, very social, and (b) regardless of our attempts to persuade him otherwise, he is content with the middle of the road. Two of mine are in public school, and I am homeschooling one until next year, when he will go to a small private school for LD students. I think that unschooling can work for some students, but I also am afraid that there will inevitably be a large number that will not thrive because those parents in particular just WANT it to be the right choice, quite similar to the overwhelming overdiagnosis of ADHD in children; does that make sense?

Silvia said...

I read and loved Ishmael, My Ishmael, Story of B, and also Beyond Civilization. I also read his autobiographical "Providence." I think that My Ishmael was another positive influence toward our homeschooling decision.

Christy said...


I just finished Beyond Civilization and really enjoyed it. I think it is the book I will start recommending to people looking for a good book to read. I will probably write a post about it sometime.