Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see – Neil Postman

Who’s afraid of the big, bad unschooler?

A few days ago, I read this article in the Sydney Morning Herald. I have a real problem with articles like this because of the discourses they construct about unschooling. The article uses several linguistic devices to position unschool families as a ‘you’ in opposition to a ‘we’ discourse position the author assumes for himself and the readers of the piece. I want to analyse the article to examine how it reifies unschoolers as an Other whose differences are used to position them as a problem.

Firstly, the picture draws on homeschool stereotypes (paywall) which do not reflect the majority (paywall) of homeschoolers. This picture is an example of a prejudice which can be defined as a “simplifying, generalizing … judgment, [unjustified] prejudgment of oneself, or another or a thing” or a “fixed cliché-ridden image” (Wodak, 2002, p. 499). Prejudices are presented as criticism and are often disguised using facts so that they appear as judgments that can be substantiated (Wodak, 2002, p. 499). However, they are the products of opinion that are adopted and formed in haste without analysing facts (Wodak, 2002). They are frequently characterised by hostile feelings (Wodak, 2002, p. 499). To this end, a prejudice is neither “proved nor provable” instead it relies on “beliefs and opinions that are generalized, on judgments that are transferred from individuals to an entire group” (Wodak, 2002, p. 499). The picture is a judgement of the families that unschool, it provides a clichéd image of the unschool community as families who are travellers, who would not fit in with the majority of families and that is why they do not choose to school their children. Further, the image is presented as a fact in that, as all photographs presuppose, it captures a truth in a moment. Thus, it hides the beliefs and opinions of the photographer, and allows generalising judgements about feral hippies who homeschool to be transferred from these particular individuals to the whole unschool community.

In addition, as Sontag (1977, p. 14-15) argues:

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.

and

…to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability.

(Sontag, nd)

Secondly, the text uses perspectivisation strategies. These strategies are the perspective the speaker draws upon and are seen in the evidence that is used. In this article, the perspective is clearly one that unschooling is negative because, in spite of stating a neutral fact about unschooling by defining it as:

a method of homeschooling in which a child is free to pursue the things they want to learn without having tasks and topics forced upon them.

It follows this statement with ‘evidence’ that this is not, in fact, desirable, because it refers to the experts in education, the NSW Board of Studies, requirements for the method to be approved.

To be legal in New South Wales, the method must be approved by an inspector from the Board of Studies.

The use of the requirements of the Board of Studies to position this method of homeschooling as a problem is further evidenced by the author’s use of argumentation strategies. He uses argumentation strategies such as referential/nomination, which involves membership categorisation and the construction of in and out groups. This strategy constructs references to group membership using names and references to professions (cf. Reisigl and Wodak, 2009). He categorises these families as outside the in-group of people who are able to be registered because they cannot meet registration requirements. To illustrate, he states

Home-schooled children must be registered in NSW and taught in accordance with a syllabus provided by the Board of Studies … Parents may adopt a teaching method such as unschooling, according to a spokeswoman for the Board of Studies, Julie-Anne Scott. But she said: “Regardless of philosophy or teaching methodology, the parent must demonstrate that the requirements for registration are met”.

Thus, in spite of their being legally able to unschool (because they are able to adopt a teaching method such as unschooling) they are not legally able to unschool because they must meet the requirements for registration and teach in accordance with a syllabus provided by the Board of Studies. The unschooled families must necessarily sit outside the accepted practice of homeschoolers because, by the nature of method of homeschooling, they will not be able to secure registration.

Further, the article uses other strategies such as norm-respect and disclaimers to construct the unschool community as the Other. The article invokes the expertise of an Education academic, Dr David Zyngier, to question the validity of the assertions made by the three interviewees who have unschooled their children. He quotes Zyngier as saying:

Children on their own without external intervention will never learn to read and write or do mathematics, the three most difficult things that any child will ever learn.

and

That is why we leave these things to well-educated professionals. That is why we no longer go to witch doctors for medical issues or try to fix our cars, fix faulty electrical systems ourselves.

Thus, these families, who are not following the norm, are stigmatised as not doing the right thing by their children because they are failing to give their children the education that Dr Zygnier believes is best, in spite of the families assurances that their children learned to read and do math without the intervention of the parent. The use of the expert, ironically to comment on why parents are not experts in their children, is a disclaimer that is offered in the article to modify the status of the unschool families. It does so by constructing epistemic intensification of the unschool families through which negative parallels (such as the medical and automotive analogies) construct a discourse of distrust of the truth claims of an argument.

Further, the views of the expert construct a deontic intensification which identifies the moral fallacies of an argument (cf. Reisigl and Wodak, 2009). A deontic intensification of the decision to unschool is evident in the piece in the claims of the academic that the parents are falling prey to a moral fallacy because their children will never learn important and difficult subjects without a teacher.

In addition, the invoking of the witch doctor image further intensifies the status of the unschool family as the Other who is relying on witchcraft and medieval means of education and is thus, dangerous. These fallacies play with ambiguity, take meanings out of context and reinterpret discourse in a more favourable way to prove an argumentation claim (cf. Reisigl and Wodak, 2001). They are used to prove the argumentation claim that unschooling is ineffective at best and dangerous at worst because it is denying children an effective education.

The effect is that these families are constructed as an unfavourable Other who are hurting their children because they are neither following good homeschool protocol nor are they deferring to experts on education. Rather, they are behaving as witch doctors relying on educational superstition. They are positioned as a you, as an out group who stand in opposition to the we, the in group who choose to send our children to school. The implication of the article is that this you position is negative and a problem while the we is reified as a positive.

Reification is defined as the means through which differences between groups are enhanced or exaggerated. Reification is best seen in the Zygnier quote in which he links unschool practices with witch doctors. Reification establishes a binary opposition. Binary oppositions are problematic because they “enable a range of others to be identified as enemies, as the source of problems” which leads to “the positive representation of one group and the negative representation of the other” (Thomas, 2006, p. 91). Thus, the unschool/school binary, seen in this article, constructed discourses of difference and hierarchies between groups that reinforced dominant power relations.

This type of article is unsurprising, as the newspaper of origin is a conservative paper, and its reinforcing of dominant discourses of schooling was really to be expected. However, it is disappointing that it so obviously endeavours to construct a binary opposition that positions unschoolers as a problem when the discourses the families in the piece are using position themselves as parents is one of trying to do what they believe is best for their children with the information they have available to them.

In addition, do binaries offer the best picture of the world? I would argue that schooling is a spectrum with mainstream classrooms at one end and unschoolers at the other. Thus, I would advocate for homeschoolers, unschoolers and schools to work together to better manage the needs of all children, regardless of their place on the spectrum of education. We have choices about the education that best suits our children.

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