Monday, September 26, 2011

Unschool Lessons: Liberal Arts

As an Unschooling parent, I don`t follow a curriculum or teach lessons. I don`t look for ways to turn our experiences into `learning moments`. But I don`t take my responsibility for the futures of my children lightly. Unschooling is not the lazy sister of homeschooling. This series of posts will highlight some of the lessons that I hope my children will learn in their Unschooled lives.

Lesson #3: The needs of the weakest/youngest/injured always come first.

This may not seem like a subject on a curriculum, but I believe it is one of the most important lessons we can all learn.  The Liberal Arts are broadly defined by the acquisition of general knowledge and the development of rational thought and intellectual capabilities.  For me, rational thought requires knowing one's place in relation to others.  Our futures are only as successful as our meaningful relationships, so rational thought and intellectual development must include the ability to value our own needs and to assess each situation based on what is best for all concerned. 

Children are by nature egocentric and it is hard for them to be patient or to put someone else's needs ahead of their own. But children are also naturally empathetic, and I believe that their empathy can lead them to be patient. In a family with 4 children under the age of 7, it is a rare moment when no one needs something or when everyone's needs are met at the same time, so I have to have a way of sorting out who will get my attention first.  I also want my children to learn that while all of their needs are important, there is, in fact, a hierarchy of needs.

This philosophy came to me when Holly was born just 20 months after Anna. Anna was essentially still a baby herself and needed my full attention, yet she had to share me with someone else. Knowing I would easily feel overwhelmed by trying to fulfill each one's needs at the same time, I decided that I would not weigh each situation before reacting, but rather that I would establish the 'rule' and then follow it. This rule has definitely helped me to keep my wits about me when four little people are yelling at me at the same time.

But this is much more than just a way to make my family operate smoothly. As far as curriculum goes, it is a world view, a lens through which to study history, religion, culture, economics and politics. Imagine if all the world's governments committed to ensuring that the needs of the weakest, youngest or injured in society were always taken care of first. People before profit. This is not a new or even an original idea. And I've never been much of a social activist, but it just makes so much sense that 21st century children should grow up with a sense of social justice and an ability to rank their needs amongst the needs of others.

This is the complete opposite of the way needs are met in the school system. There, the prevailing rule is "The person with the most power has needs that are more important than everyone else." In practice, this means that the loudest, most obnoxious child will always get the most attention. Or, when a child is put in a Special Education class, the needs of the teachers are being met, not the needs of the child. (Having a child's lack of intellectual ability publicized by separating him/her from peers is a great way to destroy a child's self esteem. What's the motivation to learn when everyone already thinks you're dumb? But segregating the slower learners sure does make it easier on the teachers!!)

Notice how adult society follows the same pattern as schools for first meeting the needs of the strongest or most attention-seeking.  Do you think politicians have to wait for medical treatment? When a mother lets her baby 'cry it out' whose needs are being met first? Is the formula industry putting people before profit?

Making my older children put their needs on hold while I tend to the baby has worked in so far as they know that I will do what they want, but not while Julian is nursing or going to sleep or otherwise needing attention. And when someone gets hurt, everything around us stops while that one is comforted. Even when there is a fight (there honestly aren't very many) I ask them to talk to each other about why they are upset, and then I can easily determine who the injured party is, or often just talking about it is enough to end it. So far so good!! Even Julian has experienced having to wait while I help someone who is sick or hurt.

So Lesson #3 gives us a context in which to study all of the social sciences. I'm excited about exploring history, culture, religion, economics and politics with my children. I expect to learn as much as they do and I am looking forward to their original insights, rather than hearing them express the one 'right' answer or opinion that dominates teacher-led study of the curriculum.  Mostly, I look forward to observing them show compassion and solve problems with a mind towards honouring the youngest or weakest.

If only The World could be so simple....

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