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Graduation and the Great Shell Game

Graduation & the Great Shell Game
By J.H. Raichyk 

Unschoolers demonstrate that intellectual skills are a natural part of learning at all ages and in all subjects, and that the methodology is both pleasurable and manageable for learner, family, and community. But that way of learning is only accepted at the graduate level. Does the academic elite have a vested interest in subverting those necessary intellectual skills via our school and under-grad systems?

A few years ago, when some of my daughter’s friends were graduat- ing from their high school years, we participated in a bit of the preliminary planning. This was a group of dedicated unschoolers and we felt that the ceremony, which was to be both very personal and appropriately meaningful, should be more of a rite of passage than the standard formula. Among its highlights would be a parental speech paired with each graduates’ views. Since my daughter had already graduated the year before and we had opted for no ceremony, I began to wonder what I would have said and if this was a gift I somehow owed her. Although a “parental speech” would normally make me cringe, this topic held a strange fascination so I began reviewing the kaleidoscope of her education.

Her interests had been wide but the dominant theme had centered on her creative writing. Being a mathematician by training and a decision analyst by profession, my forte was definitely not creative writing. Although I might enjoy reading a science fiction thriller, I have no concept of how to create such a work. Nor had I any clue how she had developed those skills (though I have gradually gained some insight). Certainly, her explorations of those worlds – as well as her interpretations of this one – guided an adventurous curriculum that I had never planned.

 

Like her choice of interests, her skills were definitely self-acquired. There were mysterious methods of skill development that she pursued without explanation. For example, she took a sudden and very late interest in animated cartoons, having basically ignored them through childhood, devouring instead many libraries’ limits of adventure and fantasy, many mainly adult.

Recognizing the intensity of her new interest as part of her pattern of vital exploration, I somehow managed to stifle my animosity toward “frivolity,” although I openly queried for some explanation occasionally – and unsuccessfully. Only after months of this pursuit did I see at least part of the solution to the puzzle and it was blindingly logical. With the appearance of delightful banter between the characters in her stories, it became clear one of the skills she was analyzing as a writer and developing in her style was lighthearted dialog to balance the serious plotlines in her fiction. Totally self-directed.

“To anyone concerned about the wisdom of not pursuing traditional math subjects, I can say that she exhibited clear evidence of ability when needed, though she abhors, even avoids, gratuitous computation or pressure. For a game, yes; for estimation purposes or purchases, yes; for display, no. Yet passion for an answer arises and the scene changes.” 
In the presence of a strong literary direction, I expected that other skills would be neglected, especially ones that were my treasures. Early testing, which she had preferred over portfolios, had demonstrated a substantial aptitude for mathematics, but once beyond the computation games we played when she was young, she left the traditional path. Her aptitude did not disappear; it merely diverged into areas that fit her plot development and strategy needs as a writer. She displayed a taste for analyzing decision outcomes, for unraveling brain boggling logic puzzles and similar math skills, instead of the institutionally mandated subjects.

To anyone concerned about the wisdom of not pursuing traditional math subjects, I can say that she exhibited clear evidence of ability when needed, though she abhors, even avoids, gratuitous computation or pressure. For a game, yes; for estimation purposes or purchases, yes; for display, no. Yet passion for an answer arises and the scene changes.

One particular sequence still inspires me. The launching goal was a fascination with winning streaks and a perceived correlation with mood. From this gaming need and potential use, she began devising testing strategies. Seeing this nascent statistical experiment unfold, we dove into a rapid introduction to hypothesis development, experimental design and random walk data management. After pages of figuring the probabilities of “winning dice rolls” if there were only random chance – no impact of emotion, her “null” hypothesis – my twelve-year-old daughter, who was then an avid D&D player, began running her designed experiment, rolling dice with “supportive” and alternatively “unsupportive” music. She kept lengthy tallies of the sequences of outcomes and plotted the random walks to illustrate whether she was winning more than the expected proportion of trials. Patterning her graphic displays on standard dice experiments her random walks – up for a win, down for a loss with her favorite music for emotional support, shows clearly the existence of winning streaks that contrasted sharply with the walks without support.

From this impromptu series of threads followed many days of studied observation, record keeping and analysis. And to my profound amazement, a preliminary result supporting a cosmology of the importance of the observer and intentionality, because although streaks, winning or losing, are more common than most people imagine, predictable streaks are a different matter altogether. Needless to say this altered all future gaming in our household.

So here was creativity and information development in a skill she presumably, by conventional standards, had no academic knowledge of.

Summarizing my accumulating assessments, I was pleased to note – to savor – her self-acquired competencies, her creativity, and her ability to generate new knowledge. At that point, the lights went on, as I realized that I had measured her vibrant learning history on the scale associated with my graduate education. Not only did her self-designed “program” emerge consistent with her life, and specifically her life’s work – just as we expected as unschoolers – its character matched the standards of the academic world’s pinnacle in graduate school. Not that the school system would have supported her program for those skills. In fact, they would have done just the opposite, insisting that she conform to their mutilating curricula and taking credit for – or laying blame if she resisted – their vaunted role of inculcation.

That is, up until graduate school when the academic world does a sudden reversal. At the masters degree level where I was a student, the objective was to demonstrate self-acquired competency; and later as a Ph.D. candidate I was expected to demonstrate the ability to create a significant addition to the knowledge base of my specialty. At this level, the dependence on teaching vanished. You could be tested on ideas never introduced in any instructional form by the school. Your arrival at a completed thesis and dissertation were mediated and overseen but your knowledge was self-acquired, and your creativity was the measured entity, along with the quality of your results. There were no bells to respond to and your work went on until it was substantial. How much more of a reversal could there be?

This reversal now amazed me with its shell game character as the rest of the picture took shape. As unschoolers we realize that it is not necessary to shield youth from exposure to these learning skills, or to substitute sham academic skills for the real thing. Yet graduate schools freely state that the experience they offer of self-acquired competence and creativity in information development is expected to be the student’s first exposure.

I asked myself: Was it possible that lengthy denial through elementary and high school and even undergraduate programs was beneficial to the eventual academic elite?

“I realized that I had measured her vibrant learning history on the scale associated with my graduate education. Not only did her self-designed 'program' emerge consistent with her life, and specifically her life’s work – just as we expected as unschoolers – its character matched the standards of the academic world’s pinnacle in graduate school.”

That answer emerges as a definite “no” when based on the official message we were given as newly minted PhDs: Once is not enough. This fact is openly acknowledged in the academic world’s promotion of postdoctoral fellowships and their expectation of professional failure-to-thrive for those graduates without the support of the mentoring network of successful researchers. What this clearly says is that the intellectual skill training – we’re not here talking about content, yet – leading to graduate school is knowingly recognized to provide no functional support for the essence of learning. “Once is not enough” means all previous training counts as zero skill.

The school system claims to develop intellectual skills but, in fact, withholds, even subverts, that opportunity for more than a dozen years, reserving it for those about to enter the sanctuary of the academic elite.

For whose benefit does the school substitute inculcation, pablum, and gruel? Not for the academic acolytes intending to enter the knowledge-generating functions of our society. For whose benefit? Not for the taxpayer because unschoolers achieve their explorations for dramatically less than the schools’ massive tax burden. Not for the vocational functions in our society because employers have become frustrated with deficiencies in basic skills from graduates. Certainly not for the children. It’s the students’ daily misery and valid grievances that have fired unschoolers of widely varying philosophies to action.

If it’s not for the taxpayer, not for student pleasure, not for the launching of knowledge base developers, and not for general vocational support, perhaps this combination of advanced learning skills may be useless in daily life for “the masses”? Ask that same question next time you, as a citizen, are asked to vote on issues of incredible complexity and significance, to evaluate candidates’ detailed positions or an incumbent’s programs. Do we believe in democracy or shall only an elite have the ability to cope and the voice on where our society is heading? Even everyday choices, from home ownership down to today’s “simple” purchases, not to mention career choices, require research and evaluation skills nowhere included in the school’s limiting curriculum and method. Is it any wonder that we as a society have surrounded ourselves with intractable problems?

So is there no hope of evading the consequences of the social diseases in our midst and on our horizon? Having seen the unschooling process long-term and up close, I think we as unschoolers have established the antidote and validated it: We’ve discovered that the key is in honoring our child’s individual life’s essence and resisting a nebulous education establishment’s supposed wisdom. We’ve demonstrated that intellectual skills are a natural part of learning at all ages and in all subjects, and that the methodology is both pleasurable and manageable for learner, family, and community.

It’s time to celebrate this achievement – our, as well as our children’s, graduation.

J.H. Raichyk, Ph.D. is an author, professional mathematician, and decision analyst with decades of applied experience in both the insurance and retail industries, as well as fifteen years of extensive reading and experience in education trends as a homeschooling mother.

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