ebook cover of homeschooling with gentleness book

Book review: Homeschooling with Gentleness: A Catholic Discovers Unschooling by Suzie Andres

Moral versus academic education, common objections to unschooling, and more

At a recent homeschooling mom's meetup, one mom recommended the 2004 book Homeschooling With Gentleness: A Catholic Discovers Unschooling by Suzie Andres. I picked up an ebook copy and sped through it over a few days—it's a relatively short book.

Andres spends the first several chapters defining unschooling and explaining what the experience can look like. I appreciated the numerous stories she shared from her family's experience. Since unschooling (or any home-based education) tends to be very family-specific in how it plays out, anecdotes from individuals can be enlightening.

However, I felt these initial chapters were skimmable. That's likely because I'm already familiar with the concept of unschooling and have read several other books on the subject. You'll find these chapters more worthwhile if you haven't read John Holt's work or more recent books such as Peter Gray's Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life or Kerry McDonald's Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (among others).

According to Andres:

Unschooling is a form of education in which the child is trusted to be the primary agent in learning what he needs to know to lead him to happiness.

Andres specifies that "form of education" refers to academic, not moral, education (more on that distinction below); she also states that when parents trust their child, they are giving him a leading role in his learning and are not emphasizing their own teaching.

This definition is inspired by John Holt's writing on education. Andres is a huge fan of his; throughout the book, she quotes Holt liberally. If you are familiar with his ideas, then this book will feel familiar in its approach. In short, Andres argues that kids are natural learners, so the education methodology of following kids' leads for much of their education can work very well for some families. Furthermore, she argues that this approach is compatible with being Catholic, and with some amount of adult-chosen curricula or teaching. She is also careful to say that unschooling is just one valid approach to education among many.

I find Andres' emphasis on happiness in her definition interesting given the other definitions of unschooling I've encountered, which tend to emphasize freedom and autonomy. For example, Kerry McDonald, in Unschooled, writes:

Unschooling is more than an educational approach. It is not about teaching and learning, about progressive educational ideas over conventional ones. Unschooling is about challenging dominant structures of control and searching for freedom and autonomy. ... The ideal is to give children freedom to learn without coercion, following their own interests, using the full resources of their community. ...

The unschooling approach to education is non-coercive, meaning that children are not required or expected to learn things the way they are in compulsory schools or school-like settings. Like grown ups, unschooled children have the freedom to say no. Unschooling dismisses the common accoutrements of school, including adult-imposed curriculum, grade levels, subjects silos, age segregation, lesson plans, rewards and punishments, and arbitrary tests and rankings. Unschooling separates schooling from education.

Unschooling means trusting humans' propensity to learn about the world—to become educated—by following their innate curiosities when surrounded by plentiful resources and opportunities. Schooling is about control whereas unschooling is about freedom. [pp. 26-27]

I think freedom and autonomy makes for a better argument for unschooling than pursuing happiness, though that might hinge on how you're defining "happiness".

Catholic objections to unschooling

Andres spends several chapters answering some common objections to specifically Catholic unschooling. Apparently, one common objection is that Catholics cannot unschool because of fallen human nature, namely the laziness inherent in all people. I guess the objection is "people are inherently lazy, so you can't expect kids to learn stuff without forcing them to"?

I almost laughed reading it. I don't share the objection in the slightest. Kids love learning. They don't stop learning. I also don't think people are inclined towards doing nothing, or whatever "meaningless" activities laziness actually implies. Again, definitions: I think laziness is a term applied to people perceived as being not as industrious as other people think they ought to be, people not doing what other people think they ought to be doing, people not learning what other people think they ought to be learning. If you don't assume that there are certain things a person ought to be doing or learning with some threshold level of effort, then the whole objection based on laziness falls apart.

Andres tackles the objection differently, through six different angles. She starts by quoting from a papal encyclical and discussing who is the initiator of a child's learning; she eventually quotes from John Holt on how (as I think) children consistently seek out learning opportunities.

They want to do what grown-ups do, they want to make sense of things, and given some access to the world, they will work hard to understand it. My point here is that all these children suffered the effects of fallen human nature, even if they, their parents, or John Holt didn't know it. Yet they consistently pursued their interests and knowledge of the world around them. From this I conclude that while our nature has been damaged by the fall, we are not so devastated that we cease striving to learn.

Moral education versus academic education

The second objection Andres addresses is that requiring education in the Catholic faith precludes an unschooling approach to education. Catholic parents have a duty to instill knowledge of their faith. It is too much to expect a child to discover everything about that faith on their own. But Andres says,

Our understanding of unschooling, however, does not require us to leave the child to discover everything by himself. Remember that we called the parents the secondary agents in the child's education, because they will guide and oversee his learning. This guidance can include helping him to learn things, and providing him with the best possible materials to help him learn. In other words, the Catholic unschooling parent does not have to (and in fact, will not) leave his children to discover the Faith "on their own."

She is a proponent of teaching faith by example. Live how you want your children to live; they will want to be like you. Moral habits, faith, and belief can be mostly taught by example; you don't need so much explicit curriculum or instruction because, seeing you interested in it and living it, the children will want to learn it too.

Andres also argues that being Catholic is compatible with unschooling because unschooling is compatible with using curricula (she mentions that her family has used the Baltimore Catechism, among others, in their faith education). But this felt controversial. Unschooling, by the definitions above, is non-coercive. Curricula are generally used only insofar as they are used in service to something the child wants to learn, and the child chooses to use them. Andres seems to be saying that parents could enforce the use of a particular curriculum (e.g., for faith education), and that this is entirely compatible with unschooling.

Perhaps this is where Andres' distinction between moral education and academic education becomes relevant. But I wonder how Andres separates them and why—she doesn't explain the basis for the separation, assuming that placing morality and academics in separate categories makes sense. I don't know why it necessarily does.

My first inclination was that perhaps she meant moral education in the sense of forming good habits. Then one might distinguish between different types of knowledge: skills versus facts, or more technically, procedural knowledge (knowing how) versus declarative knowledge (knowing that).

It's a nice, simple picture: Moral and faith education are in a category composed of mostly procedural knowledge, namely, the good habits that comprise virtuous behavior and good character, while academic education could be comprised of declarative knowledge, such as the capitals of the states and when the Civil War was fought.

But the line between these categories swiftly blurs. No simplicity for us! Faith education includes not only habits, such as praying before meals or bed, or attending Mass on Sundays, but also facts, such as who particular saints are or the order of events in Jesus' life. When it comes to academic knowledge, is long division a list of rules you memorize and follow, or a process you learn—or perhaps one, and then the other after you internalize it? How would you categorize learning a new language? When making apple pie, perhaps knowing the ingredients and their amounts is factual, but how to roll out a pie crust might be more procedural. Would you consider responding to an emotionally fraught situation with grace and patience to be an emotional intelligence skill, or the result of building a habit of responding in particular ways? Plus, there's plenty of procedural knowledge that isn't related to morality, such learning to ride a bike. And so forth.

So trying to separate moral and academic education on the basis of knowledge type seems silly. In which case, how are they actually different? Simply the subject matter? Then why separate those and not other things too? Why might one be fine for unschooling, and not the other?

Unschooling versus classical education

There is much under the unschooling umbrella to admire. I don't think you can force someone to learn. Interest and motivation are key. We definitely ought to help children discover their skills and passions, especially as they get older, so they can become specialists in things they can build careers around. But I also feel there are topics everyone should be exposed to—like how our government works or the basics of our history.

Perhaps separating moral education and academic education is a matter of wishful thinking. After all, what part of education—if any—is separate from the rest of life? Unschooling has been described as "living as if school didn't exist." So if you are concerned about instilling particular knowledge, how much time should you spend letting a child pursue their own interests and supporting them in that endeavor, versus making sure they are picking up what you think they ought to know (e.g., faith education or how to cook their own food)?

Relevantly, I'm currently reading through Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer's The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home right now, a thorough book explaining the ins and outs of classical education. In short, classical education is a systematic and rigorous language-focused approach emphasizing reading, writing, and history, with an eye toward self-discipline, well-roundedness, and an understanding that all knowledge is interrelated.

Wise and Bauer argue that we aren't born into a void; we are born into a specific culture and society. Unschoolers may say that we learn all we need about that culture and society simply by living in it and being interested in learning about it, but Wise and Bauer disagree—we don't necessarily. As parents one of our jobs is to help our children learn what they need to know to function in society, participate in our society, understand our government, etc. What is parenting, if not educating our children and preparing them to live in the world?

Obviously, we cannot and should not choose all of the pieces of culture to pass on. But we have a responsibility to ensure our children are set up as best they can be to be members of society, able to reason about laws they might vote on, with the relevant background knowledge or means of getting it to participate in society and in our republic. And that responsibility may include exposing children to certain knowledge or ideas—giving them a certain education, rather than hoping they'll discover everything they need.

Wise and Bauer do say they consider moral education to be a matter of developing habits, and that this is the purview of parents (one might say is part of good parenting):

[For schools] to build character is even further out of the realm of possibility. These moral qualities have to become habits, and habits are often achieved by going against the immediate short-term desire of the child. That is the parent's job, not a teacher's.

They suggest that for moral qualities to become habits children must observe good examples—from their parents modeling moral qualities and from characters in media who demonstrate admirable character—and must also practice those qualities, usually with help from their parents. This jibes with Andres' suggestion that parents teach faith by example.

Perhaps it is easier for parents to encourage some things, such as good habits, while with other topics, the best a parent can do is introduce the child to areas that the parent thinks are important and may be of interest, such as how our government works. If a child is interested and motivated, they will pursue that topic further. If they're not interested, there's only so much you can do; people don't learn when they have no motivation to learn.

Limitations to Andres' experience

Homeschooling with Gentleness is limited by Andres' experience. At the time of writing, she had two children, one 12 years old and one eight months old, and she had been unschooling for about seven years. I wondered how her philosophy and advice might apply to larger families or families with a bunch of younger kids. I wanted to see examples showing other families in action. Fortunately, it looks like Andrews has a more recent book that is a compilation of stories from 12 families—I may pick that up next.

Finally, Andres includes a book list in the back with sections for read-alouds for different ages (but only up to the ages of her own children at the time of writing), books she found inspirational, many about St. Therese, and others she liked about homeschooling and unschooling.



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