All Commentary
Monday, June 4, 2018

Freedom Plus Responsibility: Why Unschooling Is Nothing Like ‘Lord of the Flies’

Unschooling is often cartoonishly characterized by critics as a 'Lord of the Flies' environment, where kids run around wildly and chaos ensues.

I recently read William Golding’s classic 1954 book, Lord of the Flies, to my nine-year-old son, Jack. Unschooling is often cartoonishly characterized by critics as a “Lord of the Flies” environment, where kids run around wildly and chaos ensues. In the story, young boys stranded on a deserted island devolve into tribalism and savagery. 

There is an important difference between freedom and chaos. With freedom comes responsibility; without that responsibility, and the fetters it naturally creates, chaos could reign.

Freedom in the Abcense of Responsibility Is Chaos

“When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism.”

In the book, the absence of adults to model and nurture responsibility is palpably felt. Adults matter to children. They guide, protect, tend, reassure, and mediate. The lack of calm, care, and stability that adults offer children is what ultimately triggers the boys’ downfall. Of course, the great lesson from this great book is that it isn’t just children who would descend into brutality when calm, care, and stability are missing; it’s all of us.

In a happy coincidence, at the same time I was reading to Jack I was also reading Amy Chua’s new book, Political Tribes. This line from Chua’s book could have easily been from Golding’s: “When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.”

Unschooled children are granted great freedom, tempered by great responsibility, and adults play a constant and critical role in providing calm and care, facilitating freedom and responsibility, and connecting interests with available learning resources. As I interviewed unschooling families and visited self-directed learning centers and unschooling schools across the country while writing my forthcoming book about unschooling, a key theme was the deliberate way in which parents and educators ensure a balance of freedom and responsibility for unschooled children.

In some cases, these expectations are drafted by the children themselves, in community with adults, as part of their school’s philosophy of democratic self-governance. In other cases, they are established by the adults running the space and agreed to by the young people who attend. Similarly, most unschooling families have explicit or implicit expectations for freedom balanced by responsibility in their own homes and communities. My children have chores and responsibilities, just as we adults do, in contributing to the smooth functioning of our shared home. We also all try to live and learn respectfully with one another and in accordance with our own values. 

Responsibility and Freedom Go Hand-in-Hand

The responsibility component of freedom is what enables free people to live peacefully and respectfully within a larger community.

The responsibility component of freedom is what enables free people to live peacefully and respectfully within a larger community. It is what prevents the chaos of the lost boys on the island. With the care of adults, unschooling prepares young people to live in a free society by allowing them to experience the ongoing, and sometimes challenging, interplay between freedom and responsibility.

They may have abundant choices and opportunities, but they must also confront the consequences of those choices and the obligations associated with those opportunities. As the 20th-century Nobel prize-winning economist, Friedrich Hayek, wrote in The Constitution of Liberty“Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences…Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.”

In Lord of the Flies, the fictional troop of boys experiences freedom for the first time, but they haven’t learned about the responsibility that must accompany that freedom. Instead, they import the artificial hierarchy and social customs of their school cliques. As pressures mount, bullying shifts into tribalism, boundary-testing into warfare. Lord of the Flies is the opposite of unschooling. It shows the necessity for genuine freedom balanced by genuine responsibility and the important role of adults in providing care and calmness for children.

Freedom, as Lord of the Flies so vividly shows, is the easy part. Responsibility is far more difficult to define, demonstrate, and tend to—for unschoolers and for all of us.