I've written about unschooling before here. Since a number of Objectivists are proponents of unschooling, I decided a second look at the movement would be beneficial. The following includes additional look at the unschooling movement and a couple of clarifications about my beliefs.

In the 1960s John Holt, a former teacher, wrote a couple books about the failing school systems. In these books, he identifies some real problems about many schools. He comes to one conclusion, that schools always fail because teaching is accomplished through external motivation rather than internal motivation.

Holt notes that many children fail at school because they in part because fear getting the wrong answer or become dependent on the praise of the teacher, focusing learning on what the teacher wants rather than on the nature of objective reality.

In the words of Holt:

Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned.

If this is the basis of Unschooling, then I disagree. Not the love of learning part, but the part about knowing what knowledge will be most needed in the future. There most certainly are subjects that will necessarily be important for all individuals in the future, some to a greater extent than others. But all necessary. Reading, writing, math, history... all necessary subjects for any career. One could make the argument that 100 years ago, those subjects were not necessary for some careers such as farming or manual labor jobs. But with advancing technology requiring ever more sophisticated knowledge, developing basic knowledge is absolutely essential.

Unschooling acknowledges that goals must be chosen by individuals, including children. The purpose of knowledge is to facilitate the accomplishment of one's goals. Once properly motivated, either internally or externally, learning comes naturally and easily. The goal of an educator is to properly motivate children to want to learn a subject and then help guide them in that quest.
Unschooling fails to fully address why external motivation is inherently wrong in motivation. Holt focuses on rewards and punishments, but wrongly includes persuasive motivation as a bad type of external motivation.

Take for instance Michael Phelps (the American swimmer striving for a historic 8 Olympic gold medals while I write this). His mom first sent him to swim lessons as an outlet for his energy. Michael did not have internal motivation to take up swimming. His mom encouraged him, persuaded him, to try it out. Once his skills were identified by his swimming coach (when he was 11), he first approached Michael's mom about the possibility of becoming an Olympian. Once he convinced her, they persuaded Michael to do the same. Sure, it was easy to persuade an 11 year old to shot for the gold, its an easy dream to latch on to. But it was external to his motivations.

While I believe unschooling ultimately fails as the ideal educational method, I can understand its appeal to Objectivists. The appeal to personal goals driving education strikes at the individualist heart. However, to hope a child will blindly find their way through self-development, is, in my opinion, naive. After many years of schooling, I understand that learning a new subject on my own is highly inefficient. I could follow many blind alleys before I truly understood a subject. By using a structured educational program, I can rapidly learn subjects. Using persuasive motivation to convince our kids of this importance is entirely justified.


  1. Great post, and I agree completely.

    In essence, motivation is two things: pointing out the value of the end; and, making the means-end chains so clear that the means can be seen to be a value.

    I don't think kids can do this without help. Why, I think even adults have a hard time with this sometimes, which is why good motivational speakers can pay off.

  2. Thank you for the post. You have neatly laid out the problem and suggested an answer.

    The subject might make a productive question for Lisa VanDamme, the author of most of the articles for The Objective Standard in the Education topic, if it has not already been asked. (TOS occasionally publishes questions for the authors. See "Correspondence" at the bottom of the home page, second column.)

    Both as a writer and as a study group leader ( Study Groups for Objectivists ), I try to provide some motivation for both a whole study and for particularly difficult or seemingly irrelevant parts of the whole. Of course, as Dr. Peikoff has pointed out in his lecture series, Objective Communication, the amount of motivation required is a function of the interest of the audience. Some audiences require very little, especially if they are self-selected.

    Again, thank you for the post.