Refusing to be schoolish with my PhD

I have recently been exploring the idea of unschooling as part of my parenting journey. Here in Israel, compulsory education begins at three. To me, that doesn’t seem like it is going to be right for us and my exploration of homeschooling options led me down the windy road to unschooling.

Unschooling is essentially the idea of learning without a curriculum. Unschooling is premised on the idea that the best place for children – and basically anyone – to learn, is as part of a passionate and excited engagement with life. The whole idea is based on the deconstruction of the link between school and learning. School, with its attendant discourse (success, failure, achievement, disability, teaching, learning etc) and material stuff (worksheets, whiteboards, curricula, pencil cases) does not need to be part of the learning experience, unschoolers would argue, which can just as easily take place in the home. It will look very different from school, but it is learning just the same.

Please don’t take my word for it – there are some amazing resources out there if this is something interesting to you. Two of my favourites are:

Pam Laricchia’s “Living Joyfully” – she has a podcast, books and a website.

The classic is Sandra Dodd. It can be a bit intense but this “Rejecting A Pre-Packaged Life” is solid gold.

And the creator of the term “Unschooling” was teacher-turned-home-education-activist John Holt who has a number of books on the topic.

One of the main concepts in the unschooling community is the idea of deschooling. This generally refers to the process, either in parents or in children who have previously been in school, of shedding the assumptions and mindsets of school in order to begin learning more organically.

All the reading and listening I have been doing is not yet entirely relevant to my mothering experience. My son is, after all, only one and a half and most of what I have been listening to is targeted to parents of school aged kids. However, I have been finding the experience to be an intense and striking one for my own development.

How much of my self esteem, I have come to ask myself, rests on the continued production of a stream of school-ish accomplishments? Why is it that I feel on a high for a day or two after receiving positive feedback on my thesis proposal, and yet the positive feelings associated with coping brilliantly with that tough parenting moment or dodging that near-quarrel with my husband fades after a few minutes?

Why do I feel the constant need to write home to family and friends with a list of all the great things I have done – but those things are almost invariably the schoolish things, my new research assistant position, good marks for my coursework, how much work I have done on my thesis, or worse, my son’s “achievements” – reaching this or that milestone, with extra kudos if he did it ahead of “his age-group.”

I was a good achiever in school. My marks were good and by my final years of school I had a slew of extra-curricular achievements under my belt. I mostly enjoyed doing these things and much of my extra-curricular enthusiasm was directed to good causes. However, this became my primary pattern for seeking and receiving love, care and attention. The feeling that I am good enough, regardless of how “well I am doing” at the things in my life, is one that continues to be something I have to actively work on. Even as I write this blog, I am wondering what people will be thinking of this, how it will reflect on me, who might criticise me, who will praise me. The orientation towards external validation, which is an integral part of the school experience has not been a positive force in my life. It has held me back from many undertakings and crushed the joy out of others.

So, all this reading has had some practical consequences. One of them is that I refuse to be schoolish with my PhD. Yes, if I want to finish, there are steps I need to take and I may not enjoy and relish every single one of them. However, the drive to do it must come from feelings of joy and willingness. I believe those feelings are there, I believe that even from my higher self, I do actually have a strong desire to write this thesis and that it is part of what I have been tasked to do by the Creator. There are also many practical considerations, including the ability to support my family in a fairly well paying, flexible job that allows me a lot of time to be with my son and a lot of ability to work in a way that suits me and my family. And yet, the second that I feel that these feelings have dried up, or that this is no longer right for me, I need to be able to stop. If this doesn’t bring me joy, I refuse to keep doing it for external validation, to finally be loveable or to finally be good enough.

I already am good enough. 

So for now, I am focusing on that. I am accepting that when flow happens I will work more. When I am uninspired I will work less. Sometimes the best ideas come when I am gardening, or painting, or at the park, or journalling. Work doesn’t need to look like being chained to a desk. Work can be at the gymboree!

I am refusing to beat myself up about how much or little I am working. I will only count meaningful goals and not hours.I will use my meetings with and feedback from my supervisor to assess whether I am making enough progress, not my internal barometer, which suffers from interference based on my mood, how long ago I ate or whether the sun is shining. I will experience this PhD process as fulfilling, joyful, creative and (most of the time) fun – or I will go and do something else! I can start an attachment-focused small-group daycare. I can go teach English in…. Nepal. I can open a restaurant serving Burmese Kosher food. I can sell baby wraps for a living. Goodness only knows.

If I am going to do this PhD it’s because right now, it’s my choice. I don’t need it to feel good about myself. In fact, I don’t need a PhD for anything. But if the project is going to actualise – it sure needs me!

Now that we’ve got that straight I am going to go enjoy the spring sunshine with my son.


One thought on “Refusing to be schoolish with my PhD

  1. Great article. If we all lived like this we would be happier collectively. Glad you have come to a good place when framing your goals. You are good enough! I will take your advice too. You never know I could become a famous photographer and write a best selling screenplay but on reflection to only person I need satisfy in these pursuits is me! That gives you a lot of freedom.


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