Learning the old fashioned way; autonomous education, the oldest method in the world

One of the most endearing features of autonomous home educators in both this country and the USA is the way that many of them seem to be convinced that they are doing something daring and revolutionary by leaving their kids to learn what they wish. They apparently believe that this is a radical idea; that they are on the cutting edge of educational theory! Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact there is something rather quaint about those who choose to adopt this antiquated method of educating their children.

Modern humans have been around for at least 10,000 years. Until perhaps 3000 years ago, there was nothing at all like a modern school. For the first 97% of humanity’s existence, home education was the only game in town. Gradually, the idea of sending children to be educated by strangers became popular. It was a slow process. In Elizabethan England, only about one child in eight attended school; all of them boys. In other words, as recently as the 16th century, only one child in sixteen in this country went to school. Things continued in this way for another three hundred years or so. Most children were educated at home. One of the commonest ways of undertaking this was to let the children themselves choose what to learn; or indeed whether they wished to learn anything at all. The best way to see how this worked is to look at a fictionalised account of home education in the early part of the 19th century. Pride and Prejudice is generally reckoned to give a good picture of life among the upper classes at that time. Here is Elizabeth Bennet describing the education which she and her four sisters received;

Such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means. We were always
Encouraged to read…those who chose to be idle, certainly might.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that this sort of education, especially for girls, was very common at that time. As for the ordinary working class child; home education was almost universal.

As a matter of fact, it is universal, compulsory schooling which is the radical alternative in education; not home education, which has been around for at least a hundred thousand years. Those who choose this path are not blazing some new trail, but turning backwards to an older way of life. They put one in mind of the American Amish, who prefer to follow a deliberately archaic way of life. The one thing that radical unschoolers and autonomous educators are not is revolutionary.


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