Skip to content

Unschoolers as Illegal Immigrants

Travel and unschooling are natural bedfellows. When you travel—road-tripping across the country with friends, for example—you throw yourself into a situation with few rules, little support, and an essential need for self-directed learning. This is more true if you’re traveling in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language: road-tripping across China, perhaps. And it’s even more true if you’re not a native speaker of the world’s dominant economic language, namely English. When a native English speaker travels to Buenos Aires, she’ll find waiters, shopkeepers, and hotel owners speaking her language; when a native Hindi speaker travels to Buenos Aires, she must try much harder.

If travel promotes self-directed learning, then immigrants are honorary unschoolers. They are foreign travelers in their own country.

But what about illegal immigrants? Here the analogy becomes more interesting.

Unschoolers often feel wronged or shunned by the political system. They pay into property taxes but don’t use the public schools. Local and state authorities give unschooling families varying amounts of grief for the simple right to home-educate. Without a high school diploma or student ID card, unschoolers face difficulty getting a job, applying to college, or simply getting a student-rate movie theater ticket.

Reading My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant in the June 22nd New York Times Magazine helped me realize that illegal immigrants face similar challenges to unschoolers—multiplied many times over. (The article is long but worth your time.)

Jose Vargas, a 30-year-old Filipino journalist who came to the US illegally at age 12, tells his story of self-directed learning unsupported by the political system. After learning to speak English, Mr. Vargas embarked on a journalism career with forged documents and unpaid internships. Rising from his high school newspaper to the San Francisco Chronicle to the Washington Post, he moved closer to his dream but always feared discovery by the authorities. Tired of running, Mr. Vargas courageously came forward and admitted his history of deception and still-illegal status in the article.

My aim in this post is not to advocate for a specific immigration policy; I’m not well versed on the options. I think that most readers would agree with me that working immigrants like Mr. Vargas should be eagerly welcomed with full citizenship, as we’re a country founded on such immigration. But the idea of open-door immigration combined with heavy state services disconcerts many. I believe that the positive benefits of immigration outweighs the perceived fears of freeloading, but again, I’m not versed on the realities of immigration policy.

My aim instead is to show unschoolers to they’re not alone in battling state regulations, unfair taxation, and certification challenges—and in fact, their struggle is relatively easy. Undocumented immigrants face constant fear of deportation; they pay into social security with little hope of getting the money back later; and getting a job or going to college is a documentation nightmare. Both unschoolers and immigrants rely on self-directed learning and family support to navigate an unfriendly system. And both feel like foreign travelers in their own lands.

For those who reply “yes, but we’re legal Americans, and they’re not,” I ask you: If you were born as your same, freedom-in-education-seeking self—but you were born just a few miles over the US-Mexican border, or into a country where homeschooling is illegal, or a country too poor to provide meaningful work options—would you try to get into the United States? If your visa was denied, would you try anyway? If your parents smuggled you in, would you stay?

Such answers only come from experience. If you haven’t visited in a foreign country yet, get out and do it. Travel somewhere with less freedom (both economic and personal) than the United States. Take a friend, go with a group, or do it alone. If you don’t have a passport, apply now.Whatever you do, don’t assume that only unschoolers practice self-directed learning. We’re part of something much larger.

More than 5000 good-looking and intelligent people have signed up for my newsletter. Why not join them?

You’ll receive one e-mail each month filled with my favorite education-related links and some brief personal updates.

I know that your attention is precious, and I’ll never abuse it. Pinky swear.

If you don’t sign up, it’s okay. I’ll be okay.

Maybe.