Does Unschooling Prepare Children for the World of Tomorrow?

I just finished reading A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond by Daniel Susskind, a Fellow in Economics at Oxford University. The book offers a solid (if dry) overview of how technological progress is supplanting various types of human work, why this takeover will accelerate in coming years, and different schemes for dealing with this new reality, such as Universal Basic Income.

The author, who seems to otherwise have faith in conventional education, curiously does not believe that we can solve this problem with more schooling. He’s pessimistic about the possibility of retraining large swathes of the population (e.g., teaching truck drivers to become programmers), nor does he think we can solve anything by telling everyone to get a master’s degree.

He believes that “structural technological unemployment” is a real threat because machines of the near future will get really good at doing things all sorts of things that humans value—and no amount of “education” will be able to make up for that:

Today, people interested in the future of work spend a great deal of time speculating about the capabilities of machines and where the limits of engineering might be; rarely, though, do we look at ourselves with the same critical eye, to ask about our own boundaries and the limits of education. My sense is that these human limits may be far closer than we think.

Even more interesting are his beliefs about K-12 education reform. If “education” today is mostly about preparing to entering the workforce, then what should education look like in a world where machines are taking over an increasing number of important tasks? He believes that radical shifts are warranted.

At the moment, we tend to conflate working and flourishing. We believe that to succeed in work is to flourish in life, so the skills required are the same. But if there is less work to be done, we need to prepare people for that instead.

Susskind doesn’t think we will seamlessly transition into a new social contract in which a small number of highly productive people to fund the lives of everyone else in society. Nor does he believe that most people actually want to exist in a state of total dependency. All human societies value reciprocity and mutual contribution, he admits. But if a large number of people truly cannot contribute to the paid economy in any meaningful way—then what next? Education may need to focus on the larger problem of “how to live a good life” that includes a significant amount of leisure time.

We no longer need to train young people to be warriors. In the future, we may no longer need to train them to work, either, but will have to teach them to flourish through leisure instead.

“Flourishing through leisure” may seem like the ultimate first-world problem—and it is—but the solutions are not so straightforward. Many of us get very uncomfortable when we’re on vacation for more than a few days. We want to contribute, we want to do something that matters. We don’t want to just sit around like sunburned couch potatoes. The same goes for retired people, many of whom seek the replace the sense of contribution and belonging that their jobs provided with volunteering, community involvement, and part-time (if unnecessary) employment.

The future of humanity will still involve plenty of work, Susskind argues, it just may not be paid work. It will involve more creative and artistic endeavors, community-building, care-taking, and entrepreneurial ventures—the kind of stuff that many Nordic countries already support with public funds. (The search for “non-economic identities,” he admits, may also devolve into less savory things like identity politics, quasi-religions, and nationalist movements.)

I, for one, see a clear connection between unschooling (and other forms of highly self-directed education) and the situation that Susskind predicts in the near future. What unschoolers seem to experience today is a childhood version of “a world without work.”

Self-directed young people receive a basic income in the form of housing, food, subsidized activities, and sometimes an allowance. They have a very large choice in how they spend their time each day. And they have few arbitrary demands placed on them to accomplish certain things or achieve traditional milestones.

It’s not a perfect analogy, to be sure, because minors are still restricted from full participation in the adult world, and they do need to worry about how to support themselves as adults in the world that exists today. Yet the concerns that Susskind clearly parallel those of teenage unschoolers and other young people who are allowed to largely follow their curiosities and interests in a no-strings-attached fashion.

While self-directed young people may certainly indulge themselves in “mindless” screen consumption from time to time (just as a working adult might do on a weekend or vacation) they also seek ways to contribute to a community (perhaps an online community, where they enjoy maximum freedom of expression), creatively express themselves, and become experts in esoteric subjects. And some choose to get very serious about preparing for the workplace—not necessarily for the money, but because they realize that niche workplaces are where the most interesting progress, conversations, and experiments are taking place. That’s where life is happening, and they want to be a part of it.

In this way, unschooling and other forms of child-led learning are ahead of their time. They prepare young people for a world of abundance, a world of choice, a world less constrained by drudgery and toil. This is a beautiful vision of the world, and one that’s clearly not a reality for the vast majority of people today. (Hence the sliver of truth in the knee-jerk charge against unschooling as “only for privileged people.”) But if Susskind and the other prophets of automation are correct, then self-directed education really is on-track for preparing young people for the future, a future in which we’ll have to think radically differently about work, leisure, and the path to a good life.


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