The philosophy of unschooling

Claude Alvares is one of the most distinguished personality in alternate education community. A renowned environmentalist from Goa, Claude is the editor of the Other India Press, an alternative publication based in India and the director of the Goa Foundation. Claude is a PhD from the Technische Hogeschool, Eindhoven, in the Netherlands. Presented below is the transcript of his talk at the Swashikshan launch event.

Let me begin by saying that just as schools are planned events, people who opt for unschooling or home-schooling should not end up planning those either!

The entire thrust of modern day parenting is to plan everything in advance for the child, especially what career the parents want it to take to. When this happens, as it very generally does, the school becomes a part of the parental programme planned for the child. That is why the desire to ‘choose’ a good school or an expensive one. The misery begins there, since almost no school can provide the environment for open-ended learning since all schools follow set curricula.

Every child is unique to the world, to human history, but good schools and bad all insist on forcing the same sets of data or information and turning them into homogeneous individuals, gradually bereft of the individuality that nature endowed them with.

That’s the problem with schooling – planned menus, when both nature and life offer unlimited, unplanned menus.

So how do we get out of this problem?

The best parenting I have seen in this context is from those who literally refuse to replant their own minds, desires, fantasies in their own children and simply and without restriction let the child be and encourage and support the child growing in the direction nature it has endowed with.

Now what does that really mean? Minimal parental intervention, interference and supervision. The burden of what the child does or becomes is taken off the parents’ shoulders. The choice really is between a planned adult or an unplanned adult, a career chosen on behalf of the child in advance by the parents (sometimes even prior to the child being born!) and unplanned, unpredicted, uncharted totally exciting new life.

So how is this to be practically achieved?

You won’t find that information in text-books! But if you keep your eyes open, you will see that there are literally millions of people around who have done things on their own because they were either forced to carve things out for themselves or because they were determined to carve things out for themselves. Either God took their parents early or they were fortunate to have parents who decided to absent themselves from interfering every moment and every stage with what their children did or wanted to do.

India in fact is the only country really that allows and makes careers possible without the degrees that come from schooling and college. It has the largest number of successful individuals who have made it big (in conventional terms) without a degree. This should be an indicator that degrees have little connection with success. In fact, they do not guarantee success as millions of certified unemployed and unemployable roaming our streets will confirm. Shikshantar in fact has a campaign going persuading employers that they would do better if they took on people without degrees.


Degree-d or certified people are mostly regimented individuals, with their thinking and practice extremely narrow, tied to text-book solutions, no-hands on experience, unable to function without or few resources, in permanent need of pampering, fundamentally unable to take care of themselves without naukri (job) or sarkari naukri. These people are the pits of any society today and the Indian educational system specialises in producing millions of them.

Once you go to someone for a job, he becomes your boss and you become part of his project, his dreams, his nightmares, his fantasies. If his company is destroying the environment, you will do the same because you are being paid by him to join him in the destruction whether you like it or not.

That is why parents are sometimes terrible in what they do: imagine raising children in the best way suited to their being employed by others to do things the children invariably never find satisfying or happy or against the general interests of society or people or environment. We are in fact handing over our children (whom we get trained with huge investments) to people whose only speciality is either exploiting people or nature or both. We hide everything under the label of having achieved a “successful career”.

Once you hand over the best years of your life (best part of the day as well) for cash delivery, be prepared to enjoy the cash only when you are too old to enjoy it (pensions, retirement insurance, etc.).

The philosophy of unschooling is to respect and support the spirit of the youngster to enable him or her to discover her path to happiness (not identified solely with comfort), peace and light and not what you think is the path for him or her. (Indian tradition says that you should do this without thereby depriving others with you of their natural right to also discover their path to happiness, peace and light. Rat race, dog-eat-dog mentality is unacceptable.)

In my humble opinion, parents exist solely to protect the lives of their children in those early years when they cannot fend for themselves (eat, walk, talk, sleep, dance), and then to protect the paths their children choose once they are able to fend for themselves physically.

The “career” or “job” model of living is nothing but the latest gilded cage in which the state or government or political party wants to imprison their citizens, so that they can continue with their jobs of over-ruling, pillaging and screwing up the planet. Parents need not join that circus. Only they can take the steps that protect their children from life-long employment in that circus.

The question to ask is not whether it is possible to have a career without a degree (millions do so even today), but whether your precious, unique life should be circumscribed by the demands of a limited and limiting career, that too, one decided by your parents.

How have parents done what I am advocating?

I have known parents who have simply let their children grow as they ran their own lives. Their children simply followed them wherever they went, became part of their world of activity, engaged in it, and finally decided whether they wanted to join it or do something else.

I can tell you what Norma and I did with our kids. Our children (three boys) went to school and college, but with the above philosophy in mind, their schooling and college experiences turned out to be quite different. If we were parents today, we would not send them to school, but we came from a time when schools were considered the done thing. Now that has changed and we regret the time the children really spent of their lives in school.

When it came to college, we gave them parental advice. We told them that college education (‘academic’ education) was junk food, and they could well do anything else they wanted. All said no, they would like to attend college because their friends were there. We felt that was a good reason to go to college. We explicitly warned them against taking their college studies seriously. We advised them to pursue their individual interests and we would support them fully in this, especially when it went into conflict with their college lecturers.

So while they went through the pretence of going to college, they seriously pursed their music, computers, or wildlife interests full-time. When they graduated, all had developed their capacities on their own, all were capable of pursuing independent careers unrelated to their college certification and all recognised that the physical act of going to college had been a complete waste in learning terms if one considered what the college offered them. It is only the parental protection of their learning experiments that enabled them to come out as individuals equipped with necessary skills to surf through society.

We really have no objection if someone wants to go to school or college to study the gobbledygook they insist on pushing down your throats. There are people who love reading books, who get married to textbooks, who zealously mug things, and who love school environments. Don’t increase the misery by depriving those with those tendencies. They will grow out of it, but don’t celebrate it as something of an achievement. Most ‘brilliant’ ‘toppers’ coming out from schools, colleges and coaching classes are zombies in their personal lives. They would find termites a better company because termites also end up chewing books for a living. Most ‘toppers’ also top the list of boring people because they spent their lives doing almost nothing else than mugging.

Lastly, will things turn out all right?

Well, you know the fable of the Ambani brothers, had everything they wanted but still could not keep their family together and got up every morning, angry with the other and wanting to destroy the other. All so-called ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ education can never by itself guarantee a happy life. I have enough cases and so will you of ‘well-brought up educated kids’ turning out failures in commercial terms, making worthless marriages, or killing themselves because their parents had screwed up their lives with incredible ambitions which they themselves could never achieve.

The issue is whether we trust the children (and nature) to come out as wonderful, caring human beings. That means letting go. Trust will always be reciprocated. The child given responsibility will assume it even if in the initial moments it may find it difficult to handle or makes a mess. No issue here. It’s a life! It’s not some automobile in an auto-manufacturing unit we are busy with. If we don’t do things right, we kill someone in a more profound sense than putting a dagger through her chest.