A Question of Agency

I was listening to a TED Radio Hour podcast last month; the subject was The Pursuit of Happiness. One of the featured lecturers on the episode was Kathyrn Schulz, who was speaking about the very human experience of regret. She talked about regret necessitating two things: agency, and imagination. To feel regret, we have to have made a decision in the first place, and then be able to imagine another and better outcome had we made another choice.

I watched the full video of Schulz’s lecture after the podcast concluded, and she shows a graph of what people regret most (according to some study). At the top of the list, by a large margin, was education. It was the most commonly reported regret at 32%.

One of my take-aways on that is the tremendous importance we place on education to shape our lives.  But what I am most interested in is the connections between agency and education…

Agency may be the most significant thing that sets unschooled learning apart from the norm. Kids in unschooling families have a lot of control over their educations, and from a young age; in public school, on the other hand, how much choice or control do most kids feel they have?

So is the unschooler’s agency a privilege? Is it a burden?  Does it leave you even more vulnerable to regret your education?

I would say that, by the time I was old enough to understand my own agency in learning, I felt a lot of responsibility. I can only guess that I felt even more responsibility than my peers in school, since it wasn’t just a matter of how hard I was applying myself, but also what I was applying myself to. My time was so much my own to determine, that all of it counted for a lot. Being unschooled implicitly trained me not to section my time into “work” and “play,” as we generally do in this culture. My time and pursuits were more organically connected than divided.

As an artist, I feel that you have to be dogged and independent to have a strong studio practice. As an artist, you have to be able to self-motivate, to work for yourself, first and foremost. I have only recently begun to connect this to my upbringing.  In the past, I always thought my inclination to be self-directed was why I became an artist, not how I became one. Lately, I have been questioning that assumption.

Of course, unschooling isn’t the only way to create self-motivating, independent people. Still, as the economy evolves, as the job market changes, as more and more of my peers become freelancers, and self employed… I’m interested in the model that unschooling provides for training people to use and harness their own agency.


Was my mom thinking about all this when she was my age? Not exactly; she couldn’t have known how the flow of time would change the workforce, or what exact socio-economic landscape she was preparing us for (remember, my mom decided to homeschool us before the internet!).

Journal excerpt from Sept 22, 1987

Journal excerpt from Sept 22, 1987

Anyway, I find a lot of comfort in looking back, hearing her young voice in the journal. Remembering that she was a normal mom, doing her best, out on a limb. I like hearing her own little moments of surprise and discovery as she watched us take initiative, watching us learn.

* → Chalk outside on driveway… (Mindy’s idea). We all write names. (I write “Welcome to DE COLORES, Roz & Ginnie, Love Mindy, Lindsey & Camille.”) Mindy starts by writing Camille’s name, then writes her own, then Camille’s again. Camille draws a wiggly drawing – then her own name. We all draw rainbows, including Lindsey.

What blew me away was Lindsey wrote LIN by herself (I don’t know how she knew the spelling) I helped her write the rest by spelling it & by showing how to write it (using my finger instead of chalk). She wrote LINDSEY and then she “copied” it without ANY help: LIWDEY.


Mom copied with pen and paper my chalk writing, "mistakes" and all

My mom’s copy in pen & paper the chalk writing of my name, “mistakes” and all.


I wanted to close this post by thanking everyone who has given us feedback on this project! It has been incredible to hear from all of you, and I am thrilled to be having this conversation.

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