Changing the Route Can Change the Destination

It’s a busy time of year for everyone – I don’t expect you have much time to cozy up to your computer screen (or tablet, or phone) and read blog posts.

But that’s not the real reason I’ve been slow to write lately. I’ve been reading a lot, taking in new ideas. I’m in that place right before the disparate things that I’m reading align themselves into some coherent new perspective.

It’s a fun head space, but it makes for terrible writing. Every time I sit down, I’m temped to share random quotes and say, “See: this stuff.” And it wouldn’t make any sense.

But, I’ll take a crack at articulating something I’ve been thinking about.

Last month on the Life Learning Magazine blog, Wendy Priesnitz posted a short piece about success and failure. She reflected on how our culture treats them as states to achieve or avoid. And how we see success and failure more like opposite sides of a coin than like periods of growth, experimentation, and learning.

The impetus of her post was that she was questioned by somebody about the success of her two adult daughters, as examples of the success of unschooling.

I have already written about how my sisters and I connect or don’t connect to the norms of defining success in my post Learning For Learning’s Sake. In that post, I questioned whether my sisters and I are outstanding poster-children for the homeschooling movement at large. We didn’t turn out better than average in our earning power or social mobility. But, importantly, we also did not duck out of the system, go off the grid, and reject cultural norms, either.

My new thought, which crystalized after reading Priesnitz’s piece, is that there is an interesting juncture between the values represented by my generation of unschoolers and the values that have surfaced for my generation as a whole.

I have always asserted that my family was pretty normal, mainstream — except in this one way, with homeschooling. We weren’t religious zealots, or anti-establishment; we didn’t live in a commune, we weren’t cultish in whatever way the word homeschooling used to elicit. We like our lattes, enjoy junky television, and punch the clock like anybody else.

In other words, I have asserted and believed that my family’s choice to unschool wasn’t a rejection of the end-goal, or the destination, it was just an alternative route to getting to the same place.

But in talking to my family and thinking about things a little deeper, now, I can’t help but suspect that, by changing the route unschooling did change the destination. And I think that is something that I have a hard time owning up to.

In her piece “Unschooling Success or Failure,” Priesnitz writes:

… I’m not even sure that success is a condition or even a permanent state of being. It is a process of accomplishing what is required to achieve a task or realize a dream, plus the lessons you learn along the way. And those lessons are invaluable even if the goal is not realized. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t see it this way – maybe because most people think the product is more important than process, while unschoolers see it the other way around.

So, unschooling has shifted the weight of importance from the goal itself and distributed that weight and value throughout the process. We have changed the emphasis from prioritizing outcome to prioritizing the undertaking itself.

On a personal level, how does this express itself for me? As a grown unschooler?

New York City, for me, as an artist, was more like a mirage than like a real brick-and-mortar city. It was the very spectacle of money and power and culture and thrill. I moved to New York, not because, if I made there, I could make it anywhere — and I’m not sure I did “make it” there. I moved to New York City just to live it, for a few years. In order to enjoy it to the fullest, I found cheap rent, worked the same somewhat sloppy day job the whole time, didn’t earn a lot of money, and spent as much time as I could at museums and parks, making art, exploring neighborhoods, and hanging out with friends at bars.

me and my sister at the Guggenheim, 2012

me and my sister at the Guggenheim, 2012

Being there was a goal, and I achieved it, but it was about the humble process of living and loving a place. That wouldn’t be among the metrics on a study of the success of adult unschoolers. I’m aware of that. And New York is a city for workaholics and ladder climbers, which is something that I love about it. So, I straddle an uncomfortable place between my own instinctual values and a desire to succeed in conventional ways. I struggle to live authentically and comfortably between these two sometimes-opposing forces.

But maybe it’s not just me. On the Facebook page, I shared the New York Times Opinion piece Millennial Searchersby Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker:

Today’s young adults born after 1980, known as Generation Y or the millennial generation, are the most educated generation in American history and, like the baby boomers, one of the largest. Yet since the Great Recession of 2008, they have been having a hard time. They are facing one of the worst job markets in decades. They are in debt. Many of them are unemployed. The income gap between old and young Americans is widening. […] Do we have a lost generation on our hands? […]

Chastened by these tough economic times, today’s young adults have been forced to rethink success so that it’s less about material prosperity and more about something else.

And what is that something else? […] Millennials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning

If an attention to meaning is a generational response to these challenges, I think there may be something ultimately important and refreshing about the way tough times will shape my generation and therefore society.

Another piece I read that must be mentioned here is Jim Sollisch’s piece “I Want To Be A Millennial When I Retire,” also in the New York Times:

Then I thought about what I want to do when I retire. […] Basically I want to do what I did when I was in my 20s, before I “succeeded.” I want to write novels and teach part-time at a university. And travel, which I don’t have time to do now but managed to do when I was young and poor.

Fall colors on my block in Brooklyn

Fall colors on my block in Brooklyn

These days, when I read my mom’s old journal and talk to her about her reasons for unschooling, it’s clear that she felt unschooling imbued more meaning and wholeness to childhood and learning. It allowed for more personal values and priorities.

Was our wave of unschoolers prophetic to the generational moment? Preparing us to value the meaning found in process rather than focusing too much on product? Maybe. But I don’t think my parents anticipated the trends that have shaped our cultural and economic landscape today.

Still, the fact that unschooling has shifted values and goals by changing the path and process may have made it a movement aligned to the mentality of my generation. There is a somewhat coincidental convergence here. And I’m interested to see what comes of it.