Junior Unschooling Dads, Testimonials

Art Carden – Economics Professor

Economics Professor, Alabama, USA

A word of introduction: I’m an economics professor at Samford University. I was awarded tenure effective August 2015. I’ve won awards for my research on Walmart, economic development, and economic history, and I’ve appeared in a lot of videos for the Institute for Humane Studies’ LearnLiberty project.[1] At Samford, I teach Principles of Macroeconomics, Intermediate Macroeconomics, and the MBA course “Economics of Competitive Strategy.” Before joining the faculty at Samford, I taught at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where I taught the introductory economics course, economic history, Classical & Marxian Political Economy, and Public Choice. My life is soaked in academic pursuits and the liberal arts, and I’m an unschooling father of three.

While we lived in Memphis my wife and I decided we wanted to homeschool. As our son Jacob approached “school age,” we did a lot of reading and, after watching a discussion between Stefan Molyneux and David Friedman, decided to take the unschooling plunge. As of this writing Jacob would be preparing to enter second grade. His sister Taylor Grace would be getting ready for Kindergarten, and his brother David (who just turned three) would be navigating that strange space between toddlerhood and school age that I’ve sometimes heard called “pre-K.”

My wife and I come from decidedly non-radical educational backgrounds. We both graduated from public high schools, we met at the University of Alabama, and were married while I was a graduate student at Washington University in Saint Louis. We are both readers: I learned at an early age that when we went to visit my paternal grandparents the conversations between my father and grandfather were going to be about books and ideas (my grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister and later editor of the Bible Book Series for the Sunday School Board in Nashville). To make a long story short, I grew up in a house full of books and today own… a house full of books.

My evolving theory on an unschooling life emphasizes conversation, adaptation, and change. As an economist profoundly influenced by Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, I think state or national “standards” for what constitutes a sixth grade or an eighth grade or a twelfth grade education are unwise. I understand wanting to see that no child is left behind, but when I think about how much schooling and learning have changed since I finished graduate school, I don’t think we can learn apart from experience, and experiment what the Right Standards are for students inhabiting innumerable cultural, political, moral, and intellectual contexts from sea to shining sea. When I graduated high school in 1997, none of the people working so hard to prepare me for the jobs of tomorrow told me I would need a social media strategy.

I’m also convinced that a lot of the time people spend in classrooms is being wasted. This is true at all levels, from Kindergarten through college. Graduate school, incidentally, is my model for an ideal educational experience. The seminar atmosphere was, to use a phrase I’ve heard before, “unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” As an economics professor, I am learning that almost all of the information transfer parts of schooling can be outsourced to online video: why do I need to give a lecture on comparative advantage to my principles of macroeconomics students when I’ve already taught the lesson in a handful of LearnLiberty.org videos? Why do I need to give a lecture on the things that shift demand curves when students can watch a video from the authors of my textbook that features much better production values than I’m able to achieve with a whiteboard and markers?

It would be a huge mistake, I think, to infer from this that the professoriate is obsolete. I’m learning from my experience teaching online courses that my role is not as a gatekeeper of and conduit for the Wisdom of the Ages—students can get that from Wikipedia. My role is to help them take baby steps into the Great Conversation—to help them ask and answer their own questions about the ideas they have encountered. I’m there to help them contextualize and apply the ideas, and I’m also there to serve as something of an intellectual disc jockey—a term I get from Tyler Cowen’s 2008 book Create Your Own Economy—working to curate content. Instead of holding forth about the things that shift demand curves, I’m there now to help students figure out what to read and watch and how to make sense of what they are reading and watching. The Internet has made demonstrations and explanations (audio and visual) available at very low cost for people who might need to encounter an idea two or three times or in two or three ways before they really get it. My role in the college classroom has changed.

As it is at Samford, so it is at home. There will always be in any circle those who are More Radical Than Thou, and we’re still as of this writing attached to bedtimes and brushing teeth and encouraging the kids to eat what’s on their plate, and we might have more expectations of our kids than the most radical of unschoolers (we’re still learning; be patient with us). We’ve provided soft incentives for academic stuff like reading lessons, but by and large we let the kids explore wherever their imaginations take them. We do a lot of experiments and take a lot of trips, and I can’t begin to explain how great it is to be able to get up in the morning and not be in a huge hurry to get the kids ready for school.

Our kids learn by navigating their world online and off—I was about to write “real world” and “virtual world,” but I don’t see how the kids’ experiences in an electronic space are any less “real” than their experiences walking down a sidewalk apart from mere linguistic convention. Our oldest is a Minecraft expert. He refers to it as his “work”; indeed, one morning after he got out of bed I asked if I could have a hug and he responded “sorry, I have a lot of work to do” as he rubbed his still-sleepy eyes and walked to the computer.

It’s clear he’s learning a lot. First, he’s able to solve pretty impressive design problems. He watches a lot of YouTube videos about this mod and that. Sometimes he uses a video to reproduce something he finds neat; sometimes he takes what he sees and modifies it, sometimes he comes up with something new. Second, he is being socialized (there’s every homeschooler/unschooler’s least favorite word) by learning how to deal with friends and family members who like Minecraft and some who would rather talk about something else. Third, our relationship is stronger (if not tested frequently) because a lot of the things he wants to do are a little beyond his ability and he therefore needs me to download and install some of the stuff he wants to use. His favorite question now is “will you look it up, please?”

I see the same pattern in his younger siblings. For my daughter, it’s Disney Princesses and My Little Pony. For our youngest it’s fire trucks, construction, Bob the Builder, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I find it important—if not always easy—to be deliberate about taking an interest in the things they want to do. Playing Minecraft with Jacob over our home network can be a lot of fun. Going to see Disney on Ice was neat, and I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’m probably going to become a “Brony” because of the time I spend with my daughter. Not long ago, I took our youngest to a fire chief’s convention because the convention organizers were kind enough to say “come on down” when I asked whether I could bring him to look around the exhibit hall. We are able to travel regularly without having to worry about taking the kids out of school. These aren’t in addition to their educations. These experiences are their educations.

We’re blessed because I make enough money to support our family comfortably on a single income; furthermore, academia offers me an incredible amount of flexibility that I wouldn’t have with a 9-5 job. This allows me to take a very active role in the kids’ lives, shuttling them back and forth between appointments, for example, taking them to dinner so my wife can have a break, or even taking one of them to the office with me.

That notwithstanding it is still very difficult to fight those fears that pop up from time to time about whether we are doing the right thing. Are our kids going to be messed up? What if we ruin them forever? What will the neighbors say? Then I remember how much I want to learn, how much I want to explore, and how much fun we’re all having because I can take the kids along for the ride.

Unschooling isn’t easy—far from it. You’re talking about a lot of trips to the library, and a lot of time spent answering questions with what are too often unsatisfying answers (“son, we can’t do that because it requires computer programming I don’t know how to do”). The reward, though, is worth it. You get to see your children not as projects or as chunks of raw material that need to be fashioned into cogs for the social machine. You start to see them as apprentices and partners on an exploration of a wide and wild world and universe. It’s a lot more fun than spelling worksheets, and I suspect the rewards will be a lot greater, too.

[1] Found online at http://www.learnliberty.org/

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About Art Carden

Art Carden is Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. His commentaries and research have appeared in Forbes, USA Today, the Washington Examiner, and a range of regional and national publications. He lives in Birmingham with his wife Shannon and their three children Jacob, Taylor Grace, and David. He can be found online at Facebook.com/artcardeneconomist.

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