School's Out Forever

"Unschoolers" like Holly Furgason don't believe in public education. They don't even believe in teachers. They believe in the ability of their children to teach themselves. Will the law catch up with them?

The Furgason home has the relaxed feel of a place where you could take a nap in the middle of the afternoon without guilt. A squeaking ceiling fan churns the warm air inside the modest rent house, isolated from its working-class neighborhood by three-fourths of an overgrown acre. Two mismatched blue couches near an ancient Zenith invite inactivity; in fact, they were probably never too nice for such laziness. An old black dog sprawls across the cool concrete of the front porch where he's tethered. But mostly, the slow pace comes from Holly Furgason herself.

She's a round woman, with a kindly, round face. She wears comfortable clothes -- jeans with T-shirts and tennis shoes -- and her long brown hair is pulled back in a bun, with wispy grays forming a fuzzy halo above her forehead.

"Downtime," says Furgason comfortingly, "thinking, resting, relaxing, is just as important as uptime."

The Furgason kids don't have to do anything they don't want to do, but the girls like learning to make paper.
Deron Neblett
The Furgason kids don't have to do anything they don't want to do, but the girls like learning to make paper.

Yes, you could take a nap here, if you happened to be in the Furgason house at a time when there wasn't so much activity going on. On this day a rooster is crowing through the bars of an open window; a half-sheltie, half-chow pup is chasing a six-year-old and her balloon around the linoleum; and three older kids, ages ten to 15, are talking loud and fast at the kitchen table. It's a school day, but the Furgason children don't go to school. They never have. They don't do anything resembling schoolwork when they're at home either. In fact, they're playing Pokémon, the bane of an elementary school teacher's existence. Furgason looks on proudly. "Are we normal enough for you?" she says with a laugh.

Furgason is normal in the sense that she wants what's best for her children. She simply doesn't think what's best for them is public school, or traditional homeschooling, for that matter. The Furgasons are unschoolers, a small subset of homeschoolers who keep their kids out of school for educational rather than religious reasons and operate with no textbooks, exercises, assignments, drills or even set subjects to study. The idea is to let children continue with the natural learning process that starts in infancy, when babies begin to walk and talk and take in the world without much adult instruction. If given half a chance, these parents believe, children would tackle grammar and arithmetic with the same fearless curiosity. The unschooling mantra: "Birds fly. Fish swim. Children learn." You can't stop them, you don't need to help them, and you certainly shouldn't force them.

The Furgason family makes its home in one of the most unregulated homeschooling states in the country. In fact, some 75,000 families teach their own children in Texas, a place where pro-government is politically incorrect, where an individual's freedom to destroy his own mind is virtually a constitutional right, and where liberals will argue the sanctity of parental authority as fiercely as conservatives. But even here, Furgason's extremely laissez-faire approach to her children's education may cross the line of reason, and the law.

Furgason had a "typical public school experience" growing up in Buffalo, New York. She was an early reader, so she started kindergarten at the age of four. A shy, well-behaved girl, she did well in class until high school, when she blew off school two or three days a week and ultimately failed her senior year. What happened to the good student?

She remembers sitting in the back of the classroom quietly reading Kafka -- in German. She got detention for it. She asked her teacher how the founding fathers came up with their ideas for the government of a new nation. The answer: That's not on the test. Partly as a joke and partly as an experiment, she took the ACT without looking at the questions and scored a very high 32. She no longer bought into the system.

Furgason wonders how incidents like these didn't quash her love of learning. Perhaps it was because she was so shy; she had nothing better to do than sit at home and read. Fiction, nonfiction, textbooks, encyclopedias, biographies, newspapers, magazines -- she was indiscriminate, as long as the material interested her. At some point she happened upon a book called How Children Fail, by educational reformer John Holt. "Of course," she thought, "I had been one of those kids who failed."

Holt taught elementary school for ten years, all the while trying to figure out how to make the public school system better at fostering learning. But by the late 1970s he had decided that real reform was impossible and that parents should educate their children at home. It was then that he coined the term "unschooling."

"The question I have been trying to answer for many years is, Why don't they learn what we try to teach them?" he wrote in a 1982 revision to the '60s classic How Children Fail. "The answer I have come to boils down to this: Because we teach them -- that is, try to control the contents of their minds."

Holt's ideas made sense to Furgason, who believes she unschooled herself all her life. "Kids are not inherently lazy, stupid creatures. They want to learn, want to know, want to understand the world around them," she says. "I wish I could sue the schools I went to for keeping me from getting an education."

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