Watching ‘Class Dismissed’

The 2015 documentary, Class Dismissed, covers the basics of homeschooling in theory and practice. My wife and I recently watched and enjoyed the film, and I would recommend it especially to people first thinking about homeschooling, new to it, or struggling with it.

The film follows one main family as the “grumpy and overworked” kids withdraw from school and the family seeks to homeschool. They struggle with it, and we watch how they change tactics over time. The film spends less time, but important time, with several other homeschooling families.

The film has a villain and a hero of history (and its selections are sensible). The former is Horace Mann, who brought the regimented Prussian system of education to the United States in the 1800s. Today, that style of education has metastasized into the “test factories” which are modern schools. Thankfully, in the 1970s, John Holt started a new movement for self-directed learning, which blossomed into the homeschooling movement. Although most states once banned homeschooling, all now allow it (with varying degrees of regulation).

The difference in basic philosophy is stark. Mann-style education sees children as receptacles to receive the knowledge and skills chosen by experts and imparted to children by an expert teacher. Holt-style education sees children as naturally curious people with complex and highly individual interests who crave and need substantial autonomy. As is obvious given that my family homeschools, I’m basically aligned with Holt.

The film shows examples of various sorts of homeschooling, although it leans into unschooling. Unschooling basically means that a child charts a unique path and decides what to do during the course of the day. I’ve never liked the term “unschooling,” and the film suggests to me a reason why. Supposedly Holt borrowed the term from 7Up’s advertising campaign claiming that its product was the “uncola.” Of course that ad was complete nonsense; 7Up was and remains a cola, with almost identical ingredients to every other soda (mostly carbonated water and sugar). Whether or not the Holt story is true, it strikes me that “unschooling” has a similar problem—even the most diehard “unschooler” allows for traditional instruction. I prefer the term “self-directed learning,” which allows for instruction and even for a standard schoolroom setup, if the child wants that.

One of the advocates of unschooling in the film struck me as overly preachy; the message seemed to be that if you’re not homeschooling her way you’re doing it wrong. To me that’s contrary to the entire purpose and vibe of homeschooling. Let a thousand flowers bloom—or ten million.

The film also shows both a family that uses a rigorous classical curriculum and a private “school” for self-directed learning. So I appreciate that the film shows different approaches.

I take seriously the warning of some people interviewed in the film against “authoritarian” homeschooling. Someone mentions that around half of people who try homeschooling drop out within the first year. The film suggests, and I think this is probably right, that the reason most people fail (who do) is that the parents basically try to recreate standard school in the home rather than give self-directed learning a chance.

I am in a different position than many homeschooling families. I do think that regular school seriously messes up some children and pounds their natural love of learning out of them. My child is only five and has never attended regular school. So some people have transition problems that my family just hasn’t had to deal with. The film discusses the idea of “deschooling” upon leaving school—giving children a chance to decompress and rediscover their own interests before getting serious about any alternative education program. (Professor Kevin Currie-Knight also discusses this in my podcast episode with him.)

Hopefully the film will give hope to struggling homeschooling families with its portrayal of children successfully making their own decisions. I love this line from one of children interviewed: “It’s fun to learn without having to learn.”

See the web site for the film, or (if you want to watch it) check it out on Amazon digital or on DVD (paid links).