I have been criticised here recently, and not for the first time, for my portrayal of autonomous home education in the two newspaper articles which were published last summer. Among the accusations levelled at me in the past was that I had put forward a grotesque caricature of autonomous education and thus misrepresented the whole thing to the readers of the Times Educational Supplement. I wrote of autonomous education;
' The idea is that the child should be free to follow their own interests at their own pace. They may, for example, look out of the window and see an unusual bird. This may cause them to investigate ornithology and then study biology generally. Of course, this approach just might work with a bright and inquisitive child whose parents are on hand to facilitate their learning. Equally likely is that the child will see the bird, mutter “So what?” and carry on playing Grand Theft Auto IV.'
Before we watch the clip below, which is from a BBC programme about home education, let us look again at what I wrote. Looking out of the window at birds; this leading, perhaps, to a study of biology; the possibility that kids would rather play computer games. I mean, preposterous! Where do I get off trying to foist such a monstrous and distorted idea of autonomous education upon readers? Now watch the clip below, which is about an autonomously educating parent.
The first thing to strike any impartial observer is how spookily accurate my description of autonomous home education proves to be in this particular case. One gets the distinct impression from his body language and general demeanour that young Christopher is indeed muttering 'So what?' and hoping to continue playing Grand Theft Auto IV, or in his case Super Mario. Anybody would think that I had based my article upon this programme! Since it was filmed six months after the publication of the piece in the TES, this is hardly possible. There is of course no mystery about it. The 'Let's look out of the window and study the birds in the garden' line is a pretty popular gag with autonomous educators hoping to get their kids interested in nature. They don't even need to leave the house! The preference of some children for playing computer games as opposed to studying ornithology is also a general theme among many autonomously educated children, as well as those attending school. Let's face it, an awful lot of eight year old boys want to do little more than run round like mad things until they are worn out and then flop down and watch television or play computer games. Why would autonomously educated children be any different? I also have quite a few people, including autonomously educating parents, contacting me privately to discuss this sort of thing.
The real reason that I enrage some parents is not because I am a know-it-all Smart-Alec and irritatingly smug bastard (Although it would be a rash man who discounted this aspect of my personality entirely when seeking an explanation for my spectacular lack of popularity among autonomous educators). The truth is that I often describe how things are rather than how people wish to pretend they are. This can indeed be annoying. I am no ideologue and am hugely interested in how things really work, as opposed to how they are supposed to work. Hazlitt said, 'Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.' This is why I gain such keen enjoyment from the observation of certain types of education; because of the yawning chasm which separates theory from practice.
Incidentally, lest anybody suggest that the clip above is highly artificial because the mother and child might have felt under pressure due to the presence of a camera crew; this was not the case according to everybody involved. The team actually spent a couple of days there and after a while the child more or less took them as part of the background. These people were quite shocked to find that it was possible to keep a child out of school in this way. Their views on this kind of 'education' were well worth hearing and cast light upon how ordinary people see autonomous learning!