Fragility and Freedom in Self-Directed Education

self-directed education

Recently, an acquaintance posted an article on Facebook titled “The Fragile Generation.” Her post, from the Libertarian journal Reason, quoted Peter Gray from the article. Gray is a psychologist, whose book Free to Learn, and articles on the importance of play and self-directed learning, influenced my decision to explore homeschooling with my children. My interest piqued, I saved the article to read later.

When I read the article, I was dismayed to find musings on freedom and fragility in childhood and young adulthood used to advance a different agenda altogether. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered these conflations before, and it motivated me to write this rather uncharacteristic blog post. Read more

The overall argument of the article is familiar to anyone who takes an interest in issues of freedom and play in childhood. The writers point out increasing restrictions on children’s independence, based on their parents’ fearfulness, from walking freely in neighborhoods to playing unsupervised after school. Citing Peter Gray’s research on the importance of free play, the writers conclude that children are growing up to be increasingly fragile and unable to cope with the challenges and setbacks of real life.

While I am suspicious of the older generation inevitably touting their superiority over the younger, I find these types of arguments compelling. There are real problems with the restrictive ways children are being raised, and my generation of parents needs to take a critical look at our assumptions and behaviors.

Who Is Too Fragile?

In diagnosing the fragility of the current generation of children and young adults, the article offers the example of talk of “microagression” (in quotes) on college campuses.

Microagressions are the commonplace indignities, whether intended or not, that people of color and other vulnerable groups experience in our society. While the concept of microagressions may be relatively new to many, the actual phenomenon did not begin with the current generation of college students. Last time I checked, white supremacy has deep roots in this country.

So the writers shift their “fragility” critique from all young people to those speaking about microaggressions: using “fragility” to dismiss experiences they would rather not acknowledge. Of course, these writers are not the first to manipulate catchwords like “fragility” and “resilience” to argue that certain groups should accept the status quo and stop working for change. Others have articulated this issue far better than I can; for example: “Black and brown boys don’t need to learn ‘grit,’ they need schools to stop being racist.”

Who Gets Freedom?

The article also cites Erika Christakis, who stirred up controversy about Halloween costumes at Yale in 2015. Christakis responded to a mass email from the university by emailing the students in her college (campus residence). She wrote, in part, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience.” (As an aside, I question email as the medium of choice if you are genuinely hoping to participate in a conversation.)

Christakis is the author of The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups, in which she argues for more play and freedom in early childhood. She is frequently cited by people in the self-directed education space. Yet I see her advancing those issues in tandem with an agenda to dismiss people who are speaking out for a more open and equitable society. The Reason article explicitly conflates freedom with her view that young adults should feel safe to be offensive at Halloween. There is, of course, a point at which personal freedom starts impinging on others’ rights. The clear implication here is that some people’s freedom is more important than others’.

The Glorious Past?

An undiscriminating glorification of the recent past often seems to accompany arguments about children’s autonomy and even self-directed education. Christakis’s Yale email cites the halcyon past of American universities. Back then, students could wear “transgressive” costumes in a “safe space,” presumably homogenous and white, without having to listen to the bothersome voices of those who found them offensive.

Gray describes the 1950s, when he grew up, as the golden age of children’s free play in America. That may well be, but not everyone was equally free. I’m certainly not interested in returning to an era when my grandparents encountered open discrimination as young adults at universities and in the military for being Jewish.

Who Is Fragile, Again?

If anyone is too fragile and coddled, it’s those who dismiss what people of color and other marginalized groups say about their daily lives; those who lack the strength to listen to experiences that don’t necessarily align with their own, and to stay with the discomfort and perhaps guilt of considering that those experiences are real.

I am disturbed to read that Peter Gray is teaming up with the writers of “The Fragile Generation” to form the Let Grow Foundation: “Our goal is to restore resilience by overthrowing the culture of overprotection.” After reading the article, I have a lot of questions about who is supposed to be more resilient and who is meant to be protected less.

Peter Gray helped to found the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, a heterogeneous group of activists dedicated to making self-directed education more mainstream and broadly available. I believe in that mission. I don’t think my acquaintance who posted the Reason article on Facebook is raising her children to dismiss the experiences of marginalized people. I wonder if she appreciates Peter Gray and missed some of the other messages in the article altogether. I’m deeply troubled that one issue – children’s freedom to play and learn – is being used to advance another – backlash against the diverse voices in our society.