Unschooler Karen M. Gibson considers how names and labels can affect how we view ourselves and how non-homeschoolers view us. Do labels such as “unschooling” or “home educators” help or hinder?

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Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity ... any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about dong it right, or better.
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    Names and Labels for Homeschoolers
    Karen M. Gibson

    A recurring topic of conversation between Donna and I (see note below) concerns what we should call ourselves — homeschoolers, home educators, etc. — or whether we should call ourselves anything at all. Questions we have covered include:

    • Is it a disservice to families involved in home education to use terms that imply it (home education) only takes place in the home?

    • Do we further antagonism and misunderstanding in the media, the courts, and/or the general public when we seemingly separating ourselves from others by calling ourselves homeschoolers, home educators?

    • If we name what we do, do we then limit ourselves to being defined and boxed up into someone else’s definition of that term.

    What's in a name? that which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet;

    Act 2, Scene 2
    Romeo & Juliet
    William Shakespeare

    Upon hearing the word ‘rose,’ one thinks of a sweet-smelling beautiful flower. But what comes to mind upon hearing the following descriptions: “unruly — rambles rather than stays where set” or “its thorny attitude causes issues with others”? Would these descriptions label the rose as a troublemaker? A plant to be segregated from others? A plant needing assistance from a plant psychologist? Or maybe some type of medical (genetic) intervention by a plant doctor (geneticist)? If you had never smelled a rose, would you want to associate with a rose, given the seemingly negative labels of “thorny” and “unruly?”

    Naming something does not seem to be the same as labeling it. While “rose” is a perfectly lovely name for the flower, the labels “thorny” or “unruly” are not so lovely. Perhaps that is the difference between a name and a label? When we choose to label something or someone, it seems we often are highlighting negative aspects, rather than positive. Labels are also very subjective, carrying different meanings for different people. Labels are used to separate us from others. They are a negative, placed upon an individual through no choice of their own, to designate why they are different from others.

    There are many names used to describe the different methods of homeschooling: eclectic, school-at-home, and unschooling are just a few of the common ones. Although Donna and I have very similar ideas about learning and education, I doubt you will ever hear her identify herself or her family by any home education method, while I am quite content with calling my family “unschoolers.” Why is this? It is because I don’t consider “unschooling” a label. It is a word that I have consciously chosen as very representative of our learning and life philosophy. It purposely conjures images of learning and living in a most un-school-like manner. A name such as “unschooling” is a positive choice by an individual (in this case, myself), to identify themselves with others of a like philosophical or moral code. And yet, to another individual, “unschooler” might be an unwanted label, applied to them by others without their consent. Even though the word “unschooler” is a name that I believe best represents my choices, I know that others would not agree. Therefore I will only refer to them as “eclectic” or “unschooling” if I have heard them describe themselves that way.

    These labels assigned to homeschoolers not only separate us from the rest of the general (non-homeschooling) population, but are also sources of divisiveness within the homeschool community. So much time is spent polarizing ourselves from within, worrying about what type of home education method is used, what curriculum is used, or whether one is in the proper support group, that we can easily lose sight of the more important issues at stake. Consolidating our current educational-choice freedoms, preventing further encroachment upon our parental rights, safe-guarding our children from the ever-increasing threat of government oversight — all of these issues are far more important than which home-schooler is using what textbook or whether they are using any at all.

    Will we ever reach a time when the terms “homeschooler” and “home education” and “unschooling” are no longer necessary? I hope so, but I don’t look for it to happen any time soon. Possibly my grandchildren will be able to reflect back upon the early 2000s and wonder at how people found it so easy to apply labels to individuals or segregate themselves from others by the words used. In the meantime, we need to be aware of how labels can segregate and damage both individuals and groups. And we will continue wrestling with the “thorny” issue of what to name ourselves or even whether to name ourselves.

    Until our next issue — unfurl your sails and ride the wind!

    ~ Karen

    Copyright December 2001

    Note: Originally published in January/February 2002 issue of HELM (Home Education Learning Magazine) in the regular column entitled "Reflections."

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