Rewilding and Deschooling: a dialogue between Max Hope and Sophie Christophy

Please note: this piece was first published on Write On Changemakers.

Authors: Max Hope & Sophie Christophy

Max Hope, Director of Rewilding Education and advocate of freedom is passionate about rewilding and is excited about how concepts of rewilding can be used to ignite radical educational change. Sophie Christophy, Founder of The Cabin and unschooling parent, is a feminist and children’s rights activist and originator of the concept of consent-based education. They are activists and partners in work and in life. In this exchange of emails, they discuss whether rewilding, deschooling and unschooling are simply different names for the same thing, and debate whether these look and feel the same in practice.

Max: I want to radically change education. For me, the formal education system in this country – by which I mean schools, colleges, and universities – is completely dysfunctional. It is rigid and constraining and it treats all children and young people as a homogeneous group. It distorts our experiences of our own selves. It shapes children’s self-esteem by valuing and prioritizing some types of learning over others (academic over creative, emotional, sensual, practical etc.). It sets children up against one another. It is obsessed by measuring and assessing. It totally separates us, as human beings, from the natural world. Do I need to go on?

I am increasingly drawn to the idea of rewilding education. By this, I mean bringing in the wild, connecting to self-will, trusting our inner selves, tuning into authenticity. I want us all, as human beings, to feel deeply connected to the natural world, to feel a part of an ecosystem. I want education to be offered in a way that enables freedom, space, spaciousness, trust, playfulness and spontaneity. I want to connect to the wild. I want to honour each individual and our place in the world. I want us all to belong, to feel connected, and to strive to make the world a better place.

You use the language of unschooling and deschooling. You invite me to use this language alongside – or instead of – the language of rewilding. Can you tell me more about what these terms mean to you? 

Sophie: There isn’t a big gap for me between what I understand unschooling to be and what you mention above in your description of rewilding education – deschooling is for me the process by which someone who has been schooled goes through in order to unlearn and decondition themself from schooled ways, beliefs and biases, in order to unschool and hold unschooling space and relationship for others. Unschooling is a movement and a way, a practical and actionable response to the problems that you identify with the education system. Unschooling acknowledges those problems, identifies them as being unacceptable, and then decides to do differently. For each of the issues (and more not yet mentioned), there is a response. Where the system is rigid, unschooling is dynamic, fluid and ever evolving. Where the system homogenizes young people as a group, unschooling recognizes that young people – like people of all ages – are unique people, with different needs, wants, interests, ways of doing things, paths, priorities, identities and more. 

Crucial to unschooling, and deschooling process, is recognising, valuing, and seeking to protect a person’s connection to themself. This connection is easily disrupted and damaged – especially in our culture that has little regard or care for a babies/toddlers/children sense of self. In childhood especially, when our need for relational attachment and security is really peaked and dominant for survival reasons due to our dependency on our caregivers, our connection to self and our own authenticity is especially vulnerable. We will surrender our selves before we risk rejection from those we are dependent on.  Part of deschooling is the healing work to reconnect to ourselves again, in order to then unschool. The language is confusing but there is an important difference between the work of deschooling ourselves, and the experience of unschooling.

Unless people in care giving roles make a special effort to recognise and honour the sense of self of babies and children, a ‘normal’ childhood experience in our culture leads to all kinds of damage, disorientation and separation. But perhaps I’ve strayed from your original question here. I’d like to know though, where do you think getting ‘unwilded’ starts? I am proposing it is as soon as we are born, and start to engage with the relationships and childhood culture in our society that discreetly starts to sever us from ourselves by 1000 cuts…

Max: I like the phrase ‘sever us from ourselves’, that’s a powerful image. If we define wild as ‘self-will’, then I can see that there is a clear overlap between rewilding, deschooling and unschooling. They are concerned with self-will, with authenticity, with deeply tuning into ourselves. They are trying to avoid the severance of human beings from themselves, or in the case of rewilding and deschooling, to enable people to heal from the severance and to re-connect with themselves. I can see that. Our underpinning agendas are similar here.

My question to you, though, is whether unschoolers are also concerned with our severance from the natural world? For you, is there a problem here, and what do unschoolers do about it? I watched a TED Talk by Logan LaPlante (aged 13) who defined his approach to education as ‘hack-schooling’ (which I took as being similar to unschooling) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h11u3vtcpaY ). He chose to spend one day per week in nature, and he talked about gaining a deep and spiritual connection to nature, as well as making spears and fires and shelters and having fun. This was his choice. He self-directed this experience. He wanted it to happen. Is he unusual in this, or is this a common thread for many unschoolers?

In direct response to your question, yes, I think ‘unwilding’ starts at birth. Or even before birth, if you have any interest in pre- and perinatal psychology. As a culture and as a society, we have in-built processes which disconnect us from ourselves and from the natural world. It is hard to imagine that any child, young people or adult has managed to avoid this.

Sophie: There are people who, in pregnancy, birth and the time that follows, have an awareness of the threats of ‘unwilding’, though they would use other language to describe this. People proactive in trying to reduce those risks, and push back, or rather, protect what could be called a ‘wilder process’. There are also birth workers active in this effort too. I’m saying this because it’s important to me that this effort not be erased. There is a history to this and an ongoing movement.  

In regards to your question, it is very common amongst unschoolers that I know (I live in a rural context, but am connected to broader unschooling community online) to be nature connected and environmentally aware. I also think that the power dynamic of unschooling – power with and not power over – doesn’t normalise dominator culture as school does, is potentially enabling to unschoolers in seeing that they are of nature themselves, not separate from or above it. 

What if we flip this question on its head, and ask why people become nature separated in the first place? I would argue that school and schooling separates us from and confuses us about our role in natural world and the land we live on. It also robs us of time to be in it. The film In My Blood it Runs tells a story of how this happens from an Aboriginal perspective of modern day (colonial) schooling in Australia.  Our system isn’t different, we just don’t have Aboriginal folk like Dujuan to point out its problems to us (although I think children here do to try to tell us in their own ways). 

I’m not saying that all unschoolers have a strong desire to spend a lot of time out and about in the woods (some might be more cave folk than tree folk 😉 for example), and family interests and priorities no doubt play a part, but unschooling creates a lot more time and space to follow your instincts, think about what is important, and to connect with nature at your own pace and your own way. My observations from the self-directed education setting that I co-run is that there is an innate drive in children to go out and be in nature. 

As a child did you ever, as I did, gaze longingly out the window and the blue sky and sun, whilst being stuck in a classroom for the fifth day in a row (and seeing that as normal)? Unschoolers can accept nature’s invitation. I think that humans are likely predisposed to seek nature connection, just like human connection, as a basic human need, but most are obstructed from doing so in a way that unschoolers are not.  What do you think?

Max: Did I ever gaze longingly out of the window? Yes, I am sure I did. I loved to go outdoors, jump over the stream, get covered in mud, play football, fly kites. I also loved to stay inside, watching TV, reading books, playing board games, watching more TV and chatting to friends.  As a child of my time, we did not have computer games, endless channels on TV, YouTube, Facebook or any of the other technologies that children and young people have easy access to today, and I cannot be sure what impact these options might have had on me. I think they might have enticed me to stay inside more often.

It is not just school culture that is responsible for separating children from themselves, from each other and from the natural world. There is a plethora of other influences too.

I understand your point about unschooling offering more opportunities for nature connection, for being outdoors, for following instincts. I can see that unschooled children and young people have more time for this, and they might be in a family culture which values these types of activities.

My question though, is whether developing a deeper connection with the natural world is necessarily an outcome of unschooling? If children and young people are genuinely and authentically able to self-direct their own experiences, I am yet to be convinced of the inevitability of them choosing to stay connected, or reconnect, with the natural world. They might utilise their freedom and self-will to pursue entirely different endeavours. Is this a fair conclusion to reach?

Sophie: Unschooling requires a deep connection to our core nature/self. I am using these terms interchangeably because that is how I understand them to be. What is rewilding if it isn’t about creating optimal conditions for ‘nature’ to be able to express itself?  Being ‘self-directed’ is being directed by our own nature – being ‘nature-directed’ – directed by our own nature. 

When it comes to being connected to or reconnected to the natural world, then that is an interesting question isn’t it. And deserves some exploration and considering as to what we actually mean by the ‘natural world’ and what we mean by being ‘nature connected’. I would particularly like to interrogate if we have a shared belief about what ‘nature connectedness’ actually looks like in practice, and what might inform the ideas about that. 

I think there are many, many different ways to experience nature connection, many different behaviours that can be demonstrative of nature connectedness. I also think that it isn’t a black and white situation – of either someone being nature connected or not. I would like us to bust open some assumptions and stereotypes here as well – like for example that being a gamer or utilising screen-based technology means by definition that you are not also nature connected. 

So, my question to you is, What do you mean by the ‘natural world’, and what does being ‘nature connected’ look like and mean to you?

Max: Being nature connected. Hum. The phrase ‘nature connection’ is used so frequently in the circles that I move in, and yet it is rarely defined. Now you have pushed me to explain it, I am finding it quite difficult. The obvious response is to talk about feeling a connection to the natural world, to plants and trees and birds and animals. ‘Nature connection’ activities often include fire lighting and sit spots and sleeping out under the stars. 

And yet, in this moment, I am feeling that this response is inadequate, because human beings are a part of nature, and not bystanders to nature. As your own 7-year old said a few weeks ago, ‘We are Nature’. And so, what does this mean for nature connection? Is it also about connecting to the nature within ourselves, to the wild inside? Is ‘nature connection’ about tuning into our own internal nature, and deeply connecting to this? Do we start with ourselves or with the wider, living world? Does connecting with one impact on our ability to connect with the other? As I said, hum.

I totally agree that this is not a clear-cut issue. Nature connected: yes or no? Deschooled: yes or no? Rewilded: yes or no? There are so many shades of grey, so many nuances. It is far more helpful to see these as spectrums where we can be further along, in different ways, and at different moments in time. I know that this is certainly true for me. My personal journey to rewild myself is long and complex and, at times, feels like one-step-forward-two-steps-back. I wonder if this is the same for your own personal deschooling and unschooling journey?

Back to education. In your view, if the process of deschooling and rewilding are the same thing, what are the implications for my aspiration to rewild education, or in your terms, make it more like unschooling? Can you imagine that it is possible for mainstream schools (or colleges or universities) to become any wilder? 

Sophie: Is it the same in my deschooling journey? With one step forwards and two steps back, as you say? I think that it is a journey for sure, with winding paths, experiences along the way and aspects that can challenge our progress. I think that as with journeys generally, there are different ways to approach them, different factors influencing them, and different experiences and outcomes as a result. I am very keen and dedicated to getting as far along as I can, as consciously as I can, and ideally, with as many other people as I can, and that dedication does affect my journey and state of deschooling I think. I would rather ‘rest’ than take backward steps if I can help it. I am aware of the things that can cause backwards steps and where possible, I really do try to be boundaried regarding those things because I don’t like to feel dragged back into more schooled way of being. I try instead to put myself in places that are encouraging me and inviting me on. 

On to your other question – is it possible for mainstream schools to become any wilder? Not without massive consciousness raising and shifting of those who hold power and influence. People in the mainstream have to break open like I have had to do, like you have had to do, in order to accept how dysfunctional the current system is, how badly it separates us from ourselves, and really understand the impact of that. How it currently does the opposite of what is wild, by dominating and colonising our bodies, hearts and minds, disorientating and distancing us from our selves. You can’t solve the problem if you aren’t willing to look at the problem, right to its edges, to its core and to the deepest parts of its roots. And we both know how painful and hard that experience can be, how debilitating even at times.

I think a question those of us wanting to see this change need to ask ourselves is: what part can we play in this? I believe that those of us that can see this problem are here and can see it for a reason, and have a profound, incredibly important role to play. I think we each have something miraculous and personal to contribute to the process, unique to who we are and as an offering from our own path. 

Max: What part can we play in this? What a great question. No simple answer though. The issue, for me, is that we live in a world in which mainstream schooling is the overriding culture, and where attending these schools is the predominant experience for most children and young people. Alternatives – elective home education, self-directed settings, private schools – are still only available to a tiny percentage of children. And so, if we want to affect change, which I know that you and I both do, we have to decide where to put our energies. 

When people live in built-up, over-populated urban areas, they might be tempted to conclude that they can’t do any rewilding of the land, that this is some sort of fad or trend that is only available to rich folk in rural areas. Not so. There are loads of fantastic stories of people who are rewilding urban spaces. People can make significant impacts in small corners of the world, within the space that is available to them.

I hope that this is also the case within mainstream education.

I absolutely agree that mainstream schooling culture needs to be radically transformed. The ecosystems within mainstream schooling cultures need to become freer, fairer, healthier, and wilder. Is the challenge too big? Is there any point in trying? I work from the position of optimism, of believing that individuals can make a tangible difference. I believe that we can work to rewild small spaces in education, whether this be within the heart of one teacher, or one classroom, or the culture within one bunch of teachers.

I want more, and I feel an urgency around this. But to some extent, this is a strategic decision. I wonder whether the language of rewilding might be more palatable than the language of unschooling? Do you think that inviting mainstream educators to ‘deschool’ themselves might be more confronting than asking them to ‘rewild’ themselves, even if you and I believe that these are actually a similar thing?

Sophie: I don’t want to get stuck in the problem – and trying to answer all of the questions that you raised risks doing that to me. We could try to answer them all, but how much time would have passed between now and then? Time when we could be taking actions in our lives to make a difference, rather than thinking about what actions we might want to take. I’ve felt this time pressure keenly because I had to make choices to do with my own children’s education and those choices couldn’t wait because they were forced by their age. I do really believe in being strategic and holding sight of the bigger picture. But I also think that what matters maybe more is getting on, from where we are, in our own lives, and not worrying too much as to whether it’s the best most fool-proof action that will change everything for the better, but trust that doing something will take things on in the process in a positive way. 

Everything takes energy – engaging with the nuances of the problem takes energy, and experimenting with creative solutions takes energy too. I think it’s really important that the balance of that is kept in check. And I think it’s important that in answering this question we make it as personal as possible, rather than hypothetical and generalised. What part can play in this change, what can I do? I take this issue so seriously I’ve been willing to put myself on the line for it. I’ve made decisions that have been perceived by others as risky, things that have resulted in a lot of isolation and have othered me. I’ve taken what would be considered by others as ‘risks’ in regards to my own children. And I’ve held that line. Creating the new in whatever way we can is what manifests the future and change that we want to see. 

That’s been my belief – make the future now by creating spaces and behaving in ways that are in keeping with what we are working towards. Making a commitment to this is crucial, and for me in my life, this commitment has had a very practical and life changing connotation. Commitment and action are two things that I think are needed for those of us working on this. Accept that things are fucked so you don’t keep asking questions about it or have to keep on convincing yourself over and over again in the problem phase or by convincing others or seeing others agree. Then decide what for you the answer is to this – what is it that the different way and future needs to look like, so things aren’t fucked. Commit to that vision so you don’t need to keep questioning it. And then act like you are making that vision come true now. As many decisions as possible made in the image and honour of that vision. And that is now new futures are manifest in reality. So, let’s try again and get personal AF – when I say, ‘what part do we have to play in that?’, what I mean is what part do you, Max Hope, in all your gloriousness, experience and passion, have to play in this, in real, actionable terms?

To be continued …

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