Wow, I love the conversation this post has sparked, and I love that people are weighing in with thoughtful and varied opinions! Thank you all so much for commenting, and please do keep chiming in :)
Some really excellent points have been brought up in the comment thread, so I want to address a few of those and dive into the discussion with a little more personal background. I won't be able to cover everything I want to say in just one post, but the issue of education is very important to me and I do bring it up here often without getting "into" it on a personal level. I figure since I keep harping on this kind of unconventional approach to learning that is unschooling, I owe it to my audience to articulate where I stand and why. So here goes:
First of all, wow, isn't Art grand? Good Will Hunting and this particular scene are classic, and I think they raise so many beautiful, perplexing, and challenging themes that clearly resonate with many many people.
Of course, Will Hunting is a fictional character, and he embodies many extreme qualities that are not typically found in combination in real-world individuals (the super-hotness melded with being a genius savant melded with having LOTS of personal issues melded with being just naturally cool and street smart, etc. etc.). So it's not that I think he's this Great Model of Unschooling, the perfect example of how you don't have to go to school to be smart or educated. He's a made-up character!
But that's the thing about powerful art -- it can communicate strong truths about our world without being completely realistic. What I think is so great about this scene is that it brings up what I feel to be an entirely valid point: you don't have to go to school to be educated. You don't have to have an expensive degree to be incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about important/esoteric/advanced subjects. In fact, autodidacticism often results in a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the material learned than does compulsory schooling.
I believe in authentic learning rather than forced memorization. I believe in self-directed exploration for the love of it rather than education through a system based on reward and punishment (grades, testing, the whole academic ball of wax). I believe that children should primarily play and not be confined to desks. I believe in nurturing imagination rather than emphasizing rote regurgitation of facts.
I am a lifelong unschooler. For the majority of my childhood I was not required to do schoolwork and I was never pressured to keep up with age-appropriate grade-levels. I played, I read, I drew, I danced, I listened to and played music, I cooked meals alongside my mother and father and grandmother, I learned how to write, I watched movies, I gardened, I helped my parents build a house, I traveled, I had a range of friends who varied greatly in age, maturity, background, areas of expertise. I often engaged with friends and family in rich dialogues and debates, and was encouraged by those around me to speak my mind and always ask questions, to follow my heart and my interests.
Starting when I was in my early teens, I began to audit college courses in subjects that interested me, ranging from English to Music Theory, to Science, to History. I did this purely for the love of learning, and because I wanted to try it out. I was not there because anyone else forced me to be there, I was not there because I wanted to rack up credits or credentials or be some kind of type-A overachiever. My interests and passions had been nurtured my entire life. My parents had not acted as teachers but as facilitators, encouraging and supporting me and providing resources when I wanted them without ever forcing me into an agenda. Choosing to engage with professors and classmates on topics that mattered to me was a huge vehicle for learning, and I will be the first to say I gained much from it. I am not sure that I gained INVALUABLE things, or things that would not have been possible to glean on my own or in another kind of setting, but it was a growing experience and after years of not attending school it was weirdly validating to know that I could function within the culturally valued mode of education (academia) and moreover I could excel there, often outpacing my conventionally-schooled peers, several years my elder.
In my late teens, I enrolled in college full-time, as a degree-seeking Freshman, and set out to see what the world of school could offer me when immersed in it with a full course-load and the objective of obtaining some actual credits and credentials. In my first semesters there, and continuing through my stay, I can unequivocally say that I read less, and at a much shallower level than I ever had before in my life. I became focused on studying for tests. A life-long writer, I learned how to effectively bullshit (not that this is a skill without merits!) papers to get them turned in by the deadline. Previously free to engage with mentors, teachers, family members, and classmates and converse with them on topics of interest, I now felt intellectually numbed, less engaged, and totally sleep deprived thanks to the combined forces of schoolwork and school-style social life (that's a whole other topic that would take at least one looooong post to address!).
And I was "succeeding" at the game! I maintained a high GPA, my teachers loved me, and I had lots of friends!
After graduation, my experience left me feeling entirely ambivalent about academia. I don't think it was a total waste of time, because sure, I learned things and I am not one to look back on personal experience with regret. But I AM pretty sure it was a waste of money. Despite having had various academic scholarships, and having worked numerous part-time jobs while pursuing my degree, I still left school saddled with loans, and a pretty keen sense that getting a job in my chosen field might not actually be made so magically easier by having a degree, good grades, and academic honors.
And indeed, I applied for many jobs when I left college and ended up actually waiting tables and working in retail (not that there's anything wrong with those occupations, but those are not the lines of work that people typically aspire to while striving for their college degree, am I right?) I also know I am not alone in this predicament. It is a well-talked-about fact that in recent years the value of higher education has gone down, while the price tag has gone up. I know plenty of people with advanced degrees that still struggle with school loans and settle for careers that fall somewhere significantly beneath what they had envisioned for themselves as they travelled through the system doing everything "right" for 16-plus years of their lives.
All of this is to say, that as someone who identifies as an unschooler I do not believe that school is somehow inherently evil, but even in its best incarnations it IS incredibly flawed, and I believe that society places far too much emphasis on the importance of this factory-based system of one-size-fits-all education.
And sure, unschooling is not for everyone either! But as a philosophy, I think it is an idea whose time has come, and more people are starting to wake up to the reality that they do not have to live their lives from preschool onward in a kind of perpetual race for credentials of questionable value. You do not have to slack off on (or abdicate entirely) your individuality, your imagination, your interests, or your voice in the pursuit of a degree. You do not have to give up years of play, or reading, or writing comic books, or directing theatrical productions, or sewing your own wardrobe, or starting a business, or programming computers, or riding your bike, in exchange for the be-all-end-all Education with a capitol "E". Like it or not, school is built on a model that encourages standardization and rewards conformity, and I think many school students pay a much higher price for living in the system than the one listed on their student loan bills every month.
Which brings us back to the lovely scene in the bar, and what was for me, Will's rather elegant closing line,
"…at least I won't be unoriginal."
Photo: Yours Truly at age two ;)