“You understand Teacher, don’t you, that when you have a mother who’s an angel and a father who is a cannibal king, and when you have sailed on the ocean all your whole life, then you don’t know just how to behave in school with all the apples and ibexes.”
― Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking
My children were the first to point out that most popular children’s book series on the market today feature characters who go to school. Junie B. Jones, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Judy Moody are just a few examples that come to mind. The stories in these series usually revolve around conflicts generated at school: jealousy, peer pressure, discrimination, competition, growing up, bullying and navigating their way around parental and teacher authority. Most of the time, a moral is offered.
Field trips, friendships, experiments and lots of laughter are also shared in these books. In fact some of them are downright hilarious and we’ve immensely enjoyed reading them. But the fact remains that these are books written for and marketed to age-specific, even grade-specific, readers who, well . . . go to school.
There are of course, exceptions. My children really like the Lemony Snickett books, A Series of Unfortunate Events. If you’re not familiar with this 13-novel series, it features the recently orphaned Beaudelaire children, who spend their lives dealing with senseless adults who are charged with protecting them from a dastardly, greedy distant relative. Their education is rarely mentioned, yet much emphasis is put on the individual passions and talents which ultimately save them from disaster. So in that sense, they are self-directed learners. However, while these children use their intelligence, imagination and problem-solving skills to outwit bumbling adults, the series remains a black comedy about orphans who, without the guidance and protection of their parents, are left to fend for themselves.
Then there’s Pippi Longstocking, the unstoppable protagonist in Lindgren’s series. Pippi is both underdog and champion as she challenges unreasonable adult and societal authority in her quest to remain independent. Pippi’s mother is “an angel” and her father is shipwrecked on a far away island, leaving Pippi to her own devices. With the exception of one botched trial, Pippi refuses to go to school, much to the dismay of the adults. Pippi is loved and admired by other children for her ability and freedom to take care of herself and create adventures from everyday experiences. Pippy is never bored. And Pippi always succeeds at winning over her adversaries, children and adults alike. What reader wouldn’t want to follow her optimistic, care-free and confident view of the world?
Many children’s books of this genre reflect two deeply-ingrained societal messages. The first is that school is an unavoidable Petrie-dish of problems flourishing in an environment of competition and measured performance. And while these problems are certainly not exclusive to children who go to school, they are common themes in children’s literature. But rather than addressing why things like bullying and discrimination flourish in the school environment and how they could be eliminated, these books offer ways to deal with the resulting emotions, suggesting an absence of choice.
The second, and there are many examples in children’s literature (Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, The Little Prince) there is the message that only children who are orphaned or without parental supervision and consent (or who live on another planet) are permitted to opt out of school. In other words, parental absence equals freedom. Because, according to social norms, what parent alive and in their right mind would keep their children out of school?
The first books in the Pippi series were originally published in the late 1940s in Sweden where education was mandatory (and still is with strictly limited and regulated homeschooling). So “unschooling” as a notion wouldn’t have figured into Lindgren’s ideas around adult authority. But the creation of Pippi Longstocking shows that she was definitely onto something. Lindgren was a controversial advocate for the rights of children and often criticized the imposition of adult authority. Pippi as a character is both the embodiment and the triumph of Lindgren’s protest.
But as my daughter pointed out, while Pippi’s endless curiosity and desire to learn from experience are proof of great life learning spirit, she isn’t really an unschooler. Why? Because she doesn’t have the guidance, consent, support or the loving example of a trusting parental figure. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much progress since Lindgren’s writings. Child autonomy and parental control remain at odds.
As homeschooling/unschooling continue to gain recognition as a viable educational alternative to school, I have high hopes that more and more children (real and fictional) will be at the helm of their own education. But until we can eliminate our deep-seeded societal and parental need to control and direct our children, Pippy Longstocking will technically remain a truant .