I've Changed my Thinking on University Entrance and Attendance

Taliesin in his early years, trying to get some lift. Photo: Emily van Lidth de Jeude

I thought about calling this article 'Getting into University as an Unschooler', because that's what people ask me about, knowing that I parent two young adults who are currently in this stage of life. But by the time I finished writing it, I realized that I can't even recommend university anymore. Not the way it's traditionally done, anyway. University is a beautiful little corner of a much bigger, beautiful picture, and I mean to let my kids have the whole picture.

I have two different kids who have traveled through life in the same community, sharing the same upbringing, home and family, and often the same activities, but with vastly different journeys towards what our culture calls "adulthood". They're both now on the precipice of finding meaningful employment in fields that inspire them, still living at home during the pandemic, but eagerly researching the rental market since, one day soon, they plan to move out and build their independent lives. Here are their stories, followed by my current thoughts on university.

He's my firstborn. He was passionate about science since he opened his eyes, though it took me a few years to see it. He observed the whole world around him, figuring out how everything worked. He was passionate about making art, too, but since he was mostly drawing machines (albeit very imaginative machines), I figured science was his thing. By the time he was nine he was begging to go to university and study physics. He was fully unschooled, so we went out to our local university (UBC) and their particle accelerator for tours and to listen to lectures whenever we were able. It was wonderful to see him so engaged, but other than attending lectures, there was little to interest him, scientifically. All the kids' programs were too condescending and boring, having little to do with the science he craved so much, and the teen programs that graciously let him in before he was of age were too few and far between. And as his friends became busier with school activities, he was becoming lonely. We tried gifted homelearner social groups, but both he and I feel an aversion to the 'gifted' classification, and we weren't interested in defining ourselves that way. 

So he went to school. Taliesin did two years at our local private middle school where his uncle teaches, followed by three years at the democratic school in the city. We always approached school from an unschooling perspective, with no concern at all for grades or attendance, and always the option to take a different view of the projects than what was expected. Mostly this served him well, and he managed the shift from unschooling to school quite well. He found science classes boring, because the material is presented in such a slow, methodical manner that there was little room for him to explore his interests. He aced most of the tests because he knew the material, but he stopped pursuing science, on his own.

He still wanted to attend UBC for physics, but now understood he had to wait, and decided to go through the usual route for entrance, by graduating and applying like most others. He graduated with honours at the end of his grade eleven year, and then spent a year taking additional grade twelve and first-year science courses at college, while volunteering in his community and applying to UBC. He only applied to UBC, because that was all he had ever wanted. And at the end of this long haul that started when he was nine, and in the middle of a pandemic, he was denied entrance to what had been for many years his constant life's goal. It wasn't a big deal to me, but I think it was to him. I think it felt like failure, simply because of the competitive nature of our school system and the application. However, he tells me that by the time he received his application rejection, he was already losing interest in the program.

Taliesin moved on. He began teaching himself digital music composition and 3D rendering. He says he's just not that interested in science anymore--and it's true he's been creating art and music all his life--but what I saw as his high school career ended was a young man whose interest in science faded away as he dragged himself through the system that was meant to teach it to him. What I saw was my son's enthusiasm dwindled, his confidence shattered, and his life's goals just thrown out the window. But, because he had little else to do, he continued drawing, rendering, and composing. Within months of self-teaching from his bedroom, he had mastered rendering to such an extent that he found a volunteer job rendering a space station for a show being produced by the College of Southern Nevada's planetarium. And now, nearly a year after he dropped out of college and failed to be admitted to university, I am finally seeing a resurgence of his enthusiasm for learning. 

She was born communicating. She smiled her first gigantic toothless grin at only two weeks old, as she watched her big brother walk by and followed him with her whole upper body. Stories, music, and social interactions are her lifeblood. As young children, she and her brother sat for hours looking at books together every day, but while he was tracing the mechanisms of the machines, the families, the buildings, or whatever else he could find, she was telling the stories. She was looking in the little faces of the characters and feeling their feelings. By the time she was six or so, she frequently stopped her brother from telling about science, declaring, "science boils my brain!" 

Like her brother, she was unschooled for many years, until social interactions became too infrequent, and she went to school. She attended a part-time Distributed Learning program, and then the same democratic school as Taliesin, but focused more on writing and musical theatre than anything else. Over the years she enjoyed many personal projects, including publishing magazines online, working and volunteering for local childcare centres, reviewing books for middle grade readers, and babysitting every chance she got. By the time the pandemic hit, she was nearly finished preparing her first novel for publication, and finally self-published it just this past winter.

It's funny how people often struggle with the things they excel at. Despite being a highly social person, or maybe because of it, Rhiannon's struggles have mostly been social, and the pandemic isolation has been the worst of it. Her decision to quit school entirely and register as a homeschooler, returning to a fully self-directed unschooling life was difficult for a girl who thrives on social connection. So she wrote! She's still reviewing novels on the website she built herself. She's expanding that website to include relevant articles about writing for children and teens, and she's just begun the process of publishing another magazine for middle-grade readers. She's not going to graduate from high school. She's just living.

But what about university? Well, Rhiannon still hopes to study Early Childhood Education at Capilano University, so before she quit school she made sure that would still be an option. I helped her find a contact, but other than that, this process is hers. She had a conversation with someone in the ECE department and discussed how she might apply without a highschool diploma. Capilano University doesn't really have much of a homeschooler admission policy, but they were delighted to hear that at fifteen she was already enthusiastically pursuing her goals, that she already knew enough about those goals to know exactly what her own educational values are, and that she intended to apply. They will, eventually, look over her activities and projects from the last few years and admit her according to whatever those have been. There's no guarantee, just like her brother wasn't guaranteed a spot at UBC despite an honours-standing graduation, a scholarship for his biology-related community work, and significant long-standing attendance at UBC lectures. But then, there's really never a guarantee about life, is there?

That brings me to what I've learned. I've learned that not only is there no guarantee of admission to university, but there's no need to worry about it, either. I've learned that university, like school or a job or a friendship, offers a lovely and important opportunity for learning, but it's not everything. 

When I was a kid, we were expected to go through the gamut of school until high school graduation, and then either get a job or access further education if our career goals required it. University has now been tacked onto that expectation as a part of the gamut. But why? What's the point? Not only do most kids not have firm career goals by the time they finish high school, but increasingly, people are having a multitude of different careers over the course of a lifetime, and accessing further education only as needed. There's little point in spending four years in training for a job that may not even exist when we finish. There's equally little point in spending all that time in school, when we can be learning and growing on the job, or while working on other pursuits.

So what's university for? A friend of mine pre-read this article and asked me to explore this a little more. Her comments made me realize that many of the skills and experiences I gained from university are now unneeded in our society in general, like outdated job-search skills, now-antiquated writing conventions, and working in a pre-social-media world. Other skills I gained, such as time-management, a sense of self and community engagement, mature social skills, real-world career-building skills, and--most importantly--independence have already been mostly acquired by my unschooled kids, simply because they spent their teen years exploring rather than schooling. During one of the many parent meetings at the democratic school both of my kids attended, the principal explained that at a democratic school kids are encouraged to do whatever they like, even when that means spending every day playing video games or sitting out on the grass chatting with their friends. She then said something to the effect of "we let them do this in their teens, instead of during their first year of university, when they're paying high tuition fees just to sit out on the lawn chatting with their friends." Right. At the time, with a couple of unschooled teens I could already see had more "adulting skills" than I did at twenty, her words hit home.

This current expectation that everyone should attend university for four years just to have a degree that allows us to apply for the next degree, or for a particular job is not a long-standing tradition. Universities used to be simply a hub for research and discovery. They still are, and in addition to that, they offer kids who haven't already had a chance to gain independence a space to do so. More excitingly, they offer a place for people to gather in pursuit of common interests, and because of this (and their ancient position as research hubs) they still hold more resources for the exploration and pursuit of those interests than other parts of the city. The only particle accelerator in this little part of the earth is at our university, for example. It's good to have a place to gather in community and pursuit of knowledge and understanding! We need that! Universities still offer this, and the greatest professors are those who show up not to impart knowledge, but to gather people together in pursuit of it, sharing their enthusiasm as they do. The best classes are not rungs on the ladder towards a degree, but those that welcome in the public and people of all experience levels to just get excited and share ideas. I hope and imagine that as humans and education continue to evolve, universities cease to be an expected part of "growing up", and continue to be, as they have been for many centuries, a hub for growth.

I love how my kids are making their way into adulthood without following the prescribed route. My son feels he needs some education in rendering, so he's just now beginning an online course. My daughter is about to begin a job running a book club for middle-grade readers. Both my kids are on the precipice of their adult lives, and finally free to jump. Maybe one day university will be an important part of my kids' lives, but I imagine it will be just one strand in a great weaving--definitely not something to spend their teen years fretting about. It turns out they can spend their teen years doing what they love and each of those other activities will be equally valuable strands in the same big weaving of their lives.


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