A Return to Cro-Magnon Education

There’s been a lot of hubbub in the blogosphere and in news media, lately, about education. Primarily, the discussion has been aimed at how we ought to reinforce the public education system in efforts to bolster test scores, take back some of the 30% of students (in the U.S.) who don’t make it to graduation, and be able to ensure that children actually get a decent foundation of primary education. To me, it’s all rather like discussing how to mend the fractured hull of the Titanic in order to sail merrily away unscathed.

I believe it’s time to jump ship, People. The “force-feeding” education model is taking us down, and we’d be better off building a new ship at sea than trying to save the one we’re sinking in. Personally, I think it’s so bad that it seems conspiratorial — as if we are being intentionally dumbed down by public education. Certainly the current pedagogy is, at the very least, detrimental to the natural urge kids have to explore and learn. I’ve railed a bit on this subject before, though, so I won’t do it more now.

What I’d rather do at the moment is pretend we’ve already decided to move on and that we are now discussing how to educate our children more effectively from here on out. The funny thing is that I think, for en masse education, we already have better models than the current public one. Why the public system hasn’t adopted a Montessori, Waldorf, or other similar Constructivist model before now is simply beyond me. Having spent a good bit of time in a few different montessori schools, now, I can easily say, the children I’ve seen there look so much more engaged in what they are doing than their public school peers (whom I have also observed quite a bit). Montessori kids are not only known for their superior intellects and advanced social skills, but also for their sustained and potent enthusiasm for learning. Just in case you are wondering, it’s that last one that really propels them forward through not only higher levels of education, but also through a life which is nothing but learning.

So, on the one hand, for “the public”, for all those who can’t imagine doing otherwise, and for those who really are incapable of something else (or so strongly think of themselves as so that it becomes true), and for those who feel that, financially, they must send their children to public school — I pray for an education revolution. May those children have schools that foster their natural love of learning. May they, finally, be given the room they need to explore freely, the access they need to the wealth of information at their fingertips, and the skills with which to interact and communicate about that information with ease. And may they do that without excessive homework. Pretty please!!

On the other hand, I think, if you can, if you are at all able to “afford it”, and if you are “up for the challenge” — I pray that you please, please, unschool your children.

After all, it is the Cro-Magnon Way

But seriously — humans have been teaching their own kids how to grow up and how to be adults for no less than 99.999% of our history. En masse education of children is only a very recent concept in the consciousness of our species. And the idea that we need to force children to learn is even newer — and, as it happens, also more out of date.

The most important idea for you to understand at present is this: All things being equal, and given being financially able to pull it off, any one of us can “educate” his or her own child(ren) enough to allow the kid(s) to get into and beyond college. Regardless of what they tell you, it just isn’t that hard to get access to and figure out what to do to work with most of the stuff humans have to do everyday. Think about it. Unless you are involved in a specialized field in which you had to get specific training or education that is used everyday in your occupation, (and perhaps even then) you probably don’t do anything all that remarkably difficult for an average human to do.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that you aren’t important. I’m just saying that you aren’t special(ized). 😉 That is, the majority of us can learn to do most of the things that any one of us can learn and do. We aren’t like bees, who are anatomically specialized. A drone physically cannot be a worker, or anything other than what he is — he doesn’t even have a stinger. We humans can learn to do pretty much anything with some very basic “tools”, such as: the ability to read, the ability to do simple math, and the ability to copy others.

As it turns out, that last one is the most important, and the one that most all of us are born using. That innate ability of humans to reproduce what they see each other doing is the reason I am always harping on you guys about modeling appropriate behavior to your kids. Little kids can scarcely stop themselves from doing it — as if they are driven to figure out what they are seeing, in part by trying to copy it, and simultaneously being driven to follow along with their tribe, in part by figuring out what the tribe is doing. Our “modern” ancestors relied on this simple fact about human nature for roughly 200,000 years (and their ancestors for millions of years before that, one may presume).

We call it unschooling now, which is a funny linguistic retro-fitting since modern “schooling” is not the more original concept — unschooling came first. But it might be most helpful to think of it as Cro-Magnon schooling, because that puts it in a more proper perspective. We don’t have to be rocket scientists to educate our children — even Cro-Magnons did it, and well (as is obvious by the mere fact of our existence).

All it really takes is spending time with them. If you’re doing that, then you are teaching your children — because of the way they naturally work, and because of that copying thing I mentioned above, you can’t not be teaching them. Just by your proximity. Just by your being you. Just think of all the things your kids picked up from you without you meaning for them to, and you’ll have a small sense of what I mean.

Now, imagine if we just spent that time being open to sharing with our children what we know about things as they happen in our lives. And then further, imagine being open to supporting them, as our children begin to express interest in the world on their own, as they all naturally do. And then even further, imagine empowering our children to go and explore and experiment on their own with us ready to resume interaction and help them process what they find upon their return.

As famed unschooling author, Sandra Dodd, put it — to unschool, the parent has only to begin by spending 23 hours each day with the infant, holding, nurturing, bonding, and making sure the baby feels secure. Do this for the first year. On the second year do the same for 22 hours a day. On the third year, 21, and so on, until the child is herself 21 (years old). The parent focuses maximum time in the early years to form the most secure bond possible. This simple focus alone, empowers the child’s nervous system for the most open stance with regard to sense input. And that makes her a more efficient and more comprehensive learner. As the child develops and becomes more and more independent she will be more interested in and have more access to personal time (away from the parent). By the way, I haven’t yet gotten to ask Sandra Dodd, but I do bet those 23 hours include some sleep time — though, obviously, less and less so as the kid ages…

That’s really all there is to it. If they are interested in something — and they will be — help them find out more, or get more involved. When they learn to read — and they will learn — get them tons of books at the library or for your groovy digital reader. Everywhere you go, you can give them some information about what is happening. When they respond, follow their lead. If you’re up for it, it’s a heck of a fun way to see life (again, or for the first time).

And just to add a personal note, our 100% unschooled 3 year-old is actually reading (when she feels like it), doing simple math (for fun), creating and telling her own elaborate stories, communicating like she’s 27, empathizing with adult emotions, correctly calculating the outcomes of complex scenarios, and playing like a professional. She is exceptional, but she isn’t really extraordinary. She’s just been nurtured, raised, and educated Cro-Magnon-style.

It’s worth considering. That is, if you want to be around your children a lot. And you want them to know a lot about living life. Maybe you could start by committing to age 7 as the time when you reassess to see if Cro-Magnon School is working for your brood…

Whatever you do — remember that “empowered nervous system” and be sure to nurture their brains with lots of good bonding, and cuddling, and time spent together. That’s a good bet, no matter what you chose afterward.


Be well, my fellow Cro-Magnon educators.

Want more? Check here. Or here.

About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
This entry was posted in Parenting Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to A Return to Cro-Magnon Education

  1. kloppenmum says:

    When I read articles about the current state of the American Education System, I can see why unschooling would appeal to so many families. I have similar concerns about schools here, but perhaps it’s not quite so extreme (yet). We are fortunate to have a very good Steiner school nearby and it’s integrated into the state system, which means it’s cheap enough to be accessible. I also like the idea that our children have to do every subject until they graduate high-school, which probably won’t fit with your philosophy…however, what we have experienced is our eldest son having the experience of his weaknesses becoming strengths. He never had, for example, chosen to draw or partake in art activities prior to school and co-ordination used to be a problem for him. Had he been unschooled or even attended Montessori, these issues may never have been addressed. I also think this approach will give our children more options when they are 18 to choose their life’s direction. I also have grave concerns about the access to electronics that is mentioned on many unschooled forums and blogs, and you know I think parents need to be the authority (not in a powerful I’m bigger than you way, but in a – I have had more life experience, and I understand the long term consequences so I’ll set some boundaries), and this seems to be missing in many unschooled families. I don’t know what I would have done if Steiner hadn’t been an option, but I do know the state system would not have suited either of our older children.

    • Hey, Karyn! Thanks so much for writing in and sharing your thoughts. I absolutely hear what you’re saying. But I bet, if you’d felt you needed to, you would have just taught your dear ones yourself! AND helped your son grow more into his body. 😉

      As to the specifics — first, although I am glad for your son’s experience, I have been overwhelmed by stories of the opposite in our school systems here. Strengths are pigeon-holed out of them, and weaknesses of mind, motivation, and emotional intelligence are manifested in their place.

      Second, as to graduation options — perhaps because homeschoolers are more prevalent in the States(?) (more than 2 million strong), there isn’t that much threat of losing college options. We have standardized tests for high school exit and college entrance, which tend to be a little bit of a joke for the average homeschooled kid.

      As to electro-heads — that isn’t just a homeschool thing at all, is it? That stuff is in and around public schools as much or more than the average homeschool environment. And judging from the teenagers here being arrested for sending photo-texts of naked friends to other friends at school, I’d say the public school version of electronics use has been shown to be generally more nefarious than homeschooled kids playing “learning games”, or (as they get older) doing research on the internet.

      And authority and it’s proper use is — well — always an issue, right? I happen to think it is easier to use (and get response from) “gentle leadership” in smaller groups than in en masse education, which generally degrades into crowd control.

      Finally, I have to say, what we’ve ended up talking about is a best case scenario you’ve had, countered with your worst assumptions about homeschooling or homeschoolers. So yes, there are some just ridiculous excuses for education going on in some homes. But homeschool as an entity, doesn’t share any more similarity to those examples than a military academy –except that they were being called “homeschool”. And frankly, I have seen so many bad examples of the dysfunction in our public schools that I have felt desperate to find alternatives. Ones that work better for what I want for my family. And until the education revolution occurs in this country, I will likely not be changing my mind about our public schools or what we’ve chosen instead.

      But, Karyn, I want you to know — I WANT you to be my reminder of everything that you are, stand for, and think. In most ways, I think we are side by side in our approaches, in all the other ways you are my balance, and I want that from you. I hope you get the same from me. SO please, BE the one to have a different edge to your thoughts about authority.

      Thanks again, so much, dear lady.

      Be well.

      • kloppenmum says:

        Absolutely I would have taught our children had I felt the need, but not all homeschoolers are unschoolers are they? The general Steiner approach is what I like – equal heart-hand-head, and yes I’m sure many Steiner schools aren’t necessarily delivering, and I know many state schools are struggling – so I hear you there.
        The graduation options are more about children of 13 and 14 having to choose subjects to specialise in, here it’s 5 or 6 in the state system – if you don’t like maths or art you can give it up, if you want to pick up chemistry two years later but haven’t done general science, you can’t. Where as Steiner they all do handwork, maths, chemistry, drama, music, english etc 12 or 13 subjects right through school. My argument there is that an 18 or 19 year old has a far better idea of what they want to do than a 13/14 year old. By keeping options open for longer, they have more choice.
        The electronics issue is big in state schools, but I have read several blogs and forums by unschoolers about very young children spending hours playing games like Halo and being told it’s OK. I also read that watching tv etc was an equal learning experience to others, and it didn’t matter how many hours children were watching. I beg to differ. Intensely.
        I have tried hard not to make assumptions about unschooling, I have been around several forums and read many blogs. Again, I suggest that not all homeschoolers are unschoolers and not all unschoolers are lax about electronics and authority, but many seem to be.
        You know I find it difficult to understand why you might negotiate and reason with a very small child or even one who is nine or ten. I am convinced that authority can be both gentle and firm, without abuse of power- and that indeed it is the ideal option. We are built to learn the rules of society, and to follow the guidance of the adults for whom we have the most trust.
        I too, am enjoying our ‘debate’. Just a question, I understand Bella doesn’t always live with you, do you mind me asking if she is also unschooled?

      • All right, Karyn! I love it!

        Yes not all A is B, and not all of either is anything that could be generalized too much, right? Everything we experience is our own version. Sorry you’ve run into the more techno-loving, lazy-seeming, authoritatively-lax unschool or homeschool forums, etc. No doubt that has tainted your general impression, and with arguably good reason. I guess I have the same thing going with public schools — just bad experience after bad experience (starting from age 6). You know the military here has actually had to lower its educational standards multiple times in recent years because the new recruits are so under-educated (by the public system) they can’t even get in to the military… That’s just scary.

        When it comes to options for study, I agree with you, that students ought to continue to have access to as many as possible. In fact, I’d say, more than any en masse school could possibly provide simply because of how many students they have to accommodate. My girls will be able to explore as many subjects, and from as many different angles, as they can dare to imagine. And they do! No school stifling them, or making them take a year to learn how to articulate addition and subtraction when they can learn it in 3 weeks (when they are ready to explore it).

        And yes, since kindergarten, my eldest has been in montessori full-time. Before that, she was unschooled with me, and daycare and preschooled with her mom (half and half). And watching the ramifications to her personality when she entered daycare for the first time (after her mom and I split) was my first experience with the negative effects of en masse childcare and education. After about 2 three-day periods of being in daycare, she came back to me, scooped up all the toys she could reach and piled them up around her and said, definitively (though, for the first time), “MIIIIINE.” And it just got worse for her from there due to all that “socialization”. She has continued to have her struggles with the erroneous social info she gets form class mates, but fortunately, she still loves learning, at this point, and she still has us with whom to process some of what happens to her in school.

        Awesome rattling back and forth with you about it, Karyn. I love the way you do your thinking. It strikes me as very sturdy and practical.


  2. kloppenmum says:

    …and I have just finished a post about The Academic Panic, due to be published on Sunday…

  3. DrMarty says:

    I think I agree with what you are saying. I know it because I’ve seen it. Many parents, understandably, are afraid of this approach. Parents, typically, want to outsource education. Parenting is high stakes for all of us, right?
    I think that school can be a wonderful place if the right leadership has the reins. Rick Ackerly http://www.rickackerly.com has implemented his vision in many schools, as have many Waldorf and Montessori schools that stay true to the founder’s vision.
    There is a book by James Sallis called “The Guitar Players”. The author looks at innovative guitarists like Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lange, T-Bone Walker, Wes Montgomery and others. It struck me that none of these players were schooled with a formal curriculum. In fact, most musical innovators learn from the culture and work with that material to make something original. The ones from the institutions are quite accomplished as players, but few innovate.
    University of Alberta Professor Emeritus once told me that he didn’t like taking on graduate students if they had been schooled too long. He said they were “ruined”.
    Thanks for another thoughtful post, Nathan.

    • Nicely said, Marty. I totally agree with that professor about all extensive training… I totally saw it in my fiction writing workshops — certain writers were only able to respond to a piece of writing in the manner (manor) that they were trained. They couldn’t read or write anything outside that narrow scope.

      And point well taken about the difference between innovators and emulators. I love that example.

      Even though he isn’t considered a scholar by aristocratic standards, I always remember a quote from famed musician Bob Marley on this subject. He said, “If I was an educated man, I’d be a damned fool.” And I think maybe he was right — about himself to be sure.

      Thanks for writing in, and for sharing Rick’s website link!

      Be well.

  4. kloppenmum says:

    This *is* too much fun!
    I think we agree that the state education systems in both of our countries are looking rather ill – perhaps yours more than ours, but still not ideal.And we’re both happy with what we’ve found as alternatives.
    I’m sorry to hear about Bella’s experiences, the snippets of her personality you have shared suggest she is a mature and empathic young woman and it saddens me to think she has had a rough time. Have you tried my Day Story concept with her? It might help her to be able to put it all in perspective for herself. Have a great weekend, and I look forward to your comments on my next post!

    • Agreed and agreed, Karyn.

      And don’t let me give you the wrong impression of our Sagittarius — she naturally turns all of her experiences into wisdoms… in the eventual. 😉

      We do have a rich, family story-telling tradition in our home, and this has included recaps of the day, but more often we are telling them stories of their infancy and toddlerhood, or our own childhoods. But since I read your post on the subject, I am wanting to do the more intentional Day Story version with B in particular.

      Be well, Karyn.

  5. I have many reasons why I don’t want my children in the public school system. I have many reasons why we won’t homeschool. I have a lot of reasons why we unschool.

    But I have to say it really isn’t for everyone. First, if the parent isn’t comfortable with the idea of their child not reading until ten or so, then don’t do it. Trying to force it on the child while claiming to unschool won’t work. Also It takes a lot of time, especially int he early years. It also takes a decent amount of thought on the parent’s part. It takes time because the parents need to be aware of their child’s interests and needs to help foster the interest. That means outings, that means side-by-side research, that means putting your child’s interest above your own – at least for a certain time. I love to write, but I really only get the opportunity once the girls are asleep. Otherwise I’m unable to give either the girls or my writing the attention they deserve.

    Unschooling requires a lot of thought. What is your child’s interest? In what way can you expand that interest? What can you bring into the home to develop it? Where can you go from here? I’m not saying force the information, but bring it to the child. If your child loves dinosaurs – go to the museum, go on a dig, watch shows, sing songs, play games, imagine. Without the parent providing the opportunity, an interest in dinosaurs will result in reading the same book(s) and/or watching the same show(s) over and over again, but never going anywhere.

    If the comfort level, the time commitment,and some self-sacrificing aren’t available from the parents, then it isn’t right for your family. Some families might try it, but then realize it doesn’t fit, others might try, but not have the right mentors – the right information to make it work.

    We’re radical unschoolers, and it’s taken almost a year to figure out where the majority of the balance needs to be between being fully permissive and being in control all the time. We went through a period where the girls stayed up until almost midnight every night, because we weren’t able to figure out how to guide them without forcing them. I’ve seen some families that are fully permissive in all areas, never offer advice or guidelines, and personally I don’t want their children near me or mine. I’ve also seen some that take the first step that many parents do, they become fully permissive, but instead of realizing a balance is needed – and finding the balance, they just quit.

    I agree that, in general, the unschooling approach is best, however society is no longer set up in a manner that makes it possible for everyone.

  6. hakea says:


    Like kloppenmum, I have seen some blogs talking about an unschooling approach to parenting. Upon reading them, I thought that if I tried that approach at my place, it would be like the lunatics taking over the assylum, and I am well-schooled in parenting, mental health, and education. Kids choosing their own bedtime? My fellas would be up until 2am.

    I enjoyed reading Ivan Ilich at university.

    I am also very disappointed with the public school system, especially as I have studied education and I know how it is supposed to be done. Some teachers suck at what they do, and the system allows them to continue doing it, making kids miserable and as I read somewhere “teaching kids to be bored, quietly”.

    My experience with my kids was that childcare was fantastic, kindergarten and grade 1 was amazing, but from year 2 it started to all go downhill. If I could afford to homeschool from year 2 I would, but I can’t. Here, the private schools and Steiner schools are not any better than the public schools. I have to console myself that school has them for six hours per day, and I have them for 10 waking hours per day during the week in which they get to do some really good stuff.

    I have learnt to be assertive and I don’t accept poor standards for my kids any more. I’m not a whinger, but I will see a teacher where I think there is some injustice, and fortunately due to my education I can speak their lingo.

    Great post and subsequent debate.

    • Sarah and Narelle,

      Thanks so much for writing in and joining the discussion, ladies.

      I am going to do an additional post about unschool — what I mean by it more specifically. And I am also going to do another post about authority in the home. So look for my response(s) to your comments there.

      Thanks again.

      Be well.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s