My husband sent an email to me this morning with a link to Noa Kagayama’s post Do We Have a Hidden Bias Against Creative People. My husband wrote: “This one was really good.  I don’t know if my son will be a happy productive adult, but I do think you are helping him have a chance. I think public school would slowly kill him.”

My first thought was that I’m so lucky I have a husband who is supporting me in unschooling. It’s a big step for him. He was brought up by a fifth or sixth generation farmer. He spent his childhood learning the rules of the farm. And he went to school in a rural district where the classes were so easy for him that he didn’t do homework until he got to college. What he learned in school was to sit down, be quiet, and ignore the urge to do anything that might be interesting to him.

Often he’ll watch our kids bending rules in the barn, making semi-edible meals, launching questionable grenades, and he’ll say, “I would have been so happy doing this instead of school.”

But still, he was skeptical. When we started unschooling it was hard for him. He went along with it in the same way he went along with the red paint in our bathroom. (Did you know that red paint is never waterproof? That’s why you never see red bathrooms.)

Noa’s post is jarring. Researchers listed traits most common in highly creative children:

  • Makes up the rules as he/she goes along
  • Impulsive
  • Nonconformist
  • Emotional
  • Takes chances
  • Tends not to know own limitations and tries to do what others think is impossible

And characteristics least typical of highly creative children:

  • Tolerant
  • Reliable
  • Practical
  • Logical
  • Understanding
  • Good-natured
  • Sincere
  • Dependable

Teachers were asked to rate their favorite student based on the characteristics. Unsurprisingly teachers said their favorite students were those who had characteristics least descriptive of creative children. And the teachers said their least favorite students had profiles which were more consistent with characteristics typical of creative children. Noa summarizes succinctly: “In other words, the teachers favored the students who exhibited fewer creative traits.”

Of course this is no surprise. The ratio of students to teachers is skewed to favor the kids. School is like a prison in that it’s always on the edge of insurrection because of the competing needs of the few in charge and the masses being managed. The best way to keep the kids orderly is to make them follow rules. And the best way to get kids invested in rules is to make them care what the teacher thinks and make them care about being part of the group.

This is why Jennifer Senior shows that by high school, school becomes a prison of conformity. And this is also why the most creative people — athletes, actors, musicians — leave high school in order to focus on what they care about.

Grammar school is a training ground to be a total conformist in high school.

What’s the problem with that? It doesn’t get you what you need as an adult. Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times, says Google doesn’t care about your ability to conform. They care about your creativity. And IBM wants leaders but they define leaders as highly creative. And one of the top 15 traits that people look for on Monster job listings is “creative problem solving”.

The quarterlife crisis that has dominated lives of twenty somethings in the Information Age is actually the result of the gap between what we teach in school about creativity (it’s bad) and what the workplace thinks about creativity (it’s good). The jarring shift in expectations is difficult for everyone who went through our school system. They have to learn all new rules, they have to start valuing different parts of themselves, because everything they’ve been taught about creativity is wrong.

On days when I am worried that unschooling is crazy and high risk, I can’t always depend on my husband to bolster my confidence, because sometimes he wavers as well. But I can look at what we know about schools and creativity and I can assure myself that there is no way unschooling can be any worse for preparing kids for adult life. And it might even be better.