What Is Heroic Unschooling?

By Toby LaVigne

In order to answer the question, “What is Heroic Unschooling?”  We need to first unpack the words, “Heroic” and “Unschooling”, as well as a few other concepts that will pop up.


“Unschooling” is a term coined, by the late great John Holt, to capture his philosophy for the proper way to ‘educate’ and learn.  He believed that children have a natural curiosity for life and the world around them.  He observed that, left to their own devices, children naturally begin exploring the world the moment they leave the womb, and probably before that!

John Holt advocated that children only learn to dislike learning after the process has been tainted by adults and the brute force tactics of our education system.  

He felt strongly that our education system did great harm to children and to society and that we should “change the laws to make schools non-compulsory and to take away from them their power to grade, rank, and label people, i.e., to make lasting , official, public judgments about them." 

The most consistent definition that I have been able to surmise is that unschooling is an approach to learning that relies upon and encourages the self directed study by the child.  

Unschooling trusts that children, untainted by adults, will naturally explore their world and see learning about things that interest them as an adventure.  And that their interest will drive their desire to seek out answers and competencies naturally.

What unsettles the critics of unschooling is the notion of ‘trusting children’ to do the right thing.  It’s a natural concern.  I remember myself and my school mates and you could never trust us with a substitute teacher.

But we must remember which came first, the chicken or the egg?  Are children naturally lazy or were they taught to associate learning with negativity.  Watching our own daughters reminds me my own childhood curiosities and changing interests.  Each one was an intense passion that lead me to researching and experimenting with it in every way possible.  I can only imagine how much further and faster many of my projects and dreams would have progressed if I had access to the internet of today.

Before continuing I’ll add that ‘to school’ means to habituate to certain practices, beliefs, and paradigms.  Therefore to unschool also means to unhabitutate from certain practices, beliefs, and paradigms.



A person who stands ready to sacrifice for the good of others. Connotes self sacrifice, courage, bravery, nobility.  

We speak of heroism mainly when it involves physical sacrifice or risk; soldiers, fire fighters, and police officers for example.  We also speak of it when it involves risking ones reputation or freedom to stand up for what’s right; for example the founders of the United States, Rosa Parks, and Edward Snowden come to mind.

From a Heroic Unschooling perspective, when we speak of heroism, we broaden this definition to include people who dedicate themselves to being a contribution to others…to individuals who do what they do for the sake of others.

The Art of Heroism

Heroes care. True heroism, as the ancients understood, isn’t about strength, or boldness, or even courage. It’s about compassion. When the Greeks created the heroic ideal, they didn’t choose a word that meant “Dies Trying” or “Massacres Bad Guys.” They went with ἥρως (or hērōs)—“ protector.”

Empathy, the Greeks believed, was a source of strength, not softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, the more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into.

Heroism isn’t some mysterious inner virtue, the Greeks believed; it’s a collection of skills that every man and woman can master so that

Heroes are protectors, and being a protector means having strength enough for two. Being strong enough to save yourself isn’t good enough; you have to be better, always, than you’d be on your own. The ancient Greeks loved that little interlocking contradiction, the idea that you’re only your strongest when you have a weakness for other people. They saw health and compassion as the two of the chemical components of a hero’s power: unremarkable alone, but awe-inspiring when combined. What you’re aiming for is the hero’s holy trinity: paideia, arete, and xenía: skill, strength, and desire. Mind, body, and soul.

For much of human history, the art of the hero wasn’t left up to chance; it was a multidisciplinary endeavor devoted to optimal nutrition, physical self-mastery, and mental conditioning. The hero’s skills were studied, practiced, and perfected, then passed along from parent to child and teacher to student. The art of the hero wasn’t about being brave; it was about being so competent that bravery wasn’t an issue. You weren’t supposed to go down for a good cause; the goal was to figure out a way not to go down at all. Achilles and Odysseus and the rest of the classical heroes hated the thought of dying and scratched for every second of life. A hero’s one crack at immortality was to be remembered as a champion, and champions don’t die dumb.
— Excerpted from Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall

Being a hero is a powerful identity.  Perhaps the most powerful identity one could wish for themselves or for their children. 

For who wouldn’t want to keep heroes close?

There are three important aspects to the unschooling process;

  1. Protect children from the many (net negative) aspects of institutionalize schooling; i.e., to make lasting, official, and often debilitating public judgments that limit their belief in themselves
  2. Harness and trust the natural desire of children to self direct their learning
  3. Unhabituate from limiting beliefs that were installed within us starting at a young age without our permission or awareness

Heroic unschooling addresses all three of these issues plus

a very important aspect that ‘pure unschooling’ and traditional education overlook.



Our education system is beyond harmful to individuals and ultimately our society.  It is our position that subjecting children to traditional schooling (as well as most of the so-called alternatives) is doing far more harm than good.

Our education system was designed to produce reasonably competent and unreasonably compliant workers for ‘factory jobs’, as well as the occasional scholar for academia or technical professions like law, medicine, finance or consulting.  Our education system works perfectly for this aim.

This outcome may have been the agenda of certain powerful people, but it’s certainly not the agenda of the individual, nor is it in the best interest of society.

A simple look at statistics shows the output from our education factories is performing terribly.  If the automotive industry rolled cars off of their assembly lines that performed like our society does today, there would be a massive recall, senate hearings, bankruptcies, criminal investigations, and probably an uprising or two.

Look at the states of our health, our finances, our environment, government, neighborhoods, families and more.  

Watch the news!

We are not doing well, and the one thing that all these events have in common is this; They are all the result of adult decision makers who were trained by the same broken institutionalized programing.

And I’m not talking about the statistics of the poor and under educated.  They’re not the ones who are leading our government, our schools or our businesses.  It’s not their fault that 70% of the workforce is disengaged.  It’s not their fault that our government has a lower approval rating than car dealerships.  And it’s not the fault of the ‘uneducated’ that our environment is trashed, that our government is nearly insolvent, or that people feel anxious and desperate.

Sure there are stories of people who, despite an exposure to the same institutions, manage to maintain contact with their true self and then package it and prosper from it, but they are the exception.

A bias toward only studying the successful exceptions has insiders believing that their system is fundamentally sound. 

We disagree.  

Our education system exists because it’s creators believed that children and the majority of parents were generally too lazy, stupid, and selfish to actually find productive ways to co-exist on this planet without the intervention of people who have been certified to teach from text books, grade tests, and discipline those who do not conform.

The reason that most kids hate school is the exact same reason why most adults (70%) are disengaged at work.  No one wants to be forced to do unsatisfying work, to be denied personal meaning, to be structurally disconnected from themselves and from others, and to live for extended periods with little hope of improvement.

When children are little it all seems so innocuous and pure. “Look what I made mommy!”  

It all seems so perfect when a child becomes a proud reader or can show off their newly acquired math skills, or when their class performs a production of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.

In the early years ‘the water in the pot’ is generally comfortable.  After all, what’s more American than your child’s first ride on the big school bus?  But without noticing it, the temperature of the water slowly warms as the programing begins to seep in and take over once curious, kind, and creative children.

Then one of two things seems to happen;

Either the child does well, or well enough, throughout their school years - meaning they please their trainers by reciting back what they’re supposed to, when and how they’re supposed to.  These seals get extra praise and attention.  These children fit into the limited success formula; jock, good student, popular etc.  There are a limited number of seats in this game and this teaches students that life is a competition against everyone else for what you want.

Or the child struggles.  

They get in trouble or their grades are marginal or they get shunned or they plain drop out.  These children often conclude that life isn’t fair, that there is a limited amount of the ‘good stuff’ to go around, and that it wasn’t meant to be for them.  They learn that they are less valuable.

But somewhere around high school students become aware enough to see the game for what it is.  One recent survey found that nearly 70% of high schoolers believed that their schooling had very little relevance to the real world.

As this video points out so well, high schoolers have the best B.S. meters.  They know, what we’ve come to know as adults.  Our school system is an out of control mutant organism that threatens to kill its host.




From the moment you were born, you naturally began exploring’ touching, smelling, tasting, hearing, and watching.  As soon as you could begin to move on your own, your exploration accelerated. 

Enjoy this video (2:11), but don't feel obligated to watch all of it, you'll get the idea very quickly.  I wish there was a practical way to demonstrate the average unschooling day for our girls.  I wonder how many miles they cover, how many words they read, and say.  How many questions they ask, how many new things they attempt.

It’s entirely possible and likely that, unhindered, natural curiosity will lead our children to discovering his or her greatest areas of interest.

It’s entirely possible and even likely that unobstructed, our children will develop a very high level of skill and knowledge about subjects that are extremely interesting to them.

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to spend time with Liberty Devitto who became famous for his role as the drummer in the Billy Joel Band.  Liberty shared his story of finding drumming and making his love his vocation.

Growing up he played for hours.  For a good while it was all fun and games and his parents were supportive, but as college age approached, they grew concerned.  So according to Liberty, his parents asked a cousin or some other family member who they respected, but also who they thought Liberty would listen to…to speak with him.

The relative went into a room with Liberty and they spoke for some time, and then the relative came out.  Liberty’s parents asked the relative how it went.  To which he replied something like, “I don’t know whether Liberty is going to college or not, but I do know that he’s going to be a drummer.”

We love stories like this when we hear them from famous celebrities, but we doubt them before they become celebrities, and we have a nasty tendency to encourage others to ‘get real’ when their passion fails to deliver financially.

What if Liberty never met Billy Joel or managed to join a similarly famous band?  Despite his passion, would he have managed to create a way to prosper from drumming? 

Which leads me to my concern regarding what I call ‘radical’ or laissez faire unschooling.  

Yes, we are natural learners, and yes, self directed exploration is vitally important.  In fact it’s THE best reason to step out of the traditional schooling arena.

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
— Albert Einstein

But if we look at nature, we can learn that nature teaches directly and indirectly.  In nature we’ll see cubs playing, and wrestling, and exploring their world.  The mother keeps an eye on them, but she also gives them as much room as she safely can to let them learn from by doing.  Nature teaches many lessons better than we can learn from others, and there is often no substitute for learning through self discovery.

But there are some things that cubs don’t learn best by doing.  Certain things that mother bears must explicitly teach their cubs in order for them to survive.

The same is true for humans.  There are certain immutable laws of human interaction that were acquired over time for a reason.  Our failure to pass these fundamental principles on to our children is the source of our failure as a society.  Of course, in order for parents to pass these on, they must relearn them as well.

I will elaborate on this in part 4



Schooling and a ‘school built’ society have installed and reinforced an operating system of sorts; a definition of success and a means of achieving it that are deeply flawed.

The proof of this can be seen in this evening’s news.

If our education system worked, our systems would work, but they don’t, and schooling is where the root cause begins.

Our schooling system teaches us to be ‘independent’.  “Don’t work with others to solve problems, do your own work, look at your own paper, keep your eyes forward.”

Our school system teaches students that life is a system to be gamed.  The goal is good grades, not actual understanding, not critical thinking, or the development a life long curiosity.  Is it any wonder that the students who do this best have applied the exact same approach by gaming high finance, corporate management, and government?

Our education system teaches that your identity and your value, will be conferred upon you by external sources.  Your university will give you a degree, your employer will give you a title, and your paycheck will give you status.

All of these fundamental beliefs have become the predominant ‘operating system’ of our society.

If we go back in time we can see that for 99% of our existence, humankind thrived as a team.  Each member was indoctrinated into a very different operating system.  

In the tribe, every member was required to contribute for the good of the tribe, not for the sake of the self. Every member completed a rite of passage where to demonstrate their ability and commitment to serve their fellow tribe members. And as adults they were expected to always act in the best interest of the tribe and to contribute to continued learning. In exchange for their contribution and loyalty, each member was rewarded with tribal protection, satisfying work, meaning, connection, and the hope of continued prosperity,

The purpose of the tribe was prosperity; the capacity to produce a surplus. The reason tribal man succeeded despite so many disadvantages was that they worked together, interdependently to create more of everything they needed to not only survive, but to thrive.

So let’s unpack this paradigm and contrast it with present day society.

Today we teach independence.  We define success in good measure as financial independence - the ability to purchase all of your survival necessities without having to work, and without having to be a net contribution to society. 

Tribal culture and indeed every aspect of nature is interdependent.  There are NO exceptions to this rule in nature, and lest we forget, we are nature.  Therefore we must relearn how to be interdependent.  And if we do not relearn interdependence; selfishness, anxiety, and self destruction will continue on their present course.

Today we teach our children and our employees and our society to ‘game’ the system.  In the pursuit of financial independence, we teach them implicitly, if not explicitly, to look for ever more clever ways to get more from the system, for the self, without a requirement to make society better for all.

This has us lobbying for political advantages, playing the lottery, and looking for ways to hack the system in order to gain short term gratification without a long term commitment.  

If our ancestors had operated this way, we would not be here.  

And if we continue as we are, the human success story will end.

Cleverness, innovation, and time savings are admirable, but only when they are for the net benefit of society.  Our ability to selectively ‘overlook’ the damage when we measure the net benefit of our activities, is taught in school and reinforced every day at work, in government, and in the news.

And then there is identity.  Identity is THE primal driver of all human action. 

To our lizard brain, identity it is literally as important as oxygen. 

Humans cannot stand to be without recognition for our value.  And when we can’t find ways to earn it we look for ways to buy, beg, borrow or steal it.  And when all else fails we look for ways to numb ourselves from the debilitating pain of feeling undervalued and unfulfilled.

The problem with identity is that we were taught to believe that it comes from outside ourselves.  And we’ve built an entire education, career, and consumer system to work around our lost ability to develop our own identities.

So when we talk about unhabituating, we’re talking about;

  1. Seeing the identity / prosperity operating system that was installed without our knowledge or permission, and how it affects every aspect of our personal and collective lives.
  2. Replacing this operating system with the natural, immutable principles of human prosperity.
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot learn, but those who cannot unlearn, learn, & relearn.
— Alvin Toffler


For millennia, humankind worked with nature to survive.

But when we abandoned tribal life and experienced enough technological victories we lost our humility and our perspective.  Armed with a belief that nature needed to be conquered and that we pitted ourselves in a brute force battle against her. 

We forgot that we are nature and now our brute force is undoing much of our hard won progress.

We are literally are our own worst enemies, and it’s entirely because we forgot about interdependent heroic identity.

Could it be this simple?  

Could it be, that in a world full of complex problems, that the answer is right in front of our noses?

Could it be that because we are nature, and that we must always operate in accordance with nature?

Of course.

THE source of all of society's anxiety is a deep and pervasive feeling of scarcity.  Identity is THE greatest human need, and sadly we were taught to believe at a very young age that there isn’t enough of it to go around.  

Identity is mental and emotional oxygen.

And when we don’t get enough of it we act exactly like someone gasping for breath. We get anxious, we panic, we get weak, we get desperate, depressed, and we lose hope.

Past the basics of food, clothing and shelter, which we could supply to every man, woman and child on this planet with one arm behind our back…

…are four simple intrinsic needs that make up our perception of identity;

  1. We want satisfying work
  2. We want to be involved in doing something meaningful
  3. We want to feel connected to ourselves and each other
  4. We want to feel hope for the future

A long time ago, certain people attained power, oppressed others and developed the belief that the oppressed were somehow inferior.  They developed the belief that certain people needed to be in charge and the rest were obligated to obediently follow.

And when this shift occurred we decided that individual identity was impractical.  We decided that it was best if we all became cogs in a system for the sake of the system.

We forgot how vital interdependent identity is to prosperity, and we forgot that we forgot.

Today, the reality we experience is a self fulfilling prophecy.  We are mass producing the same future beginning in Kindergarten, and we’ve done it for so many generations now, that there isn’t anyone who remembers the world any other way.

The only way our future prosperity will change is if we take our children off of this assembly line, teach them how to develop their own authentic identities as heroic contributors, and create the future we intend.

The missing piece is the ability to package our identity and to interdependently coordinate with one another to create better futures for ourselves and those around us.

This may sound simple, but it is NOT trivial.

Identity and coordination are tricky.  

First you have to actually learn who you are, and our education system does a very efficient job of ‘socializing’ us to stop looking inward and to instead conform to the outward norms of society.

Second, after you find your true self, you must learn how to package yourself as a contribution to others. 

Think of packaging as marketing. Marketing is a difficult skill to master.  Learning to authentically differentiate yourself is especially challenging when all you’ve really witnessed is mass education, mass manufacturing, mass media, and mass marketing.

Third you must learn to coordinate and transact with others to actually deliver your contribution to the satisfaction of the market.  This includes elements such as, sales, negotiation, project management, monitoring, analysis, and tons, and tons of communication.

And all of these essential elements are made massively more difficult when you are operating in a culture steeped in; independence, gaming, and conformity.

Now you know the real reason why 9 out 10 businesses fail, and most people opt to work for 'the man'.

Businesses almost never fail for the reasons people cite. Businesses (and relationships) fail because the participants couldn't or wouldn't work with the natural cycle and sequence of prosperity.


Unschooling is essential to;

  • Prevent the harm of seeing learning as drudgery and life as a game of dog eat dog survival
  • To support the discovery of the self and the development of a life long love of learning and continuous improvement
  • To see the environment we operate within in as it truly is in order to transcend it

But without the ability to purposefully develop and package our identities consistently with who we are, and without the ability to transact with others, we are doomed to a life of anxiety.

Remember, our greatest need is to be seen as valuable to others.  This need is literally biologically embedded in our ancestral DNA.

When humans feel alone and when we don’t feel valuable, we become anxious and we turn to looking out for ourselves.  Then we look for ways to game the system, and we look for ways to numb ourselves from the truth of where we ended up and the vague memory of who we wanted to become.

These are the ingredients that make up the society you can see on the news tonight, and Heroic Unschooling is the antidote.


We live in a world that has forgotten that we are meant to be heroic contributors. 

And we live in a world that values short term gratification over long term contribution.

If heroic unschooling were easy, everyone would already be doing it.

But as is so often the case, the right thing to do is often the more difficult thing to do.

Doing what everyone has always done and continues to do is the path of least resistance.  No one will blame you for doing what you were told to do.

Breaking free of the magnetic pull to conform is the hardest part.  

Tyranny is a human trait that we sometimes project onto Nature. This projection is a form of rationalization, perhaps a means to cope with matters that we cannot control. Such is the case when we invent machines to free us from the bounds of Earth, affecting our escape into space. If we want to expand into the solar system, this tyranny must somehow be deposed.

Hope, wishing, or tantrums cannot alter this result.
— The Tyranny of The Rocket - by Flight Engineer Don Pettit

Space of course is where our individual destinies lie, at least metaphorically.  And as Steve Jobs said, “our purpose here on earth is to make a dent in the universe.”  But we cannot make our dent and reap it's many rewards until we commit to deposing the tyranny of status quo gravity.

And this takes discipline and passion.

Breaking free from the earth’s atmosphere, some 400 kilometers above us, requires 50% of the fuel required to travel to Mars.

Defying status quo to be truly authentic and interdependent can, at least at first, feel like it requires a similar amount of energy.

Is there a way to make it easier?  


There are a number of variables that are within our control and which can greatly assist our efforts.

BEGIN EARLY - THE easiest time to find and begin to package the real you is before you even realize the world is watching and judging you.  Our daughters remain (much to the relief of their parents) miraculously unaffected by social pressure, and as a result sing, skip, and ask wonderful questions as if they didn’t know judgment existed.  Many critics of unschooling call this unhealthy isolation.  I can assure you that our girls are incredibly worldly in their understanding and outstanding at relating to others. We believe this is due, in no small part, to the fact they are not living in a social bubble of judgmental conformity.

This time period of childhood ‘weightlessness” can be greatly extended by not subjecting a child to a toxic school environment where as John Holt so aptly put it;

If there were no other reason for wanting to keep kids out of school, the social life would be reason enough. In all but a very few of the schools I have taught in, visited, or know anything about, the social life of the children is mean-spirited, competitive, exclusive, status-seeking, snobbish, full of talk about who went to whose birthday party and who got-what Christmas presents and who got how many Valentine cards and who is talking to so-and-so and who is not. Even in the first grade, classes soon divide into leaders (energetic and - often deservedly - popular kids), their bands of followers, and other outsiders who are pointedly excluded from these groups.

I remember my sister saying of one of her children, then five, that she never knew her to do anything really mean or silly until she went away to school - a nice school, by the way, in a nice small town.
— John Holt

PARENTAL EXAMPLE - A Child’s most formative years are spent with their parents.  I see so many unschooling and regular schooling parents who expect their children to do as they say and not as they do.  Children are brilliant observers.  Even if they don’t yet have the vocabulary or the confidence to voice their concerns, they notice every incongruity in their lives.

It is foolish to expect that our children will become curious life long learners, that they will dedicate themselves to continuous, humble, self improvement, or that they will become heroic contributors if they don’t see Mom and Dad doing it.

Unschooling is not just for children.  In fact, it is we parents who have the most unschooling to do!

FAMILY AS A TEAM - There is no tribal force more powerful than family.  The support of your family can propel you to incredible heights as easily as they can limit your trajectory.  As adults we can choose to move beyond unsupportive family members, but even so, breaking free from the gravity of family is a challenge all on its own.

Most of us can agree that we don’t want our children to be dealing with unsupportive parents and siblings when they become adults.

So many families could be prospering individually and collectively at astronomically higher levels if only they would develop their own identities and learn to coordinate with one another as an interdependent team.  Of all the senseless human suffering, the lack of truly strong families is perhaps the one that makes me the saddest.


As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble
— Harrington Emerson

The laws of identity, as well as the cycle and sequence of human prosperity are as observable and repeatable as the laws of physics.  You can learn them, you can practice them, and you can prosper with them...  


...you can attempt to live your life needlessly fighting the social forces of gravity and friction.

TRAINING - Exceptional performance in any domain does not occur by accident.  It is the result of disciplined practice.  The time that this takes is not set stone, but that it takes passion and discipline is non negotiable.

We say that our education system prepares children for adulthood, but it doesn’t of course.  It mainly teaches the three R’s. I have experienced a lot of setbacks in my life, as I am sure you have as well, and none of them had anything to do with the three R’s.

And although a well designed education system could do a lot more to prepare children for adulthood, the truth is that we can’t learn anything theoretically, and our learning is never complete.  When you learn a language, a new sport, or an instrument the process is always the same.

Begin, get some feedback, adjust, try again, get some more feedback, practice, challenge yourself, fail, get feedback, try again, rinse and repeat.

THE best way to learn anything is through spaced repetition and just in time coaching.

The traditional method of education creates a false sense of security and is a poor model for life long learning.  Students graduate feeling a sense of relief, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over with”, and often will a quiet commitment to avoid anything that looks like school.

Which of course is sad.  This leaves adults tackling life’s greatest challenges without much support, direction, or process.  Building a great life is a never ending process.  Heroic unschooling is a life long process that is just as relevant for adults as it is for children.


What is Heroic Unschooling?

We began by unpacking some key terms; unschooling, heroism, interdependence, prosperity, and identity.

Adults must unhabituate from toxic programing, and protect their children from exposure to it.

We must hold ourselves, our children, and our families to a higher standard; Heroic Contribution

We must learn to coordinate interdependently. 

We must find and package our authentic identities.

And we must develop the capacity to produce a surplus through our contribution.

So what is Heroic Unschooling?

Heroic unschooling is the lifelong process of increasing our capacities to produce a surplus, by contributing our authentic identities interdependently, for the sake of others.

It’s part self direction and learning by doing.

It’s part deprograming.

It’s finding your passion.

It’s part explicit learning of the timeless principles of prosperity.

It’s packaging your passion as a heroic contribution for the sake of others.

It’s a life long interdependent discipline of breakdowns and breakthroughs, learning, accomplishment, growth, and ultimately, prosperity.


Join us at the Silver Belt Certification for Parents in Portland, OR October 14-16 2016. 

Thank you!

Toby, Shelly, Soleil, Summer LaVigne

PS - If you liked this article, copy the address above and email it to a friend, the more heroic contributors we help create, the better our world will become.