Great Thinkers on Self-Education: Susannah Sheffer

Written by on May 26, 2009 in Great Thinkers on Self-Ed - 2 Comments

growingwithoutschooling“I believe that even if people never actually homeschool, they can benefit from homeschooling’s ideas – its way of looking at learning. Here’s one example: if you view education as something that has to be given to you by other people, then if the education handed out in your school isn’t of great quality, you will understandably feel you are getting the short end of the stick. If, on the other hand, you start to realize that learning is something you can find and create for yourself, then your whole way of looking at what’s available changes.”

Susannah Sheffer was a longtime editor of the now-defunct magazine Growing Without Schooling. As a teen, she became engrossed in the work of John Holt and began writing to him on the subject of education. She later joined Holt and Associates and edited the magazine that helped thousands of families embrace non-traditional learning. Growing Without Schooling ran from 1977 to 2001 and had subscribers from many countries including the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia.

Susannah Sheffer has also edited and written several books about learning including A Life Worth Living: Selected Letters of John Holt, Writing Because We Love to: Homeschoolers at Work, and A Sense of Self: Listening to Homeschooled Adolescent Girls.

Susannah Sheffer’s Educational Philosophy

Susannah Sheffer embraced many of the philosophies held by her mentor John Holt. Her own writings and interviews tend to focus on these two themes:

  • The homeschooling movement empowers people of all ages to take control of their own learning.
  • Adolescent girls, in particular, benefit from the freedom of learning without schools. 

Empowered by Learning

Susannah Sheffer believes that people can change their lives by changing the way they think about learning. When people realize that they have control over their own learning, they become enabled to reclaim their power from poor schools and seek out opportunities on their own.

In an interview with the Swarj Foundation, Sheffer explained:

“People who think that all education has to come from schools or programs feel educationally deprived, if the schools in their area are bad, or if they can’t afford better ones, or if there are no programs available for people like them. Realizing that we can learn on our own steam, wherever we are, is an extremely empowering and sometimes life-altering experience. Malcolm X’s experiences, of teaching himself to read in prison, are a good example of this. In essence, the same idea supports a prison inmate, who decides he can teach himself (or another inmate) to read without a formal program; a mother, who believes that she can help her young child learn no matter how much or how little schooling she herself has; and a 16-year-old, who dares to leave school instead of following the common injunction to stay.”

Once this transformation of thought takes place, people stop judging others based on credentials and diplomas. They stop limiting themselves based on their perceived learning, and realize that they can learn on their own, at any age:

“If we realize that learning happens everywhere, we won’t say that kids go to school ‘to learn’ (which implies that they wouldn’t learn otherwise, and don’t learn when they aren’t there). We won’t say, of something we didn’t happen to cover during our school years, ‘I never learned that,’ as though now that we’re finished with formal schooling, there are no more opportunities to learn. We won’t judge people on the basis of how much schooling they have completed. In other words, we won’t automatically assume (without any further information) that someone who has completed a certain amount of schooling has learned more than someone who hasn’t.”

According to Susannah Sheffer, the educational philosophies created by the homeschooling / unschooling movement have the power to help people embrace learning on their own. Families who choose not to homeschool and independent adult learners can take control of their lives and education by embracing these ideas.

Homeschool and Adolescent Girls

Susannah Sheffer focuses much of her attention on the problems faced by adolescent females, problems Sheffer believes can be lessened by homeschooling.

In her book A Sense of Self: Listening to Homeschooled Adolescent Girls, Sheffer proposes that homeschooled young women have greater self-confidence and a more secure sense of identity than those who are sent to traditional schools.

In a radio interview Sheffer explained:

“One of the psychologists looking at the problem of adolescent girls said, ‘How can we get these girls to identify more with their goals? Why are they so estranged from their goals?’ When I look at that through the lens of compulsory schooling, no wonder kids are not identified with their goals! School doesn’t let them choose their own goals! It says, ‘This is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to proceed down this road. We’ll tell you how and when and where and why!’ Homeschooling changes all that. It isn’t a formula but a condition, a process.

A primary question is: Who gets to decide what the young person needs, wants, or should do? When I meet with a girl who has recently left school, I ask, ‘What are your interests?’ and we begin to brainstorm how she can pursue those interests, how she can find mentors, how she can find books, how she will plan her day or her week or her year. I see something come over the girl’s face as she begins to realize that, for the first time, education is going to be about figuring out what she wants to do, how she will pursue it. She is going to be in charge.”

Through her research, Sheffer determined that girls tended to thrive under such intellectual freedom, becoming more confident and able to accomplish goals for themselves. Although independent learning can be beneficial for all people, Sheffer believes that this type of education is particularly advantageous for young women.

How Susannah Sheffer Has Made a Difference

Sheffer’s contributions helped make Growing Without Schooling a success. Although the magazine is now out of print, a bound edition of the first twelve issues is available and many self-educators order back issues.

Today, Sheffer has turned her attention to other advocacy issues (death penalty legislation, in particular). However, her articles and books are still used by people who want to take control of their own learning.

Further Reading

Growing Without Schooling Magazine – Take a look at the website of this previously popular magazine to learn more about John Holt’s philosophies and the history of the publication.

Inside Issues – Read full issues of Growing Without Schooling from

Reflections on Growing Without Schooling – In this extensive interview Susannah Sheffer explains the background of the magazine and her beliefs about learning.

Growing Without Schooling – This brief article explains Sheffer’s interest in the way homeschooling affects adolescent females.

Museums: An Alternative Model – This Susannah Sheffer article from Natural Child explores the way museums offer a more natural place to learn.

2 Comments on "Great Thinkers on Self-Education: Susannah Sheffer"

  1. Susannah Sheffer July 9, 2009 at 4:12 pm · Reply

    Thanks for this lovely write-up. I’m honored to be included, and I also wanted to let you (and your readers) know about the wonderful program I’m involved with these days, North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens.

  2. Jo-Ann Kattau September 28, 2009 at 5:44 pm · Reply

    Hi Susannah,

    I don’t know if you’ll receive this email.
    I am going back to college for the first time in 30 years and I am currently taking an ENG102 course. One of the topics suggested for my research paper (which has to be argumentative) was homeschooling. I chose to do my paper on this subject and at first was against it. The more I read about it though, I’ve decided to support this issue. I was wondering if you could give me any input as to current articles or books I could read on this this subject. I also would like to interview you about your experiences with this, if you have the time. Thank you

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