In 1851 a German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, formulated the ‘Porcupine Problem’ (also known as the ‘Hedgehog’s Dilemma’) - a parable to describe the intricacy of human relationships and intimacy.

According to his parable, a number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold night in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse.  Alone, and without the warmth of each other’s company, the porcupines began to freeze, and so, they huddled and dispersed, advanced and retreated, repeating the behaviour over and over, until they discovered that they were safer keeping a short distance away from each other. 

Though the porcupines all shared a desire to enjoy the benefits of a close reciprocal relationship to combat the cold, it was not possible, for reasons they could not avoid. 

To overcome the dilemma, the porcupines had to find a healthy balance – one which avoided the dangers of extreme closeness and/or distance, and where they could stay warm, but not get hurt. One which the porcupines only found through trial and error.

Schopenhauer’s metaphor was designed to illustrate the complexities of relationships – not just for porcupines, but for humans too. He determined (in much the same way as the animal porcupines), ‘society drives human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature’.

Essentially, the ‘porcupine problem’, in its simplest form, is about self-preservation.  Faced with something that feels bad, we retreat, either emotionally, physically or psychologically. And after some time alone to heal and reflect, the coldness of isolation or the need for acceptance lures us back, until we finally settle upon a compromise that feels acceptable, or even tolerable. 

On a personal level, the two extremes between the quills of the porcupine and the cold winter’s night encapsulate perfectly well our daughter’s life as an introvert.  Like a moth to a flame, she flits uncomfortably between the quills of the porcupine (denoting social interaction) and the cold winter’s night (self-imposed isolation), never really finding that elusive ‘healthy balance’. 

When I apply Schopenhauer’s metaphor to the current education system, I can see how young people are forced together in the same way the winter’s night pushes together the porcupines. However, for introverts, like our daughter, the quills of the porcupine represent the noise, chaos and confusion of the busy school environment.  A noise that leaves her feeling overwhelmed, beaten and bruised.  An environment that creates anxiety and stress, depleting her energy and undermining her ability to thrive. 

Desperate to restore her energy and regain her sense of self, our daughter retreats - outwardly withdrawing from her boisterous peers and extracting herself physically from the noise and chaos of school life. Inwardly she disappears to a safe place in her own mind where it is manageable and tolerable.

Similarly, school is not without challenges for her extrovert brother, even though the education system is more aligned with his extrovert personality type.  Extroverts, like our son, are energised by social interaction and action.  They need other people to recharge their batteries.  Whilst our son feels more at home in a busy, vibrant education setting, the quills of the porcupine still exist in the form of prickly friendships and behavioural expectations. As our son will tell you, sitting still and listening for sustained periods of time is impossible for an action taking, thrill-seeking, impulsive networker. 

Our son needs adventure, social stimulation and companionship to make him happy, but the fickle nature of young friendships can deliver a wounding sting, leaving him unexpectedly out in the cold. The pain of exclusion forces him back to the ‘huddle’ speedily and he will do anything to be part of the ‘in-gang’ again. Consequently, young extraverts, like our son, are more likely to engage in disruptive, risky or reckless behaviour to keep favour with their peers – once again thrusting them back into the cold when the disciplinary reprimands from school are served.

And so, the delicate dance of the porcupine human continues, regardless of personality type.

But what is the answer? 

Does the only solution rest somewhere between hurt and isolation – an optimal middle ground – a compromise that retires our need for internal defence mechanisms?  After 160 years, is that really the best we can accomplish?

Or is it time to revisit Schopenhauer’s parable with modern-day scrutiny; considering all we have learnt over the past century?  Is it time to look at the porcupine problem through a different lens?

Firstly, in the UK, porcupines do not live in the wild, so we are compelled to compare them to their prickly counterparts - our hedgehog population – to see how they are faring in modern society. 

Sadly, it’s not a positive picture. Britain is facing a hedgehog crisis with numbers halving since the turn of the century.  Conservationists warn that hedgehogs are in severe decline due to changes in their natural habitat. The way humans choose to live with private boundaries and borders means that hedgehogs can no longer pass through our timber-clad gardens to forage for food and shelter; which forces them into unsafe territory and the perils of predators (i.e. badgers and traffic).

However, just as the porcupines in Schopenhauer’s 1851 parable discovered a compromise to their problem through trial and error, it appears our own hedgehog population have also found a novel way to overcome their present-day ‘hedgehog dilemma’

In 2016, Nelson the hedgehog was found walking in a public park in Norfolk.  He was unique because he was completely bald.  Nelson had no prickles – at all.  Immediately, humans jumped to the conclusion that Nelson could not survive in the wild without his spikes, despite making it to adulthood, so they took him to a nearby sanctuary where he received three meals a day, warm baths, massage oil treatments and a comfy bed under heated lamps. 

His human carers concluded that Nelson was vulnerable because he was exposed. With no prickles he could not defend himself against predators, therefore he was destined to live out his days at the sanctuary. 

But what if Nelson valued connection over protection?  What if he purposely shed his defences and embraced his vulnerability, knowing it might lead to the life he desired? Perhaps he dared to be bare?  In revealing his true self, without his defences, he sought the companionship and lifestyle he always dreamed of.  Humans assumed Nelson desired the companionship of other hedgehogs but what if Nelson actually craved the cushy life provided by humans?  What if he found a new novel way to protect himself and save his species?

Incredibly, it appears that Nelson is not alone in his clever strategy.  Since 2016, there has been a spate of nude hedgehogs turning up in strange places.  His fellow prickle-less hedgehogs, Spud, Charlie, Snoopy, Betty, Baldy and Baldrick are equally enjoying luxurious lives in the comfort of sanctuaries throughout the UK (and breeding too!).  They no longer need to concern themselves with self-preservation and surviving predators in the wild.  Quite simply, they discarded their coats - their defensive armour - in favour of being completely authentic - and in doing so, they found a novel way to keep warm and stay safe. 


So perhaps the answer for the ‘human porcupine problem’ is not in compromising who we are to avoid the extremities of hurt or isolation, but in risking our vulnerability and daring to be bare so that we can survive and thrive in all environments.  Perhaps we need to rethink the problem of human relationships, particularly in education?  Maybe we need to be as bold and as brave as Nelson in seeking an innovative, alternative solution?

Of course, change of this magnitude requires a huge leap of faith – it could have gone badly wrong for vulnerable Nelson.  That said, we have no idea how much research, time and preparation Nelson put into his plan if any.  We have no idea how long he observed the human race or tested his route before discarding his defensive coat of prickles.  If at all he did.  The point is, nobody randomly ditches their own protective armour unless the environment or the situation feels safe and authentic.  There must be mutual trust – and a genuine belief that everything will be okay. 

If we return to our introvert daughter, it does not take a genius to realise that she will never be her true self in a school environment because it does not feel safe and nurturing.  Similarly, our extrovert son will never dare to bare his adventurous spirit in an authoritarian setting for fear of exclusion. 

And so, the world misses out on their true authenticity.  Our children, as young as they are, are learning to suppress their unique strengths and talents in order to survive, to conform and to fit in.  They are compromising their true selves to simply subsist.  Like the depleting wild hedgehog population, they are forced to value protection over connection.  Survival over growth.

It is a self-sacrificing compromise. 

It took us too long to notice that our daughter, in particular, was struggling to even survive. The school curriculum was not only crushing her spirit, it was failing to nurture her intrinsic talents.  It took so much energy to endure the school day, that there was nothing left in reserve to enjoy what she loved doing the most.  We were losing her.

In December 2017 we took the difficult decision to remove her from school and educate her at home.  Due to her increasing anxiety around exams, we chose not to continue with a traditional curriculum. Instead, we opted to honour and respect our daughter’s quiet, thoughtful, sensitive, reflective and wildly creative nature.  We embraced her unique traits and tailored her learning to appeal to her strengths.  Moreover, we gifted her the time to cultivate and develop her natural-born talent. 

Over the past year, she has invested over 3000 self-guided hours into mastering her skill.  By the time her friends complete their A-levels, that number will rise to almost 25,000 hours.  Whilst she may not hold the same academic qualifications as her peers, our daughter has been stripped back to her true core self for the first time since compulsory school age.  She is now healthy, happy and well on her way to achieving her dream and becoming an asset to society doing what she loves. 

Our daughter has proved that there is another way.

So, we must stop thinking of school as the only option – or something our young people should endure.  

A one-size-fits-all model of education, delivered in an environment where every child learns the same thing, the same way, regardless of their unique strengths, to satisfy an exam culture that determines one form of intelligence, is not suitable for everyone.

Home Education enabled us to nurture and develop our daughter’s talent in a way that cannot be measured by a league table.  It enabled us to value her character over her credentials, individuality over conformity and prepare her to stand out – not fit in.

This is why home education must remain an option for families.  Furthermore, it must remain an option for parents, like us, who need the autonomy to tailor learning according to the individual needs, strengths and talents of our child(ren) in a way that values authenticity.  Most importantly, it must remain an alternative option to school – not a continuation.  Otherwise, we simply take the ‘porcupine problem/hedgehog dilemma’ and repeat it in a different environment.  By insisting ‘school is replicated at home’ we simply prevent those who failed to thrive in one setting, from flourishing in another.

Controlling or restricting alternative options for education is like forcing Nelson back into the wild and accepting that the hedgehog community will continue to diminish.  Accepting he will be just one of many who will not make it.

Unless the school environment changes significantly (like the hedgehog’s natural habitat) we must respect individual choice and the bold efforts some will make to improve their personal situation.  If we are not content to accept personal choice, then we must take immediate remedial action to ensure that the ‘only option’ enables every living being to thrive.

To achieve this in the hedgehog world, we would need to insist that every neighbourhood makes provision for hedgehogs to move freely, eat and stay warm.   In a school environment, young people would need to be assigned to groups or teams, not on the basis of their SAT results or academic ability, but on the basis of their personality types and intrinsic strengths.  Thinkers would need to be taught by thinkers, teaching the curriculum in a way that challenges their thought process.  Adventurers would need to be taught by adventurers, teaching the curriculum in a way that encourages risk-taking and problem solving using the great outdoors.  Budding artisans would need to be taught by skilled craftsmen in a hands-on environment.  The quiet reflection of introversion and the exuberance of extroversion would need to be considered strengths.  Authenticity would be the only value.

This might feel like blue-sky thinking.  Some might argue that it is logistically impossible (I’d argue that there is somebody who has the talent to do it), yet every parent in the land will tell you that no one child/sibling is born the same.  So why allow the unique characters and personalities of our children to be suppressed until adulthood when many of them will return to rediscover their true-core-selves once again (an anomaly that keeps the self-help industry alive)?

For authenticity in education to work, we must place a value on what makes us human.  That does not mean only honouring the ‘good bits’.  For as long as mankind exists, we will continue to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of human nature’, therefore, it is vital that we embrace our whole being, including our fears, doubts, pain and vulnerability. 

These things are not weaknesses – they are the key drivers to human connection and trust.  Authenticity is about transparency and not having to hide, justify or dilute our true natures.  It’s about placing all our cards on the table for each player to see.  Whilst we may not like another person’s hand, agree with how they play the game or be able to change the cards they have been dealt - we can be sure they are representing their true self – therefore we can learn how to work with them, or around them. 

Living an authentic life is a simple universal concept, yet its application appears to evade us from the outset.  We understand it in theory but fail to apply it in practice.  I guess the challenge is having the courage to be as vulnerable as Nelson, to create the perfect environment for mutual trust.   For us, this place is at home.

With trust as our foundation, the need for protective armour is redundant, and our focus, energy and purpose changes from survival and protection to enjoyment and optimal performance. Not just in education, but in life. 

Authentic Nelson the hedgehog enjoying a warm oil massage


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