Overcoming Your Addiction to School
Are you a young person who's still in school?Then I have a dare for you. No, let's not call it a dare -- we don't want to scare your parents. Let's call it a sociology experiment.When you go to school on Monday, ask all your teachers to name one thing they learned in school that they still use that they couldn't have learned on their own.Be polite. Say, "Excuse me Ms. Jones, but if school is so important, can you please name one thing you learned in school that you couldn't have learned on your own?"You should ask all adults this question.It will be interesting to see what they come up with. Because if they do come up with something, then the next question is: Why couldn't they learn it on their own? Weren't they resourceful enough? Did they have problems with self-motivation? And then the next question is: What in the hell are they doing teaching you? And then: What in the hell are you doing listening to them? Isn't there something better you could be doing with your time? And if there is something better, then what in the hell are you in school?I've been asking myself these questions since I was about 10. But by the time I finally decided to quit school, I was already halfway through college. What possessed me to stay in school for 10 more years when I knew I had better things to do?School is like a drug -- probably OK when used in moderation, but too much of it can cause damaging side effects, including passivity, dullness, emotional dependency, rebelliousness, anti-social behavior, mood swings, disorientation, impaired judgment, eating disorders, depression, self-hatred and dislike of learning. Except that school is even more dangerous than conventional drugs because it's a socially acceptable addiction forced onto children too young to realize they have any other choice. School serves as a "gateway drug" to other kinds of addictions such as alcoholism, smoking, sex addiction, delinquency, materialism, workaholism, heroin, cocaine and coffee.Somebody needs to start up Schoolaholics Anonymous. I wish there had been a Schoolaholics Anonymous chapter in my school."Hello."My name is Billy. I am psychologically addicted to school."Up until 6th grade, I loved my teachers and I loved school. I was interested in everything. I loved math, science, reading and social studies. By the end of 6th grade, I hated math, science and social studies. I was bored in all my classes. I thought I was stupid. I thought my teachers were idiots. And I lost all interest in reading. I couldn't even write a simple article for the school newspaper. The only things I was interested in were girls, adventure and sneaking around the city writing graffiti.In 10th grade, I got a job in a library shelving magazines and books. I began reading about graffiti, which was the only subject I still had much interest in. That got me back into reading again and now I'm one of those lucky people who actually makes his living as a writer. I have tried to quit school three times. I worked at odd jobs, did internships, started a small business, won research grants, did grassroots organizing, edited a newspaper and a book, published another book, ran a youth center, made friends in almost every neighborhood in my hometown Chicago and hitch-hiked around the country twice to every major city except Dallas. I had a life. I did not need school. But school still had this strange grip on me. I was going through withdrawal.The trap was tougher when I was in college. Everyone knows high school is a waste of time, but college is considered a great privilege. I loved college. I felt at home there. I had free food, my own room, no responsibilities. My tuition was even free because my dad's a professor. It would have been stupid for me to quit. I'd be throwing away privileges, not just free tuition but the acceptance of my family, future employers and mates. And then there was my immigrant grandmother. What in the hell was I supposed to tell her?In her mind, the only two respectable things a young person can do is work or go to school. There's no third alternative. There's no such thing as "I learn on my own, find my own teachers, create my own work." Abraham Lincoln, Frank Lloyd Wright, Malcolm X, Joan of Arc and Benjamin Franklin are from a different universe. They are from History -- things were different back then. And how dare you imply you're in a category with them?To me, they were just people who lived as they believed, did what they loved, faced up to the challenges of their time, and happened to become famous. Great and terrible things would happen in my lifetime also. Was I prepared to do my part?I didn't want to write any more papers proving I could read two books and compare them. I wanted to make giant charts to compare everything that mattered to me.I didn't want to memorize a bunch of facts and forget them. I wanted to know facts I could use and organize them like an almanac in a way I could whip out on any fool who tried to test me.I didn't want to speed through assigned texts. I wanted to read some carefully, others not at all.I didn't want to hear about amazing people. I wanted to meet them, apprentice with them, be their partner.I didn't want to sit in classrooms. I wanted to see the world.I looked at my friends who graduated college. Most of them are paying off debts now, riding the conveyor belt into graduate school and selecting their mates from unnecessarily narrow pools. Geniuses at following directions, they have little direction of their own. They're good at fitting into structures but they have little idea how to change one. Some of them feel their narrow field is the big picture. They have no idea whether they'd be happier doing something else.I prefer to have my mid-life crises now -- early and often. I quit college in the middle of my junior year and enrolled as a student at The University of Planet Earth. It has billions of professors, tens of millions of books, and unlimited course offerings. Tuition is free. There are no degrees and no one ever graduates.Students pose their own questions and design their own curriculum.Here is my question: How can I commit the most good and the least evil in my lifetime?Here is my curriculum: Live in a different place every year: DC, Oakland, a farm and probably New Orleans. Every Sunday, attend a different place of worship. Every day, get to know someone new (volunteer, attend lectures, talk to strangers on the street). Seek out hundreds of role models and mentors. The rest of the time, go to the library, read whatever I want -- plus the critiques so I don't become a crackpot -- take notes and make charts. Create my own personal bible, almanac and telephone book.For discipline, live in high-crime neighborhoods. That ought to keep a gun to my head. Save up enough to travel to a different continent each year; otherwise, work as little as possible. Do that for five years. That will be my freshman survey course. Then I'll have a better idea of what to do as a sophomore.Where am I supposed to get the money to do all this? Simple -- all the money I won't have to spend on college (room, board, books, travel and time wasted, over and above tuition). Eventually, I'm gonna make a living as a public interest consultant. You're gonna be able to come to me in 20 years. If you want to turn your nose up at me because I don't have a college degree -- fine, your loss. Maybe someday I'll regret quitting school. Maybe I started too late. Maybe I won't be a good enough consultant and maybe my plans won't fly. But I have to try. As Grace Llewellyn writes: "The only alternative to making mistakes is for someone else to make all your decisions for you, in which case you will make their mistakes instead of your own."Llewellyn is a former English teacher and author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to quit school and get a real life and education (Lowry House, 503-686-2315). Her book was the major inspiration for me finally deciding once and for all to quit school.Llewellyn and a few other women have been forming a loose-knit movement with hundreds of young "unschoolers" across the country who found out how to quit school legally and educate themselves by doing whatever they damn well please.Let me tell you about a few of them.Anna Fritz quit school when she was 15. She was a straight A student on her way to becoming class valedictorian at the School of Arts Milwaukee. Instead of taking music classes, she played professionally and studied with a renowned cello teacher at UW-Madison. Instead of taking science, she apprenticed with a botanist at a museum greenhouse. Instead of taking English, she joined a critique group of professional writers. Instead of taking art or business, she worked at a photography studio. Instead of taking social studies, she worked as the organizer for Peace Action Milwaukee and represented the organization at the national meetings in Washington, D.C.Kyla Wetherell quit school at 16 and decided to go to South America -- on a bike. Everyone tried to tell her she couldn't do it. But she got a job, saved up, went to the library, read all about South America and apprenticed at a bike shop to learn how to fix bikes. Then she bought a one-way ticket to Venezuela, not even knowing any Spanish. She learned Spanish by talking to people, rode her bike from country to country, lived with people she met, ignored their warnings not to go to Colombia, and even found work as a botanist's assistant in the rainforest.As the word gets out about people like Kyla and Anna, I think we're going to see the unschooling movement in this country grow quietly and quickly, kind of like the vegetarian movement. Ten and 30 years ago, if you were a vegetarian, everyone thought you were crazy. You couldn't eat at most restaurants because there was nothing vegetarian on the menu. And everyone knew meat was good for you. Today, everyone knows that meat is bad for you and it's bad for the environment. Being vegetarian is becoming mainstream and society is changing to accommodate it. Public schools will one day be forced to accommodate self-schoolers.Some people say: "Yeah, self-education may be fine for white kids from educated backgrounds. But it's irresponsible to encourage black kids from the ghetto to drop-out of school. School is the only chance they've got."Really?Are you sure -- or is that the drug talking?Llewellyn's latest book, Freedom Challenge: African-American homeschoolers (Lowry House), features 15 essays written by black families from all kinds of backgrounds who have taken their education into their own hands. One black mother decided to pull her son out of school after reading Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys (African American Images) by Jawanza Kunjufu: "When Sean was in kindergarten, I was receiving calls from his school , telling me that my five-year-old was a ïmenace to society.' After getting through that year we began to experience the disaster of the public school system. Two months into the school year, Sean's teacher informed us that Sean was going to fail the first grade and that he needed special education... [N]ext came Catholic School. There, I was told that Sean had Attention Deficit Disorder and we should put him on Ritalin. He was also given an IQ test and we discovered that he had one of the highest scores in the school."It doesn't take a Ph.D. in education to see how many bright-eyed and curious black children who get labeled with behavior problems in pre-school end up sad and in drug-rehab 20 years down the pike.The typical white upper class view is that the poor and black and Latino people have behavior problems and the way to help them is to sit them down at a desk and teach them to act more like us. Wait a minute. Poor and black and Latino people didn't invent guns, crack, TV, cigarettes, cars, Air Jordans, gambling and welfare. Poor and black and Latino people didn't sail over to Europe, put our asses in the bottom of a ship, destroy our way of life, enslave us, put us in ghettos and pretend it's not their fault. I think that upper class white people have a behavior problem and the main problem with people in the ghetto is that they're trying too hard to act like us -- they just don't have the resources to get away with it.Anyone who actually knows any poor and black and Latino people knows that even with all the setbacks they experience, a decent percentage of them could do a much better job educating their own kids than any school if they only had the basic resources and the sense that it was possible.Grace Llewellyn's books will give people the sense that it is possible.Getting them the resources will be more difficult.Somebody needs to start an "Unschooling Foundation" and "Unalumni Association" so that successful people who quit school (like Liz Claiborne, Whoopi Goldberg, and Joseph LeMandt -- the youngest person on the Fortune 500) can give "unscholarships" to low-income families whose children want to take responsibility for their own education.The upper classes have always been able to hire tutors for their children. The information age and the rise of home offices is once again making it possible for middle class parents not to send their kids to school. Maybe the energy of the middle-class unschooling movement will inspire the underclass to see their own experiences with school in a different light -- to realize that bad grades don't mean they're stupid -- and to take a greater interest in their children's education.But how will they get jobs?Resumes! If adults can make them, why can't teenagers? Resums allow employers a more precise screen for young applicants, not just a boilerplate diploma. And what about portfolios, internships and letters of recommendation? Most poor kids miss these crucial career steps because they're forced to go directly from school into dead-end jobs. There's no better way to prove you can do something than by doing it.But to me the possibilities of a self-schooling movement go way beyond making it possible for millions of young people to quit school, do what they love, and get paid for it. My hope is that when young people are able to set their own priorities and pursue the things they love, it will create a long-term transformation in our culture toward a more reflective, more fulfilling, less destructive way of life.Throughout history four areas of life have recognized as the primary sources of good: spiritual life, family life, community life and civic life. But no one in our society has time for that stuff anymore. Everyone is too busy working or going to school.And what kind of a world is created by people who spend most of their formative years in school? The dangers are hinted at in Groupthink, a classic study of group psychology by Yale professor Irving Janis. Janis begins by asking a simple question: Why did President Kennedy and his Ivy-League-educated advisers ("some of the most intelligent men ever to participate in the councils of government") allow the CIA to talk them into the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a plan to invade Cuba so stupid in so many ways that a few basic questions would have expose gaping holes in the CIA's strategy?For example, Janis tells us one major miscalculation could have been prevented "if someone in the advisory group had taken the trouble to look at a map of Cuba, available in any atlas."Why did these best and brightest, Ivy-League-educated men of the Kennedy administration not think to look at a map of Cuba in an atlas before they sent out troops to invade it?Part of the problem was that all President Kennedy's advisers had their little jobs, their little specialties, their little departments, they were the heads of, and nobody wanted to step on anyone else's toes. So when the heads of the CIA came along and said we should invade Cuba, none of the president's advisers wanted to challenge them. It was a military matter -- outside their area of expertise.The Bay of Pigs was one of the dumbest screw-ups in American history. Not only did it fail militarily and force the US to pay $53 million to return the captured troops, but it shamed the United States in front of the world and led to the Cuban missile crisis, which put the world on the brink of nuclear war.Fortunately Kennedy had learned his lesson. He restructured his team to cut down on "groupthink." Every participant was expected to function "not primarily as spokesman for the agency he represented... but as a skeptical ïgeneralist.'"According to Janis, Kennedy and his team of skeptical generalists were able to resolve the Cuban missile crisis and avoid the threat of a nuclear war because they "met all the major criteria of sound decision-making. The decision-makers thoroughly canvassed a wide range of alternative courses of action... carefully weighed the costs, drawbacks, subtle risks of negative consequences, as well as the positive consequences, that could flow from what initially seemed the most advantageous courses of action..."Are you a young person who's still in school?Does your decision to stay in school meet Janis' criteria of sound decision making?Is school preparing you to become a skeptical generalist who will help prevent stupid mistakes like the Bay of Pigs invasion or a big shot specialist who will contribute to causing them?I mean, when are you gonna get your shit together, check into a 12-step program, and quit wasting your life in school?