Consider dropping out of school

I was camped out at a coffee shop working happily when a friend of mine called to say he was bringing his two nieces by for advice. I wasn’t thrilled but acquiesced. Ten minutes later I was enthralled by our conversation. They were brilliant… or at least on their way.

As I listened to their complaints about life it became clear that these two burgeoning minds had outgrown their environments. They told me how boring high-school was, how narrow-minded their families were. I told them to drop out and to get away.

I know that might seem like rash advice but I’m comfortable with it. Here’s why.

For one, it’s clear that these two are autodidacts — self-taught people who easily learn what they need when they need it. Being spoon fed only slows them down. Plus, the knowledge acquired by the self-taught learner tends to be more useful than the the typical curricular information garage sale.

Which reconciles an age old debate: haggard teachers exhort their students that the material being studied is of immense importance while the students feel it can’t possibly be. The teacher is right: the material may be important (to someone, sometime). The students are also right: it’s not really important for them to learn right now. It’s not about importance per se but about a species of importance called relevance.

Healthy human beings have an instinct for relevance — a sense of what to learn next given the challenges being faced. School can work against that instinct when it fills our time with hollow challenges that have little to do with real life; and also by the constant assertion that everything being taught is somehow of great and equal importance, which is impossible. It’s suspicious that I never once had a teacher admit that today we’d be studying something entirely bogus just so they wouldn’t get fired.

There’s a long and successful tradition of self-taught learners (Ben Franklin, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, to name a few). And to the self-taught learner the average American school constitutes needless abuse.

School for me was a complete waste of time. There might have been some value to witnessing the barbarity and brokenness of it all but a dozen hours, not a dozen years, would have sufficed. It was a popularity contest that I failed every day and it got in the way of studying more interesting things.

I wish some eccentric mentor had sized up my situation and set me straight. For example, because of my father’s job at the airline I could actually fly anywhere in the country for free — and I never did anything with it. I skipped school as often as I could but since I had to do it secretly — I couldn’t stay home or blow town — the farthest I got was the video arcade. Sometimes I just threw my hands up at consciousness altogether and slept in my car. But I’d be twice as smart now if I’d ditched my textbooks, grabbed a book I liked, and hopped a flight out of that small-minded town to anywhere.

Unfortunately I had been brainwashed into believing that the high-school dropout was the greatest of losers. So instead I stayed in school where, on account of my big glasses, bad skin, and awkwardness, I was treated as if I actually were the greatest of losers.

The other reason I was confident in my advice to the girls is that you can get into college without a high-school degree. It’s a little known secret. I didn’t know it when I was suffering in my high-school concentration camp; neither did my poor parents. But my girlfriend is about to finish her doctorate and she doesn’t have a high-school degree. Neither does a talented software developer I know who graduated from the same university as me. If only people knew.

If these girls ever want to go to college I’m sure they can pass the entrance exams, write a good essay, and impress (if not intimidate) their way through any college interview. Of course thanks now to the ubiquity of books, the internet, and the growing awareness among employers that a good portfolio of real work performed is more valuable than a curriculum vitae, the value of college is waning too.

Another reason I’m confident to offer such rash advice is that these girls don’t have to listen to me. People tell them stupid things all the time. Every internet ad, billboard, and television commercial asks them to take a step toward bankruptcy, obesity, and idiocy. Every tv show tells them to go out and get laid. Surely it won’t destroy their lives if their uncle’s old college buddy suggests that the conclusions they are coming to — that many of the people and institutions around them really are misguided, ill-fitting, wastes of their time — are right after all. (Parents — don’t worry, my advertising budget is small).

But what if they take my advice and something goes wrong? I’ll take that chance because things are already going wrong. One of the girls is on the verge of being put on medication because she’s so unhappy. The drugs will make her ok with her malnourished, growth-stunting, environment. They’ll make her ok with jumping through inane hoop after hoop.

I almost went on meds for the same reason when I was in college. But when I got all the way to the psychiatrist who was to prescribe the drugs, the man listened to me for a bit and said, “No way. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re an intellectual engaged in an important process that the drugs will slow down or derail.”

By this time I had been told by so many people to go on medication that I had forgotten the possibility that my malaise was just how it felt for my mind to upchuck a lot of bad ideas I’d swallowed. I never got the drugs and the realizations harvested from those uncomfortable depths are among the most valuable insights of my life.

Of course this advice of mine isn’t for everyone. Not every high-school dropout goes off to spend their time in better ways. But there’s an easy way to test for this: before I gave any advice to the girls I asked, “What are you interested in?

The flurry of answers they gave — writing, the mind, computer programming, history… except when babied about it all in school — made it clear they were being constrained.

Parents take note: it’s not school that holds the key to your child’s potential. What matters most is that their growing mind looks out on the world and finds it interesting. When school holds the key to accessing those interests, that’s fine. But to cut curious minds off from following their interests for the sake of school is absurd.