Warning: Boring Personal Reflection. Proceed with caution
The best choice I ever made was listening to my parents (just this once, there were plenty of times I completely ignored them) when they advised me to drop out of high school. It was 10th grade, and I hadn’t done well in school for several years. I pretty much refused to do homework, and I argued with many of my teachers constantly. I still have problems faking respect, but I was much worse as an adolescent. To be frank, I was a little shit.
This wasn’t anything particularly new, I had always had a loose relationship with assigned schoolwork. What my parents saw that worried them, was that my anger and frustration at school was starting to sap me of energy for other things. Growing up I had read voraciously, and that was how I learned most and best. Beyond that, we would do small home science experiments, go to museums, church, and other things that taught me more than school. In 10th grade I stopped doing much else outside of school.
The central characters in this are my parents, who, it turns out were right about many things (don’t ever let them know I said that). They were perhaps predisposed towards alternative forms of school, each having their own issues with the public school system. My mother was a model student, with straight As in everything before college, and most of the way through after that (She claims she got her first C the quarter she met my father). However, she had also spent a decade as an English teacher, both at the high school and community college level, and had seen firsthand the damage school can do to some people. She is also interested in alternative forms of education, and in some ways I was a little experiment for her. My obstinance is directly from my father. Despite having a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Chicago, his undergraduate degree is in “General Studies”. The reason being, there was a required Logic course for the Philosophy major, which was only taught by one professor. My father did not get along with the professor, so he never completed the degree.
My parents, concerned for my wellbeing and happiness, convinced me that school was not helping either of those goals. Mom handed me a book called The Teenage Liberation Handbook about “unschooling”. Now, I haven’t read the book since I was 16 so forgive me if I misrepresent it, but the basic premise was that the Industrial Revolution model of K-12 education was innefective at teaching people much of anything and made them less creative, energetic human beings. My parents were both working full time, and they did not have the time nor inclination to guide me through everything I was going to learn in the next couple years. So, after much debate, I left the traditional school system on the week of my 16th birthday.
The basic model of my education was:
- Find something I wanted to learn more about.
- Find a book about it and read it.
- If the book didn’t satisfy me, find someone who could meet me and talk with me about it.
In another post maybe I’ll discuss some of the benefits of this, particularly as opposed to MOOCs. The most important step was the first one. I was forced to choose what I wanted to learn, not by picked from a menu of premade courses, but by picked from everything in the world. This was challenging, but it has helped me immeasurably, primarily in my research abilities. My interests have certainly changed since I was 16, but I use those skills daily.
My parents had just one mandatory assignment as I started off my journey. I was to read the Melville story Bartleby the Scrivener, and write a response. If you’ve read the story, its fairly obvious what the point was.
Bartleby has been an important figure in my life ever since.
The figure of Bartleby has been a touchstone and a reminder to care about SOMETHING, to do SOMETHING. I’ve seen other responses to the story, Bartleby as a revolutionary, Bartleby and the alienation of work or something. That might be true, but for me he has been a figure of action and inspiration, a cautionary tale about setting goals.