March 18, 2016

The bathroom renovation unleashed the faeries.

Posted in City life, Schooling and unschooling, Uncategorized, Weird stuff tagged , at 2:02 am by chavisory

This is the only explanation I have for recent events.

So back in October…our landlords were finally forced to concede that our bathtub was about to fall through the floor and renovate the bathroom.

And while this resulted in a near-100% reduction in giant insect encounters in the apartment, an unforeseen but pleasant surprise, we are now forced to wonder if something…else hasn’t been released from the ancient walls of the building.

Back about six weeks ago, a friend of mine was going to be visiting from out of town, so I was cleaning up the apartment.  Nothing drastic…sweeping and dusting, taking trash out and putting away piles of clothes.

Shortly thereafter, I went looking for my incense burner one day, and it was nowhere.  And it’s only ever two places:  on my bedroom dresser, or on the kitchen table.  Those are the two places I use it.

Mystified, I mentally tried to retrace events:  the last time I knew I used it, the last time I knew I saw it…cleaning day.  I’d taken everything off my dresser to dust the top of it, then put it all back and then made my bed.  I couldn’t distinctly remember putting the incense burner back along with everything else.

I checked all the dresser drawers, in case I’d just knocked it into one while putting something else away.  I thought I might’ve left it on the bed and subsequently flung it somewhere when I changed the sheets.  I checked underneath and behind all relevant pieces of furniture.  I emptied my purse and backpack and computer bag.  Nowhere.

Both roommates denied borrowing it and forgetting to return it.  I wouldn’t have minded; I just wanted to know where it was.

I only half-jokingly accused my friend of swiping it just to see how long it would take me to notice it was gone.

We don’t have cats.

I didn’t care about the cost; it was only about an $8 incense burner.  Its value is sentimental; I got it on a summer break trip to San Francisco with my best friend in college (leading one roommate to suggest that if its value wasn’t its cost, I should just buy another one…which would guarantee the spontaneous return of the original, in the manner of TV remote controls lost in the sofa cushions).

I was just thinking about it again this morning, being mad about it, planning another deep excavation of all the dresser drawers–again, its only real value is the memory of when I got it–and consoling myself as I often do at the loss of various things with Rena Grushenka’s line from White Oleander, “You want remember.  So just remember.”

…When Emily #2 texted me at rehearsal to say she’d found my incense burner, but did I know where her incense was?

The box of incense was probably on my dresser in the aftermath of a bookshelf rearrangement, but where did she find the burner???

Inside our little kitchen sideboard where we keep the cookbooks, and oddly, lain straight across the top of one cookbook (of traditional Greek cooking).  There’s no way it got put there by accident.

I had looked in that thing.  Multiple times.  I had taken out cookbooks since then.  I could swear it was not in there.

…Until it was.

May 30, 2014

It’s not a sin to be awkward.

Posted in Marginalization, Schooling and unschooling, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 2:02 am by chavisory

I’m was in the office at work with my boss and a coworker, and I do not even remember how the topic of conversation has turned to public schooling vs. homeschooling.  But it has.  My coworker starts in on an anecdote, and I have a bad, bad feeling about where this is going.

“We had a homeschooled girl in my high school chemistry class.  She was like 12.  She was just so far ahead.”

(Maybe not.  Sharp intake of breath.  Slightly too-long pause.)

“But she was so awkward.  And it made the whole class awkward, and it was just awkward to have her there.”

And here we are.  At the moment in which, prior to this, I had actually thought that my acceptance in this place, to these people, wasn’t based on me passing myself off as the right kind of person instead of the wrong kind.

The awkward kind.

But it was.  And I am.  She hadn’t realized, in the way that people usually don’t stop to think whether it’s possible that the people they’re about to mock or denigrate are actually the people they’re talking to.

Oops.  Fuck.

And I don’t want to start a really nasty fight right then in front of my boss, so I say something moderate and reasonable-sounding about how what really matters is not whether a kid is homeschooled or not, but whether they’ve been isolated or allowed to have outside social opportunities.  How some homeschooling families actually just isolate their kids, and that’s wrong, but as long as they’re giving their kids chances to interact with other groups…choir, scouting, church groups, music lessons, art classes…

…instead of “Fuck you very much.”

And I didn’t say what I actually should have, either…in the interest of starting my shift on time and also…not having an awkward argument in my boss’s office.

It’s not a sin to be awkward.

Can we stop talking about it like it is?

A 12-year-old girl hasn’t done anything to you by being awkward, or by taking advantage of her legal right to a free and appropriate public education while awkward.

While we’re at it, can we also stop using “awkward” as a euphemism for incompetent, irritating, immature, overbearing, invasive, inappropriate, or probably autistic but we can’t be seen as scorning someone for being actually disabled so we’re gonna say they’re “awkward” which is obviously just a personal failing that’s fine to use an excuse for their ostracism?

Here’s another newsflash:  I know a lot of people who in fact went through 13 years of mainstream public schooling, who are still awkward people.  Because it actually isn’t being confined in a cell-block building with a limited number of people, exactly your own age, for over a decade, isolated from your community and adult company, and subjected to sufficient peer pressure to just stop being different, that makes you non-awkward.  It’s already possessing a manner of speech, body language, common interests, and gender presentation that’s consistent with those of the vast majority of other people.  It’s having a native language of social engagement that is the same as most people around you.

I served my full term in the public school system, I went to the second-largest high school in my state, and I followed that with four years at one of this country’s most regularly top-ranked party schools.

I am still an awkward person.  And if you thought I wasn’t, you just haven’t seen me in the right—or the wrong—situation.  But I guarantee you it wasn’t lack of ridicule or social pressure to be anything other than what I was that caused this.

It also isn’t being allowed to do your academic work outside of a classroom setting, at a pace that works for you, that makes you awkward, because plenty of non-awkward people do that.

I’d really like people to consider, before the next time they scorn a kid for being awkward, or homeschooling or unconventional schooling for making kids awkward, that they are likely committing a fundamental chicken/egg fallacy.

A homeschooled kid probably isn’t awkward because they were homeschooled.

They are probably homeschooled because they are awkward.

Because they have probably already been forced out of the school system by bullying and abuse or discrimination, or because the school couldn’t or wouldn’t meet their academic needs.

(Being academically precocious: also not a sin.)

I mean, mandatory, universal public school attendance wasn’t even a widespread thing in this country until the early-mid 20th century.  Were we really just a nation of incredibly awkward people until the 1920’s or so?

Even if it really were homeschooling that caused awkwardness, I would so much rather a child of mine be awkward than a whole lot of other things that are nowhere near as socially stigmatized as awkwardness:  Mean, bigoted, superficial, callous, snide and scornful towards people different from or more vulnerable than themselves.

I’ll take awkwardness any day.

May 31, 2013

Studying the right things

Posted in Schooling and unschooling tagged , , , , at 1:21 am by chavisory

So the chancellor of the University System of Georgia, Hank Huckaby, caused a slight kerkuffle among my alumni community this past week, when he said, in reference to the fact that apparently large numbers of jobs in Georgia are going unfilled, that “students are studying the wrong things,” and that “If you can’t get a job, and you majored in drama, there’s probably a reason.”

Where to even start.  Oh, I’ll just start.

1.  The point of a university education is not to fill a quota of jobs in particular industries that just happen to be available in the state.  The point of a university education is to support and fulfill a student in the long term, not simply as a worker but as a learning, thinking, creating person.  College education should enrich an entire society with a liberal range of thinking skills, not simply enable young adults to fill available jobs.

If industries with jobs to fill are failing to attract students and applicants by making a reasonable case that the work is worthy of their dedication for the salaries they’re offering, that is not the student body’s fault.  Industries with jobs to fill are not entitled to students’ lives or attention.  A graduate has no particular duty to take any given job, anywhere, or to train for any given job just because it’s available.

2.  It is so easy to take the stereotype of the undisciplined, flighty, starving actor or artist and say if you studied drama and now you don’t have a job, maybe you studied the wrong thing.  But who would look at an unemployed graduate who studied business, marketing, or biochemistry, and say “Maybe you studied the wrong thing.  Maybe you should have studied photography or playwrighting?”

But maybe they should have.  Maybe a kid who sacrificed their true interests to what they were told was more practical, responsible, stable, or lucrative, would have been better off pursuing what they were a natural at.  Maybe they would have found that being educated where their strengths and intuition lie is actually more reliable and life-sustaining.

3.  People do work in the arts!  Maybe this is overly obvious, but I really think that some of these bigwigs who run their mouths off overlook it.  People work in the arts.  People really do make their livings in the arts.  People who quite possibly couldn’t sustain employment in more conventional career fields do so in the arts.  People with very specific and uncommon talents find a life in the arts.  People study for and work in the arts who damn well know that that path is their best bet.

And it’s not like the only thing to do with a drama degree is act or direct.  There are jobs in management, administration, development, and design, just to name a few areas.  There is such a profound ignorance of what it really takes to run the theater world, that, just for instance, I had not even heard of what would become my own job until I was in college.

Do too many people study drama expecting to be able to find jobs, or sustain themselves by performing, who then can’t?  Sure, probably.  But so what if everyone made more practical choices and studied dentistry or engineering instead?  Would the economy then have the jobs available to support all of those people?  A society can’t absorb an overabundance of nurses or computer scientists any more than it can a glut of theater artists.  There aren’t a limitless number of jobs for electrical engineers, either.  If everyone who hears Chancellor Huckaby’s speech takes his advice and chooses their field of study based on where job openings in Georgia currently are, who says those jobs will still be so plentiful, or even exist, five or ten years from now, and what happens to those students then?  And in the meantime, what happens to a society that decides it doesn’t value the education of its artists and creators?

4.  Make no mistake:  I am employed because I studied drama.

Beyond the fact that I still actually work in the specific career which I chose in college, my education in theater gave me opportunities to develop communication, interpersonal, collaborative and analytical skills that I just would not have had access to otherwise.  I found a world in which the kind of person I was at heart wasn’t considered a fundamental problem.  I found a niche that demanded my natural skill set.  I got told for the first time that the way I learn is a strength and not a weakness.  I deeply understood how my own mind worked for the first time when I was taught to use a two-scene preset light board.  Somebody taught me how to yell.

I really and truly don’t like to think about where I’d be right now if I hadn’t studied drama.  And there’s almost nothing for which I’m more grateful to my younger self than the fact that she had the foresight to not listen to people like Chancellor Huckaby.

September 13, 2011

Reason to consider unschooling, #374

Posted in Cool kids, Marginalization, Schooling and unschooling tagged , , , at 12:29 pm by chavisory

In Suburb, Battle Goes Public on Bullying of Gay Students  (New York Times, 9/13/11)

It seems that teachers and principals in Minnesota aren’t totally, completely, 100% sure about protecting kids from bullying based on their sexuality.

After years of harsh conflict between advocates for gay students and Christian conservatives, the issue was already highly charged here. Then in July, six students brought a lawsuit contending that school officials have failed to stop relentless antigay bullying and that a district policy requiring teachers to remain “neutral” on issues of sexual orientation has fostered oppressive silence and a corrosive stigma.


School officials say they are caught in the middle, while gay rights advocates say there is no middle ground on questions of basic human rights.

School officials say they are “caught in the middle.”  Between allowing students to be hounded–occasionally to death–by abuse and misinformation, and stepping in to stop it.  Somebody here missed a lesson on what it means to be an educator.

Mr. Carlson, the superintendent, agreed that bullying persists but strongly denied that the school environment is generally hostile.

I have no words.

August 31, 2011

Talking about bullying makes me less reasoned and mellow than usual.

Posted in Schooling and unschooling, Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:52 pm by chavisory

Under a recent law, the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, New Jersey now has the most stringent and extensive anti-bullying policies of any state.  The Times has an article today about the administrative and enforcement hardships that the law will impose on New Jersey schools (Bullying Law Puts New Jersey Schools On the Spot).

I’m pretty unsympathetic to the perspective expressed by one Richard G. Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators: “I think this has gone well overboard,” he says.  “Now we have to police the community 24 hours a day.  Where are the people and the resources to do this?”

School administrators…. Don’t think you need a law to force you to keep students safe in your schools?  Then you need to prove that you can do so without one.  But you haven’t.

When you create and preside over an environment that invites abuse of the vulnerable, then yes, you’re actually accountable for what happens to them in that environment.

When you claim to be acting in loco parentis, in the place of students’ parents while they’re in your power, then yes, you’re responsible for protecting them from abuse.

I don’t know how representative Bozza’s opinion is of other members of the Association of School Administrators, but he sounds downright flabbergasted and resentful than when you claim to be responsible for students’ learning and living environments (and I think it’s fair to call school a living environment, when students spend a third or more of their time there), you are actually responsible for students’ learning and living environments. 

You can’t have it both ways.  You can’t claim the ability to legally compel students to spend eight hours a day in your facilities, to legally be acting in place of their parents, and then abdicate actual responsibility for their well-being.

Where are you supposed to get the people and the resources to enact this?  That’s not the problem of the bullying victims in your districts.  Get it together.

Not up for actually protecting kids?  Then you’re in the wrong job.

Does the New Jersey law go overboard in its requirements?  Yeah, maybe, but then you should’ve proven that you can do your job without it.  If kids are still being abused in your schools while staff turn a blind eye or claim powerlessness, you haven’t.

August 7, 2011

A hope for neurodiversity in education

Posted in Marginalization, Schooling and unschooling, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 12:13 am by chavisory

Sometimes when I’m feeling frustrated and pessimistic, I get to wondering if humanity is irredeemably stupid.  Sometimes I look around at some of the things we do to each other and the immensity of the problems we’ve created for ourselves through greed and short-sightedness, and the state of politics in this country, and just can’t fathom how we’re ever going to find the unity, compassion, and concerted problem-solving to get ourselves out.

But I’ve been watching TED talks lately…and this conference has found a really astonishing number of people who have totally brilliant ideas and things to say.  You can really click randomly on just about any TED talk video, and people you’ve never heard of before in a hugely diverse range of disciplines are saying and doing incredible things.  Which makes me think, instead, that we actually have a nearly infinite number of wise and brilliant people on our side.

This talk by Sir Ken Robinson is actually about 5 years old, but for that I think what he says is actually more urgent now and not less.  He says that we’re actually educating kids out of their creativity and natural genius, to our own impoverishment…that we actually stigmatize many kinds of intelligence that simply don’t perform well in a confined classroom environment or on a standardized test.

Creativity isn’t just about making art; it’s that misunderestimation that makes it easy to marginalize as impractical or financially untenable.  We have environmental problems, health problems, food problems, and budget problems, and they’re all going to require creativity to solve.  Balancing our budget will take creativity.  Making alternatives to fossil fuels safe and affordable will take creativity.  Finding ways to teach kids from the most difficult of life circumstances takes creativity (like setting up a pirate supply store as a front for a free tutoring center, as Dave Eggers explains here).

“It’s education that’s meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp,” Robinson says, noting that we’re trying to educate kids for the next 50 years of their lives, but we have no idea what the world will be like in 5 years.  We have absolutely no basis on which to say that one kind of thinking, one curriculum or set of skills or knowledge, will be the most important one in the future and therefore to stigmatize all the others.

It’s here that I’d like the educational establishment to consider borrowing an idea from the autism community:  neurodiversity, or the conviction that there is very broad natural variation in human neurological wiring, in which even difficult differences should be valued on their own terms.  It’s become a somewhat contentious term and there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of it, but I don’t believe that it’s a denial of the reality of the disabling aspects of this condition, or a denial that people need and deserve help with things that really impede their quality of life.  I see neurodiversity as asking us to understand and accept a way of thought and a way of being on its own terms before we devalue it or decide it should be eradicated from the human experience, to see people first for their gifts and the ways in which humanity needs them.

As Temple Grandin says, “the world needs all kinds of minds.”

To me, neurodiversity’s not just about how we value autistic people, but how we value everyone who thinks differently, anyone who’s out of step with what the culture has decided it values and doesn’t value, and whatever is distinctive about every person.

Very much echoing what I interpret to be at the heart of the neurodiversity movement’s goals, Robinson says “Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability.  At the heart of the challenge is to reconstitute our sense of ability and of intelligence.”

Robinson talks specifically about how dance and performance arts are devalued in the educational system, and I think of the League of Extraordinary Dancers, as well as all the dancers I’ve worked with, who never stop amazing me with how their brains work in ways that mine doesn’t.  Skills like these are probably not measurable by standardized test, but, I mean, they only have the potential to revolutionize assumptions about what the human body is capable of and the artistic potential of technology and the internet.

No one gets better or stronger or smarter by being defined and valued according to their weaknesses, but that’s exactly how we educate kids.  We sort students out by what’s wrong with them instead of allowing them the resources and freedom to nurture what’s right with themselves.

I think of Hogwarts, by contrast, which begins the process of formal education by sorting students according to their most basic strengths: Gryffindor students are courageous, Ravenclaws clever, Hufflepuffs hardworking and fair, and Slytherins cunning and ambitious.  Notice how the Sorting Hat doesn’t sort anyone out by their deficiencies.  And how it required the gifts of every single House to save the world from Voldemort.  (Even Slytherin, reviled by all the other houses…Snape’s cunning obviously being what allowed him to act as a double agent for the Order, and it was Narcissa Malfoy’s loyalty to her own family first and foremost that led her to betray Voldemort.)

We all need each other.  We all need each other’s brilliance.

{I couldn’t exactly weave this in to my thesis, but it’s just beautiful and I wanted to share it: spoken word poet Sarah Kay talks about how she found out what she wanted to do, using poetry to solve problems, and teaching self-expression through performance poetry.}

April 18, 2011

Why unschooling….

Posted in Schooling and unschooling, Uncategorized tagged , , , at 1:35 am by chavisory

I’ve sort of been looking out for an excuse to write about this topic, and lo and behold, I got a request (thank you bbsmum!).

One day in college I was sick in bed, and asked a friend to bring me over some tea and books.  One of the books she brought me from her personal stack of library books was Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life & Education.  As evidence of how much she said she’d loved it herself, it was already weeks overdue.

I’d never heard of unschooling before, but I was a convert.  I mean, I sort of understood, with that book, how people become religious zealots.  It so succinctly and vividly captured everything that I felt was Wrong with the public education system.

At its most basic, the concept of “unschooling” contests the premise of the traditional school system that children best learn what they need to know by being forcibly confined to a classroom for 7 hours a day, 9 months a year, for 13 years, and mandated to learn all the same things at the same time in the same way as everyone else for most of those years.  I’ve come to think of it as “factory-style schooling.”

Rather, the premise of the unschooling movement is that children come as they are desperate to learn, they don’t much have to be coerced or threatened into it, that people learn best by doing first-hand what they’re truly interested in.  That the wide world is full of educational opportunities free for the asking and people should be able to use whatever resources work best for their own purposes.  And that, intrinsically, children deserve no less than adults to be taken seriously as people worthy of respect and of having a say in the conduct of their own lives.

Some caveats: I’m speaking of the American compulsory public school system in its predominant form.  I’m not against the idea of any schools ever, at all.  I have no personal experience of charter schools, specialty schools like Montessori or Waldorf or schools designed to accommodate specific disabilities or special interests, so I don’t have any basis on which to make generalizations or criticisms of them.  I know that people choose those educational options for a whole variety of reasons (the operative word being choose).  And I know that some public schools are doing really wonderful things (one of the coolest in my opinion being the New York Harbor School) to give their students greater opportunity for self-direction and creativity.

I’ll try to be brief (ha), as there are many good books on this subject, about some of the reasons I think unschooling is worthy of consideration as an alternative to how we currently educate most of our kids:

1. The school system does not have students’ best interests at heart.  It can’t.  It’s incapable of having any respect for individual learning needs, life needs, passions or ambitions that fall outside the narrow parameters it’s designed to allow.  Because the system isn’t designed to give impassioned minds as free a reign in their own highest development as possible, but to keep as many young people under control in as small a space as possible.  The convenience of the system will always take precedence over individual well-being.

2. The school system is dishonest.  It lies to students about what life is really like and what will be required of them.  The traits most required for success in school are obedience and credulity, whereas the traits most required for success in life are creative problem solving, courage and critical thinking.  Rather than discouraging immaturity, ignorance and short-sightedness, it exploits those traits to keep students under control with fear of the future.  Adults with any self-regard wouldn’t put up with a fraction of the disrespect, humiliation and absurdity that school kids do every day only because they don’t know that they have a choice.  By isolating students from working adults and from the world as it really is, schools create the impression that the knowledge they offer is all there is, and the way they require learning is the only valid way.  The system calls people failures who simply can’t do things the way it demands.  It says that education is something separate from real life by cutting students off from the world around them and from genuine experience.  It says that life is something you’re preparing for, that you’ll be qualified for upon graduation, not something that you are living.

3. Age grading reinforces immaturity.  It deprives kids of older classmates to be role models and mentors, younger classmates to be models and mentors for, and pathologizes healthy and helpful relationships between students of all ages as developmentally inappropriate or undesirable.  It demands that there’s a right or a wrong age to learn any given subject or skill.

4.  I’ve made this argument before, so I’ll truly keep it short here: the main values instilled by the school system are obedience, conformity, and fear of authority.  Those are not the traits we most need citizens to have to fix our democracy, our economy, and our environment.

5. The real world is so much better, so beautiful, wondrous, strange, astonishing and so full of things to learn to do.  Thirteen years is too long to spend locked up.

Though I’m tempted to try to anticipate and preemptively answer some of the more common objections to the unschooling movement, I’m curious to see what will naturally come up in discussion.  So comments section, take it away!

November 1, 2010

Reason to consider unschooling, #419

Posted in Schooling and unschooling, Uncategorized tagged at 1:51 am by chavisory

A Michigan prosecutor believes that the school system ought to own adults’ time now, too, not just the lives of their kids.

Schedule a parent-teacher conference or go to jail.

September 17, 2010

Two different but related things

Posted in Schooling and unschooling, Uncategorized tagged , at 8:38 pm by chavisory

1.  My friend Brandy recently revamped her own blog and I think it’s great!  It’s called Cognitive Informalist, and concerns how we learn in informal or unplanned settings, especially through games and interactional media.

2.  In the debate in the comments section of my last post, I’m being told by an old friend that I’m wrong about what’s going on in schools these days.  And it’s just possible; I might be.  So if you are a teacher, or a parent with kids in school, or have some other sort of inside view of what’s actually going down in classrooms lately, and your school is trying something radical or exciting to foster independence, critical thinking, creativity, and respect for individual learning desires, I would love to hear about it!  The comments section, as always, is open.

September 15, 2010

What the President got right, and wrong, about education

Posted in Schooling and unschooling, Uncategorized tagged , at 9:36 pm by chavisory

President Obama gave his second annual start of the school year address this week to the nation’s students, and many media sources have noted the general absence of the paranoia and outrage that marked the occasion last fall, including accusations of injecting politics into education, socialist indoctrination, and parents threatening to pull their children from school for the day lest their vulnerable minds be contaminated by whatever inflammatory thing the President might have to say to 3rd graders (I’m still at a loss as to what these parents really feared he might say).  But I’ve actually found both years remarkable for the almost utter lack of attention paid to the substance of the speech itself.

I was thrilled to hear Obama openly acknowledge the realities and difficulties that many students are facing: financial insecurity and family tension, the wars and the recession, wondering if they’ll be able to afford college at all.  I always resented being talked down to or having the truth soft-pedaled to me as a kid so I was appreciative that he didn’t even try.  I was glad to hear him ask students to reject bullying and show kindness and respect each others’ differences; I’m not sure it would’ve done a lot of good but that’s something I would have loved to hear a President say when I was in middle school.  I think the President spoke with an awareness that childhood bullying, unchecked, grows up into the kind of much more dangerous bullying behavior–lying, smearing, contempt, character assassination, open disregard for the rights or dignity of opponents, even violence–that we’ve seen all too much on display in our political process lately.

I was glad to hear him tell students that “nobody gets to write your destiny but you.”  I wish this was the #1 lesson that we imparted to all students: that no one else gets to tell you who or what you are, or what you can or can’t do.

The two big (and almost completely predictable) things wrong, however: the near-equation of education with school success, and the lauding of “hard work” as the key to nearly all success, in education, life and career.

The fact is that the school system we have now is, for many, many students, a tragically counterproductive system or simply a bad learning environment.  It has no respect for learning differences, for individual ambition, or for independent thought.  Its goals are standardization and submission to authority.  By constantly punishing students for their deficits rather than encouraging them and letting them go as far as possible in their strengths, it forces most students to be mediocre in most everything.  Schools confer diplomas, not education.  When the school system does not serve the goals of education or of the individual student (which was usually, in my experience from kindergarten through 10th grade), then our encouragement of students to fulfill their full educational potential might need to include encouragement to leave school behind and pursue their own education.

And we need real schooling options which will take into account the individual learning styles, desires, and goals of students when those are at odds with what’s considered acceptable by the current school system.  The schools we have are failing too many kids.  Asking them to keep playing along is not a solution to anything.

“More and more, the kinds of opportunities that are open to you will be determined by how far you go in school.  In other words, the farther you go in school, the farther you’ll go in life,” Obama stated, as if this is a foregone conclusion.  I hope it isn’t.  I think that this is a vision of the future that we should and can reject and turn back from.  With the exception of highly technical, scientific or medical career fields, there’s no particular reason that it needs to be true.  Indeed, this faulty outlook that everyone needs more and more schooling–that everyone needs a college degree–to be successful and comfortable is, I think, is largely responsible both for the explosion of college costs and the increasing meaninglessness of a college degree.  And to look at the number of our geniuses, innovators, artists and business successes who were school failures or dropouts or who avow that their formal education had little or nothing to do with their eventual success, is a pretty strong refutation of the presumption that length of schooling is deterministic of how far anyone can go in life.  Whereas I worked hard and did well in school and found myself graduating high school with all A’s and almost no skills, something that I had to take it upon myself to fix.  People who can teach themselves, on the other hand, who are always learning and adapting, are never confined by their schooling.

Hard work, of course, is a necessary ingredient to most success, but not a sufficient one.  We have millions of people out of work right now, and not for any aversion to hard work.  Likewise, millions of people are desperate for any job and more than willing to take menial or physically demanding ones, but find themselves disqualified (or “overqualified”) by advanced degrees.  Most of them, I’m sure, have worked hard their whole lives, doing what they thought they were supposed to do, believing that hard work would keep them safe.  It’s one of our most intoxicating and stubborn national myths, that hard work is the primary necessary condition for material success and security; it’s our way of saying that life is fair at its core and that people ultimately get what they deserve.  But it isn’t, and sometimes they don’t.  Often, the people who work the hardest struggle the most for their entire lives.

What’s going to restore America’s vitality and point the directions in which we need to go next in so many areas–energy independence, health care, job creation, healing our ecological situation, just to name a few–in addition to hard work, are ingenuity, creativity, critical and fiercely independent thinking, judicious willingness to take risks…and ethical leadership.  All of which are precisely the things discouraged by the predominant way in which we currently educate children.

What I wish a leader would say to the nation’s students is this: that in order to write your own destiny, you have to take your education into your own hands.  That means being focused and unashamed of what you want out of your life and what you want to accomplish in the world, looking around you to assess whether your educational environment is helping or hindering you in meeting your own ambitions, and taking things into your own hands if it isn’t.  Because playing by other peoples’ rules is no future at all, for you or for the country.

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