[This page is a mirror of this original]

Doing Freedom masthead

Getting an Education... Against the Odds

Sunni Maravillosa

In the United States at least, the public school system is such a dismal failure that many people think it's beyond repair. Most schools, whether public or private, here or abroad, have some kind of curriculum that students are expected to follow in order to graduate. It's a sucker bet that at least one, if not many, of the required courses will be something that a student isn't interested in. School is so structured and boring that it's more like a chore than anything else. That's not the way to encourage learning.

Educating yourself doesn't have to be like that. It can be tailored to what you want to know, as structured or unstructured as you want, challenging, and a real blast! It'll take some effort to create that kind of learning environment, but isn't what goes into your brain worth that? Here are some ideas on ways to get the education you want, despite your school, perhaps even despite your parents. First, though, are a few thoughts on what education really is, to help you think about the kind of education you may want for yourself.

Education: a definition

While looking the word up in the dictionary will get you the expected definition, deeper digging is more revealing. Both "educate" and "educe" come from the same Latin root, educere. Educate means "to train or develop the knowledge, skill, mind, or character of", while educe means "to draw out". In my opinion, a true, valuable education combines features of both of these definitions--a person is trained or develops knowledge and skills that best suit that individual's interests and talents. Education should be a drawing out of the things the student is interested in and wants to pursue, rather than a coerced course of information that is simply memorized and regurgitated on exams and in papers.

So, education doesn't have to happen inside the prison walls of the public school system--that may well be one of the least likely places for it to happen. If you attend a public school, think for a minute: how much of your day involves learning things you're really curious about, or doing something that you want to know how to do (or improving your existing skills)? I rest my case. Educating yourself is something that can happen anytime, anywhere--and is probably best done that way, without schedules and "textbooks" and the like.

It's also a lifelong process--there's no end once you graduate from high school, or college, or professional school. If you choose to take that formal path, how you educate yourself may change over the years, but the fact is that as long as you're willing and able, you can learn new things, and enjoy doing it.

Lots of people seem to think that education has to be a certain way: high school, then college, and then if you want, graduate school or medical school, etc. But it wasn't all that long ago that most people didn't go to college. The idea of needing a bachelor's degree is really very silly, if you think about it. As a person who's been through all those hoops and gotten a Ph.D., I can tell you that it ain't all it's cracked up to be. And besides, does a skilled craftsman really need a college degree? Does he really need a high school diploma? Those artificial standards came about because public schools offered a way to screen students for different career tracks. At that time, though, people recognized that not everybody was college material, and going into the service industry or pursuing a trade wasn't seen as a disgrace. Although the attitudes have unfortunately changed, the need for qualified people in those areas still exists, and there's no shame in educating yourself to be the best you can in that way, if that's what you want for yourself. Your education should involve learning the things you want to learn, the things you'll use to support yourself, and should happen in the way that works best for you.

Teacher, teach me--can you reach me?

Most people are familiar with the usual teaching methods: when the bell sounds, sit down, be quiet, and listen and maybe take notes while the teacher expounds on some topic for X minutes. If you're lucky, you may get to see a movie occasionally, and if the subject material "calls for it", you may even get to do something, in a lab session or maybe a field trip. Although that's the most common way teaching works, not all people learn well like that.

Psychologist Howard Gardner has proposed that each person has "multiple intelligences" that influence how he or she learns and where her or his interests and strengths lie. Here's a very brief summary of the intelligences he proposes:

Since people have such differences in capabilities, obviously different learning environments are needed to work with a person's abilities. A "visual" person will learn best with charts, maps, and diagrams, but a "verbal" person will learn better by reading a book or hearing a lecture covering the same material. One style isn't necessarily better than another (although most traditional schools seem to make this assumption by setting up teaching environments that work best for verbal/linguistic and mathematical/logical individuals); they simply work better or worse for different people.

You probably have a sense of what kind of learner you are; if not, the Learning Choices Web site has some information and links to help you identify your strengths. It's important to do this in order to get the most from your education. Generally, a person isn't purely one type or another; people have different combinations of strengths and weaknesses on the dimensions listed above, and the idea is to play to your learning strengths as much as possible.

Educational choices

Your choices are probably more varied than they've ever been, but the thought police are probably more intrusive than they've ever been too. If you're concerned about it, you'll need to check with your state and local laws to make sure you don't get Imperial Attention. While that might not seem important to you now, knowing the laws and your willingness to accommodate or reject them can be helpful in terms of tactical planning. In the United States, for example, the thought police consider children theirs to raise and indoctrinate as they see fit. Individuals who are able to think logically and critically, and who haven't been fed a steady diet of the state's intellectual pablum are seen as threats to the state's control of its sheeple. So, not surprisingly, homeschooling is coming under increasingly heavy fire, despite the varied and mounting evidence that it's much more successful at educating children than public schools. You may or may not care about the law, and you may or may not want to play by their rules, but knowing what can happen if you don't at least pretend to care is important. In some states the thought police take kids away from their parents for stuff like this.

One choice is to remain in public school and try to get the education you want from the teachers and other resources available there. This approach can be a "lazy" approach, doing nothing more than what's required of you, or you may choose to supplement that education with projects and reading beyond what your teachers require. Just remember, though, that the Bill of Rights gets checked at the door of your public school, and increasingly across the US, public schools resemble prisons--with all the searching and "don't wear this" and "you must do it this way" and cameras--do you really want to try to learn in an environment like that?

A second choice is attending a private school. The quality, curriculum, and mission of private schools vary greatly, so you can probably find a private school that'll cover what you want to learn, and how you learn best. However, it may not be close to you, and it may be expensive (or it may be cheap and your parents still can't afford to send you there, since most states will make them pay for the public school, even though you aren't going there). Some private schools are now offering to share their curricula for use at home; that's a cheaper alternative that'll give you more flexibility, but you won't have as much direct contact with the school. Using a private school's curriculum offers a starting point for parents who may feel unsure about their ability to homeschool children, also.

As parents and young people become aware of the failures of one-size-fits-all education, homeschooling is increasing. In theory, homeschooling allows the parents and children to create a structured learning environment suited to each child's needs and abilities, rather than being based on the slowest child in the class. In practice, homeschooling may fulfill this ideal--in states which don't burden homeschoolers with ridiculous regulations--or it may fall far short. It might not even be a legal option in some jurisdictions (this is true of many countries, but that seems to be changing). Knowing what your laws say about homeschooling is important, because the possible outcomes of ignoring them can be pretty bad--the thought police could take you into "protective custody" to get you away from your "bad" parents.

Trying to describe a "typical" homeschooling situation is difficult, because it can differ enormously, even for learners of the same age and interests. Some people opt for a structured curriculum and daily schedule, complete with textbooks, assigned work, and projects, much like school. Others dump that stuff and allow learning to happen whenever and in whatever situations it can. Not all jurisdictions will allow homeschoolers that much latitude, though, so again, know what your local education nazis require and decide how you want to deal with their regs.

At the very far end of the education spectrum is unschooling. People who like this approach generally believe that people learn best in a natural, flexible environment, rather than by listening and memorizing, and being on a fixed schedule. They see valuable learning opportunities in lots of activities, including games and play. The goal of unschooling is to facilitate learning that arises from within, rather than trying to impose learning onto a person. Underlying this approach is a belief in the strength of each person's natural curiosity to ultimately provide an individual with the education she or he needs to be a competent, functional individual.

You can imagine what the education nazis think of that! I know of nowhere that it's legal to take such a hands-off approach to learning. But it works: think about how much toddlers learn long before they go to school, or even older individuals who decide they want to learn something, such as astronomy or how to ski. If this sounds good to you, remember that for older people it generally takes some discipline to start and continue this kind of self-directed path, but it can pay off huge returns. For example, Thomas Edison was essentially unschooled, and simply followed his interests; those led to him becoming a prolific and well-known inventor.

These are a few approaches you can choose from, to get the education you want. Of course, you can combine parts of different approaches, too. For example, some homeschoolers take courses from public schools which require expensive equipment or material that a parent can't afford or easily obtain. You should think about what style of learning seems to work best for you, the things you want to learn, and how you want to go about getting that information or set of skills, and talk to your parents about making your educational choices happen.

Involving your parents

Now, you're a free person, just as free as any adult, but the sad fact is that the state--and many parents--do not regard you as such. The state's laws say that you are the responsibility of your parents for a certain number of years, and the consequences of your behavior as a "minor" often involves your parents as well. For example, in many states in the US a habitually truant child can cause his parent to be fined or jailed, even if the parent doesn't know about or condone the child's truancy. Parents generally are a little better at treating you like a person, but even so, when it comes to something like this, they may still think they know best, and therefore have the right to tell you what to do.

What all this means is that if you want to opt out of the classroom scam, you'll want to--need to--have your parents on your side. This is crucial for your sake as well as theirs. If you want to be homeschooled, it might help to have a specific plan laid out when you talk to them. Generally, homeschooling requires time and money outlays from your parents, so anticipate and try to address any concerns they may have. There are many excellent homeschooling resource Web sites (see Free-Market.Net's Web site for a good starting point); having the facts about the overall higher achievement of homeschoolers and the typical costs (less than a year's worth of school taxes in most places) should help your case too.

You may need to be flexible on this, however. If a parent can't make the time to be as involved in your education as you'd like, try to find ways to work around that. Perhaps you can do more of your learning in a self-directed structure, and involve your parents in the evenings or for evaluations or projects. Maybe another family who homeschools in your area would help you with homeschool in exchange for something of benefit to them. Or, perhaps an apprenticeship with a local craftsman or service provider (e.g., plumbers, electricians) could be arranged to give you the experience you want to get. Be creative, and be flexible.

If you want to unschool yourself, you may be in for a bit more of a challenge. Because this approach to learning is so unusual and sounds so radical, your parents will almost certainly be at least a little skeptical, if not downright disbelieving. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment: if you'd been through a traditional education, and have a teenager standing before you trying to convince you that letting him "just hang and do what I want" is educational, would you buy it or would you think that he's trying to pull one over on you? Fortunately, good unschooling resources are available on the Web too, including accounts of parents who use this approach and struggle with various aspects of it.

If your parents are really skeptical, and aren't convinced by your pitch, consider offering them a contract for the first year (or semester, or whatever time frame you can agree on) that states some things you plan to learn (and why), what you plan to do to get your education, and some means for them to evaluate your success. This makes the situation a little more structured than absolute unschooling, but if that's what it takes to get what you want further down the line, isn't it worth it?

Some parents might be so rigid about the value of public education that they'll not even consider other options. If this is the case, you still have some options available to you. You can do your time at Public High, but invest the time there into learning what you want--this might mean participating in some courses and doing the work the teacher assigns, but blowing others off (and failing them) and using that time to pursue other topics the school doesn't offer but that you want to learn. Or you can play the Good Obedient Student more completely, and add to what you learn there in your own time. A more drastic option is to attend public school for as long as your local laws require, then dropping out and pursuing the educational strategy you want. I would hope that in the time it might take for this scenario to unfold, you'd be able to convince your parents that you sincerely want an education, but just want to do it differently, but that might not happen. If not, you might find yourself in a more serious struggle with your parents, with possible consequences like them throwing you out or you deciding to leave. That might sound romantic, but being an emancipated minor offers its own set of challenges, and shouldn't be considered lightly.

Your education is the most important investment in your future that you can make. It's worth your time to think about what you want to learn and to do with your life, and how you learn best. Although some adults may not be sympathetic to your goals, many will be, and will be happy to help you discover your strengths and interests, in the true spirit of education.

(c) 2000


Table of Contents

Write a Letter to the Editor

Comment on this article
View all comments on this article