Why leave high school? A few reasons…
1. American schools were designed for a different era.
Back in the days of the one-room schoolhouse, education wasn’t really about job preparation. It was about character education (which mostly meant a lot of Bible-reading). Job preparation happened at home, or through an apprenticeship. In Thomas Jefferson’s day, the average lifetime school attendance was 72 days.
That changed with the Industrial Revolution. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the country realized it needed to prepare massive numbers of students for factory work. Class days were divided into periods, students were grouped by age, and they learned how to walk single-file in lines through hallways, to eat on a schedule in cafeterias, and to stand up and sit down at the sound of a bell. This was good preparation for life… assuming you were going to spend 40 or 50 years on an assembly line.
Today, only 9% of Americans work in manufacturing, so work no longer looks like this for most high school graduates. But high school, as an institution, has been very sluggish about responding to this new reality.
2. High school is increasingly inefficient.
In colonial times, most children were educated at home. Of course, it wasn’t always “education” in the modern sense — most families couldn’t even read. But each family taught their own children the skills they’d need for adult life, which usually meant how to run a farm (for boys) or a household (for girls). With industrialization, it became more efficient to educate all children together, in larger and larger schools. But geography was still a constraint, so every town had its own school, which more or less re-created the curriculum of the school the next town over. Enormous resources were poured into ensuring educational access for every child, but there wasn’t much variation or flexibility in the kind of education they got. As long as schools needed to keep something resembling a 1:25 teacher:student ratio, they couldn’t afford to do things like offer midnight classes, or symphony orchestras in rural schools, or poetry workshops with professional poets. If you wanted to learn the oboe but your school band didn’t have an oboe section, too bad. No oboe for you.
That was before the internet. Today, a popular professor might have 200 students sign up for a lecture. That’s a lot! But compare that to the Salman Kahn of The Khan Academy, who teaches six million students every month. He’s able to do this because he puts short videos of his lessons online, which students anywhere in the world can access at any time, for free. If you have an internet connection you have access to the greatest library in the world, and you are connected to people all over the planet. You’re no longer limited to learning the things your school teaches, or to learning from the teachers your school happens to employ. Somewhere, out there, there are others who share your passions.
3. High school is not individualized.
But wait! you say. I don’t want efficiency in education. I’m glad that schools offer more personalized attention than a computer.
Agreed. But this does not mean that each child in school is receiving an individualized, custom-tailored education. Most students are still tracked by ability and future goals, and then ushered through a pre-determined sequence of classes. At the end of four years everyone graduates with the same degree, the high school diploma, which on its own says almost nothing about the individual student. High schoolers know this, and so they strive to distinguish themselves through extracurriculars, volunteer activities, and a few electives. But their experiences are remarkably similar and at the top of the pile, the difference between students is vanishingly small. Ivy League schools reject the majority of valedictorians who apply; at MIT, a perfect SAT score is no guarantee of admission. This isn’t because those accomplishments aren’t impressive — it’s because they aren’t unusual.
By leaving high school, you have the opportunity to tailor your educational experience to your own interests and abilities. This doesn’t mean ignoring universal skills that will help you in any job, skills like reading, math, and critical thinking. But it does mean that you can pursue subjects like computer programming, logic and philosophy, Chinese history, sustainable farming, or robotics: you’re no longer limited to the standard high school curriculum. Gaining expertise in unique areas sets you apart from other job and college applicants your age, helps contribute to the vast diversity of knowledge we’ll need in the 21st century, and makes your own high school years much more interesting.
4. Schools punish mistakes. Life rewards them.
A scientist might spend years struggling through failed experiments before finding the One Right Answer she’s seeking, but getting 72 out of 100 questions correct on a high school science test will earn you a C-. Don’t blame teachers! Most would love to spend classtime more creatively, but having to push 150 students through a pre-determined curriculum in preparation for a battery of standardized exams doesn’t leave much room for tinkering, testing, backtracking, and pondering.
In school, good students fear mistakes. Some cheat to avoid making them. Others learn to sit quietly and wait for someone else to speak up first, before they risk embarrassing themselves. These are pragmatic solutions to getting through school, but they build poor habits. One common theme in the biographies of folks who’ve done interesting, innovative work is that they’ve had to struggle, uncomfortably, with a problem that had no clear solution. No one likes that feeling, but if you can say to yourself, “Ah yes, I’ve been here before, and this is how I can approach it…” you’ll be miles ahead of the person who waits passively for instructions from an authority. This process doesn’t happen magically. You need to practice it, to build that muscle in your brain, and that means giving yourself room to experiment and to take calculated risks.
5. There is no better education than to learn by doing.
John Holt, one of the early advocates of homeschooling, preached this as a mantra. He even wrote a book about his adventures learning to play the cello at age 40, because he wanted to illustrate how practicing to be good at something someday was so much less effective than learning how to do something because it’s relevant right now.
But one of the most compelling examples is Martin Luther King, Jr. Most of his papers are archived online. Read the early letters he wrote to his parents while visiting out of state relatives: they are filled with all the spelling mistakes and simple sentences of a bored fifteen-year-old boy. But once he begins speaking to audiences and writing public letters to the editor, something miraculous happens. Almost overnight, his sentence structure turns complex. His spelling mistakes disappear. His grammar is pristine. What’s happened? He’s started doing work that matters. Suddenly he is attentive to his language. Soon he becomes one of the greatest orators in American history.
Much as schools wish it were so, the promise of earning a B+ over a B- can never compete with the thrill of doing work that matters.
6. A high school diploma opens doors that aren’t shut.
It wasn’t always thus. Until 1940, fewer than half of Americans earned a high school diploma, so earning one was something special. It wasn’t required for most jobs, but those who had one stood out from the pack. That's not the case anymore. Today, the skills you learn in high school are necessary but not sufficient. The main function of the high school diploma (or so we're told) is to open other doors: doors to job training and job experience, and especially to higher education.
But those doors are already open to teenagers. Colleges will admit you without a diploma if you can show that you're ready to do college-level work. And no one asks to see your diploma if you want to travel or set up a business or launch a nonprofit or sell your art or file a patent for your latest invention. Employers' main interest is what you can do. A high school diploma is one way of signaling that, but there are so many others and they are so much more interesting.
Don’t give up on education and learning! But don’t wait for a diploma to give you permission to follow your passion. There's no reason to mark time until you're 18. You can start right now.
7. Worldwide support!
If you're unhappy in high school you might be able to find an understanding teacher or counselor, but ultimately you'll be limited to the resources provided by your school. Some students have such fractured relationships with the faculty that school becomes a miserable place. In those instances, it's hard to remember that it's a single institution in a very large world.
Once you leave school, you can rise above all that. Join homeschool co-ops, subscribe to e-mail lists and online groups for folks interested in non-traditional education, find friends in afterschool activities or camps or faith communities, and seek out mentoring relationships with adults doing work you think you'd like to do. With just a little bit of research, you'll find that there are so many people -- kids and adults alike -- who've been down this road before and are eager to support you on your journey.
Text: Laura Fokkena
Photography credit: Rakaya El-Kasaby