Last fall when I put out the call for suggestions and made my list of books to read for Twitter Book Club I had many people recommend this book. It is a little different from the rest of the books I've read this year and quite frankly I was a little apprehensive about tweeting quotes from it. To a degree, the tweeting of quotes from these books is a spreading of ideas and I knew that a lot of the ideas in this book were going to challenge the beliefs of a lot of people who follow me on Twitter. Some of the quotes I tweet are not necessarily ones that represent ideas I agree with but would like to see if anyone out there would be interested in discussion around the topic. Therefore, for round One of Twitter Book Club this book came last. It has sit on my shelf since October staring at me every day. I have to admit it enticed me. More than once I picked it up along with another book and thought to myself, which one first. Somehow this one ended up at the bottom of the pile every time.
If one were to make a list of important texts for the unschooling movement this would be near the top of the list (although such a list would probably violate any number of unschooling principles). It is extremely well researched, Llewellyn consistently throughout the book makes well supported arguments, and she draws upon a fundamental problem shared by both unschoolers and many progressive educators alike. She does all this to encourage teenagers to...drop out of school. In many ways, I think this is an important text for school teachers and administrators to read. If the book were written for them, perhaps it would lead to some deeper reforms of the school system(s). But, this book was written for teenagers and is packaged in a manner that is meant to attract her target audience to read. It even says across the top, "This is a very dangerous book..." I find this unfortunate because what she says within the pages of this book are things that educators need to hear as much as the young people she is trying to liberate.
As I read this book I keep finding myself shaking my head in agreement with her but still cannot get beyond the thought that to do as she is doing by advocating that teenagers drop out of school is irresponsible. It makes me think of the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the Bodhisattva. The spiritual goal of every Buddhist is to attain a state of Nirvana, a state where one is simultaneously mindful of the world and at one with it. The problem is, according to this this tradition, once a person attains Nirvana they cannot relate their learning to the rest of the world. A Bodhisattva is an individual who on the path toward Nirvana nearly reached it and consciously decided not to take that final step so that they may stay in this world and teach others how to get there. Many Buddhists believe it is more noble to be a Bodhisattva than to reach the ultimate spiritual goal since a Bodhisattva is selfless.
So, is it more noble to stay within the school system and work to change it, to make it a better place for all children who are stuck there or is it more noble to walk away? If you could move everyone a step closer to educational Nirvana by staying in the system and working to make it a freer place is that more noble than freeing one individual at a time? And, is there a yin-yang effect that is at play here? Do we need structured schooling to serve as a contrast for self-guided learning? If we suddenly brought an end to formal schooling, what would that do for larger socioeconomic concerns like class mobility and access?
This book challenge me. It challenges my assumptions and it uses the same reasoning I have used for making changes to school to tell students to just give up and drop out. But, one revelation I have had reading this is if you are a teenager reading this book and you comprehend it enough to follow her guidelines and to articulate why you think dropping out is better for your educational development than staying in school then you are probably right, you probably don't really need school. If you possess the reading comprehension skills and the stamina already to read and understand both the vocabulary and the concepts presented by Grace Llewellyn you already possess the skills you need to learn almost anything you could learn in school on your own and if you have made it all the way through this text you probably possess the self-drive and determination to be responsible for your own learning anyway.
So, in this sense, with this book she is not really liberating everyone, she is liberating students who are at risk of dropping out anyway not because school is too hard for them but because school is too easy and dull for them. And, for those students this book is an excellent guidebook to have as it gives many suggestions for getting by without someone else designing a learning plan for you. She gives excellent advice for what kinds of activities you can design for yourself that will lead you to rich and deep learning. She also gives lots of advice for dealing with legal issues and how to find resources including leveraging the money the school would otherwise receive for your enrollment to get the school to provide resources you want it to provide for you. She also explains how you can still go to college even if you drop out of high school.
For me, if anything, it has made me take a different view of some of my former students who we feel were "lost." Students who were extremely bright but continually failed their classes, wouldn't hand in assignments, and eventually dropped-out of school. Perhaps a school's drop-out rate is not such a great quality indicator. Perhaps there is more to it than that. Come to think of it, two of my best friends from high school dropped out of school. Both ended up going to college, and both are happy and successful adults today.