Should Your Kid Go to College?

submitted by Charles Sackrey

Most parents I know have religious devotion to the idea that the “best” schooling will best enable their children to unfold into the gorgeous flower to which their genes give promise.  Maybe, this conventional wisdom is true for the great majority of kids, but some of them – maybe yours or mine – could find in the best schools, or even any schools, real barriers to their self-knowledge and contentment.  

We can gather interesting evidence for this claim in the book by Mac and Nancy Plent, Famous Home Schoolers, Unschoolers Network, 1999.  (Unless otherwise indicated, the quotes below are from this source).   The Plents provide a few details about the lives of one hundred people who have greatly influenced modern life but who were either home-schooled or didn’t finish high school, and none of whom attended college for more than a semester or two.  Here are some prominent names from their list:

Muhammad Ali, Woody Allen, Louis Armstrong, William Blake, Charlie Chaplin, Cher,, Agatha Christi, Noel Coward, Isadora Duncan, Thomas Edison,  Whoopie Goldberg, Ernest Hemingway, Patrick Henry, Scott Joplin, Stanley Kubrick, Harpo Marx, Claude Monet, Will Rogers, George Bernard Shaw, Quentin Tarantino, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and the Wright Brothers.

For my own purposes, I have added the Beatles, William Faulkner, Aretha Franklin, and Stanley Kubrick.

Seeing the Plent’s list supported my best guess that what such people do, and how they do it, occurs in part because they were able to avoid or simply ignored those rules and narrow learning perimeters of formal schooling that often hinder imagination and curiosity.  Some details provided by the Plents, and others, point in that direction. 

Let’s start with the Beatles.  These four working class lads from Liverpool, England, along with Bob Dylan, also working class, quite simply reshaped much of modern popular music.  John Lennon failed to finish high school but attended the Liverpool Art Institute.  There, he was disruptive and ridiculed his teachers, and he dropped out when his teachers refused to have in class.  Paul McCartney, who had started making music with John when they were 13, did well in school but quit at eighteen in order to do music full time in the band he had formed with John.   George Harrison dropped out of school when he was sixteen to join John and Paul in the band that would become the Beatles.  Ringo Starr, often sickly as a boy but early on interested in music, finished his schooling when he was 11 and became the Beatles drummer in 1962. 

Regarding the disruptive John, once at Cleveland’s Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame, I read from one of his middle school grade reports that he  had little commitment to his music class and “lacked respect for religious studies.”  For his part, Bob Dylan dropped out of the University of Minnesota after one year, long after he had stopped attending classes.

Isadora Duncan, a principal founder of modern dance, quit school when she was a teenager, and her education consisted mostly of reading with her mother and taking dance lessons.  She described Nietzsche and Walt Whitman as prominent influences on her life.   Whitman, one of the great figures in American literature, quit school when he was eleven and described his years there as “like the dull shock” of an earthquake in N.Y. City that he had experienced when he was ten.

When Thomas Edison’s mother discovered that his first year teacher disciplined his students with a strap, she took Thomas out of school and told the teacher that “her son had more sense in his little finger than you have in your entire body.”  She wanted Thomas to have “fun” with education and supplied him regularly with books full of experiments.  Despite this tiny bit of formal education, he played the central role in the invention and development of the electric light bulb, stock ticker, mimeograph, phonograph, and the telephone transmitter.

Woody Allen made poor grades throughout school and spent his high school years writing gag lines that he would try to get published.  He studied film and communications at NYU but had no interest in his courses and was expelled during his first year after he failed a film course.  Stanley Kubrick had a 67 average in high school and later said that his education had “never taught him anything.” (from Wikipedia.)  William Faulkner quit school in the eleventh grade, and while there he played football and read a lot but had no interest in academics.  However, he came from a family and a community that celebrated story telling.  Neither Harpo Marx, Cher, Whoopie Goldberg, nor Quentin Tarantino graduated from high school, and the latter wrote that “I hated school…the formula and the system, they’re not set up for the individual.”

When Louis Armstrong was thirteen, he was sent to a reform school for firing a shot into the air at a New Year’s Day parade.  Yet, he found a cornet at that parade, took it to the reform school and taught himself how to play it.  Mark Twain, apparently “detested school as he detested nothing else on earth, even going to church.”   At age eleven, grieving over his father’s death, he begged his mother to let him quit school.  She agreed because he promised to be a better boy and “not to break “ her heart.  Ernest Hemingway expressed his attitude about college by declaring that, “I never went to college.  If any sonofabitch could write he wouldn’t have to teach writing in college.”

Those of who have enjoyed the bountiful output of these people might want to consider what we would have lost had, for example, John Lennon given us a portfolio of  anesthetizing academic essays rather than a bundle of songs like “Imagine.”  Imagine the loss had Louis Armstrong been saved from New Orleans streets to spend a dozen years memorizing the names of the presidents, or a cacophony of lies about U.S. history.  We can be grateful, too, that the pressing circumstances of her early life marshaled Aretha Franklin into gospel singing rather than into high school trigonometry.

Muhammad Ali put schooling into a interesting context when he was asked by a reporter, “Well, Muhammad, , if you’re so great, why didn’t you finish high school?”  Ali replied, “I never said I was the smartest.  I said I was the greatest.”  What a powerful witness this world would have lost had Ali, at the age of 18, been incarcerated in a Louisville public school rather than winning the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics.  (I wrote down this exchange a long time ago but have lost the source.  Trust me, please).

What should we make of all this?  Certainly, it is anecdotal and most of its implications have  little to do with more typical children, few of whom have been slotted by fate to transform elements of their culture.   Most of them, because of some combination of fear and ambition, will fit into schools well enough to get a job and lead a typical American life.  However, a few of these kids are budding Mark Twains, and their resistance will not be pathological but a youngster’s cry who hears the different drummer and is pesky enough to try to follow its tempo. 

I write this aware that almost all of our children will need plenty of schooling to avoid the descent to chronic unemployment, and worse, in a society that as quickly discards  unneeded workers as it throws away used up consumer goods.  Nor do I doubt that within our school systems are countless teachers from whom any child, wildly talented or like you and me, could learn crucial things about life.  But, despite talented teachers and other aspects of schooling that nurture our children, many parents incur great expenses of time and/or money to home school their children, to send them to private schools if they can afford it, to set up charter schools, or otherwise try to offset what they — and I — see as the threat to imagination and curiosity posed by much of what our kids experience in their classrooms.   

Last, I think there is some good news for those parents most paralyzed by fear that only the best schooling will provide their kids a “good” life.  The truth is greatly more complex.  I believe that the eventual contentment of our kids — aside from the great influence of their health and luck — will not be determined by their formal schooling but by how decently and tolerantly they have learned to be in all the transactions of their lives.  So, if your kid gets denied by one of those “best” schools, give thanks that he or she will be spared the unworldly elitism at such places as well as the grim competition that can eat away at the foundations of decency of even the saints among us.


Taking on Kids Media

 Most parents know that media companies don’t help our kids. We put up with the violence, the commercialism, the hyper sexualization and the cynicism that these companies sell because we don’t know what else we can do. We are told that it is our responsibility to protect our kids from harmful media but we are left entirely on our own to do so. Meanwhile a $15 billion dollar per year industry is working day and night to undermine our authority. It is natural to want to give up and give in; to convince ourselves it is really not that bad but it is hurting our kids and undermining the moral fabric of our society. It’s getting worse and it won’t stop until we decide to do something. The first important step to take is to acknowledge the extent of the problem; then we can start to work together to make the changes that we need to make if we are to come back to our collective senses.

The crux of the problem is that the big media companies (and there are now only four or five) produce programming that is directly contrary to the values that most of us try to instill in our kids. We want them to care about others but the main message of advertising and many television programs is me first. We want them to learn to plan for the future and make wise choices but much of the programming encourages instant gratification in the form of fattening, sugary foods and drinks, casual sex; the glorification of bling. We want them to develop imagination and a wide range of interests but most programming tells them that what counts in life is how much you own, where you live, what you drive.

We may comfort ourselves with thinking it has always been this way. We may remember as kids having a Lone Ranger lunch box a Barbie doll house and we turned out okay. But advertising to kids in the 60’s and 70’s was small potatoes. These days product promotion is built right into the development of new movies. The movie is written for the toy and the products are leveraged throughout the whole range of children’s media movies, TV, video games. Teams of child psychologists work tirelessly to uncover children’s deepest needs – needs for security, community, autonomy – and use what they find to sell them more things. They use MRI’s to find out what parts of the child’s brain lights up when she is mesmerized and they use this information to make ads more compelling. Advertisers know that the younger they reach kids the more likely kids are to absorb the brands, so children get inundated with slick messages well before they are able to distinguish fact from fiction.

This barrage of commercialism is having a significant impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of children. Gadgets are replacing creative play – among 9-12 year olds the time devoted to creative play has fallen 94% over the past 15 years. I’m talking about the kind of thing you and I did as children – being outside, making up games, exploring the woods, creeks, pastures and empty lots. Instead kids are playing out scripts developed by toy makers, screen writers or computer programmers. Creative play is critical for learning, especially when kids are young – it helps kids delve into their psyches, resolve fears and anxieties and interact with each other in ways that create bonds to people and to places. Being active and outdoors is part of it too: without regular physical play kids don’t get to blow off steam and burn off calories. Kids are being deprived of access to physical wellbeing, to their own imaginations and to a sense of belonging to a community. It is no wonder that we are seeing the types of physical and emotional problems once rare becoming commonplace – obesity, diabetes, attention deficit disorder. Studies have shown that the more media kids imbibe the higher their probability of becoming depressed and developing chronic anxiety.

The media companies have free rein because children’s advertising is no longer regulated. Every other developed country limits the extent to which advertisers can get to kids and we did too, until the early 1980’s. In the zeal for deregulation of the Reagan era the FTC was actually stripped of the right to regulate commercials directed at kids. The foxes are running the chicken coop and the farmer has been sent packing.

Nothing will change until we acknowledge the problem and work together to create solutions. Replacing commercial media with so-called educational media is not the solution – there is no evidence that educational media improves learning. The solution is providing kids regular opportunities to engage in creative play, to regulate media companies in order to minimize the types of programming and the amount of harmful advertising kids see, and to provide children with basic media literacy so that, very early, they begin to see through the veil of commercial media and think critically about the messages that are getting through.

Lots of good work is being done in this area – the Campaign for Commercial-free Childhood provides lots of suggestion for what can be done. The Mondragon Co-op Bookstore in Lewisburg will be running a documentary film series beginning in August on issues related to children. You are welcome to join in these efforts. I know as parents we have enough on our plate and its easier to think that things are not that bad. I think you will find that having company and a chance to discuss these issues together as parents can help overcome our inertia and begin to move us toward a better world for our kids.