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.