Educational Drop-Outs

Posted Feb 9, 2003
Last Updated Oct 31, 2011

I spent a few years as a photojournalist for the Columbus Messenger Newspapers. The Messenger is not a big-time publication, but its total circulation while I was there was around 150,000 a run each weekend. So I got a little exposure while at the Messenger.

I wrote a regular column in the Messenger called "Chalkboard.” As the title of the series implies, "Chalkboard” dealt mainly with the topic of education. There were a good number of "Chalkboard” readers out there, and I was sometimes surprised when people recognized me in stores because of my photo in the columns.

I had several people tell me how much they loved to read my essays. I sometimes heard comments about how deeply profound my thoughts were on education. While most of my printed thoughts were not especially original—many being highly influenced by the philosophy of John Dewey—I always felt happy to hear these comments.

But something baffling happened almost every time I took these compliments and turned them into talks on education with people.

A common discussion would start with, "I really enjoy reading your editorials. I always open the Messenger up every weekend to see if you have another piece in there. You really have a gift with words.”

Of course that was always an ego boost.

We might talk a little bit about the latest issues in the community. Then, invariably, the person would ask, "Where did you go to school?”

I always knew that question was coming. Part of me relished it because it opened an opportunity to continue talking about my favorite subject—education. But part of me also cringed every time the inquiry was made.

I’m sure these readers expected to hear me say with pride that I had graduated from a prestigious school for journalists. They could probably have handled the idea that I attended some local college. But no, I was always strictly honest

"I never went to college,” I said. They might shrug and nod, probably thinking to themselves that aberrations happen. But then I had to say it, though in many cases it would probably have been more prudent to let the topic drop. But I finished the history: "In fact, I dropped out of high school.”

Then their jaws dropped. A look of disturbance immediately overran their faces, and suddenly the entire atmosphere changed. Where these people had only moments ago held me in such highly esteemed respect, they now saw me with panicked disbelief.

"Oh my goodness,” they said. "I can’t believe that. And you show so much potential… You need to go to school and make sure you get an education.”

It was amazing that people could so completely change their estimation of me just by learning that I hadn’t graduated from high school. Some had made this reversal after telling me they had been fans of my work for a couple of years.

Now obviously I am biased on the issue. But being capable does not mean you are a graduate of any school, and being a graduate does not mean you are capable. Society has the wrong view of education… and this view is what has caused people to reverse their opinions of me. It was silly for them to lose respect for my work on the grounds of my formal credentials, since the value of my work stands on its own two feet.

I don’t encourage anyone to drop out of school. In fact, my advice to kids is to do well in school and make their teachers proud. I tell my kids that they have to do well in school—that I won’t put up with lackadaisical performances in the classroom. But I do this more for the benefit of their convenience than a conviction that it is the only road to their academic success. Because it’s not.

Something peculiar about the school system, at least a far as I’ve been exposed to it, is that a large percentage of very talented young men and women struggle through school. Many don’t make it. For many, the battle is not really the effort needed to learn the subjects; for many the struggle is that they see the system as irrelevant to their lives—they see that the system is a wall. Many bright kids realize that the educational system is not a divine thing, that school is in many ways just a game.

Most teachers probably don’t feel that school is a game. They take their jobs seriously, and probably feel threatened and offended by observations such as this. But somewhere down in their hearts they must wonder why so many potentially bright kids fall through the grates and into the sewers of the academic system

Almost all of my good friends are exceptionally bright or talented. Some are engineers and teachers and managers. Others work in plants, paint houses, lay flooring, etc. Some have degrees, some don’t even have a GED. Now the status quo will tell you that the engineers and teachers and managers are smarter than the painters and carpenters. Now I can’t speak for society at large, but I can speak for my friends… and there is no shred of difference in mental capacity between these two sides of my circle of friends. They’re all smart.

Education is among the most beautiful topics known to man. It is the hope of mankind and the immediate challenge of every parent. But for all its value and all the systems put in place to educate the masses, formal education is not as effective as it ought to be. It is effective for many, but it is also defective for many others.

The irony of formal education is that it is perfectly effective for many people that are satisfied with the world that is handed to them; but the system is a wall to those students who have a creative or visionary spark. The kid who has a true love of learning or a good grasp on what learning is all about has, perhaps, the toughest time in school.

I don’t want this to be construed as an argument for letting creative kids roam freely and undirected. No, this is only to say that the current conception of formal education has created structures that are detrimental to the growth of creative kids; it has also undermined the ability for people to break free of the mold. While it’s not written into the legal code, it is deeply embedded into the corporate and common mentality that you cannot be educated (and capable of success) unless you have a degree of formal education.

This is the idea, despite the fact that many of the great thinkers throughout history never had a shred of formal education. Even many of the icons of human knowledge that did have some formal education did not know half the things that our society feels you must know to be "educated.” What did Thomas Jefferson or Plato know about molecular evolution, Microsoft Word or quantum mechanics? Now knowing these things is obviously a good thing, but lack of knowledge of these does not merit the label of "uneducated” for these men.

But the issue here is worse than this. American schooling does not have a definite idea of what it means to be educated. There is only a foggy idea that school is about preparing young men and women to face the challenges of an adult, employed life. But what those challenges actually are is a mystery to schools, especially high schools. The system is really about preparing kids for more school in the colleges.

Schools can be a great resource to people. But they fail because the most important ingredient of learning is a love of learning, a love of knowledge and understanding and wisdom. The attitude of the real learner is alien to schools. Schools don’t know how to encourage and cultivate that love; worse, they are incapable allowing those attitudes, because schools have become the means of propagating the least common denominator in academic achievement.

No, I never graduated from high school. Perhaps you feel that this means that I have failed academically. Perhaps you are right. But I doubt it. See, I make sure that I learn something new every day of my life. I’ll never get a diploma when I’m done getting an education because I don’t feel that I ever will be done with my education. I take encouragement from other people who have succeeded against the odds in our society that inflates the value of diplomas. One of the clearest statements on this came from another high school drop-out, renowned author Louis L’Amour.

L’Amour wrote in his autobiography Education of a Wandering Man, "The idea of education has been so tied to schools, universities, and professors that many assume there is no other way, but education is available to anyone within reach of a library, a post office, or even a newsstand.”

That could be extended to include the World Wide Web now. But, of course, L’Amour left out the very best and most important source for a good education: parents who love to learn. Parents who have the right attitude about learning in their own life more easily cultivate a good attitude in their kids. Unfortunately, the dark side of this is that parents who don’t spend any time learning during their lifetime will almost certainly raise kids who cannot appreciate the value of education until it’s too late.

In my opinion, people who don’t keep up active learning all their lives are the real drop-outs.

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