Can dropping out of school be a good career move?
May 23, 2002 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Can dropping out of school be a good career move? According to Fabula magazine some teenagers can thrive if they leave state education and endeavor to teach themselves at home. This is 'unschooling' and the writer seems to think it's becoming an increasingly popular way to go: "Unschoolers can read what they want, volunteer, do internships, or become an apprentice. The can also write a novel, tackle advanced math problems, go on hikes, or even audit classes in college (which are very different from high school classes). The point is to do whatever they’re excited about." Which sounds fine in theory, however how are they going to survive in the job market? I'm having enough issues and I've a degree and six years experience in a number of positions. Sooner or later surely things will come home to roost for them eventually. Won't they?
posted by feelinglistless (41 comments total)
I think he's talking about doing this in high school and then continuing on to college, especially now that most colleges accept homeschoolers.
posted by insomnyuk at 12:48 PM on May 23, 2002

For smart, motivated kids, this could be great. As long as they can demonstrate achievement and well-roundedness to prospective colleges, they're set. Most teenagers, even bright ones, aren't equipped to design their own curriculum; however, I bet the home schooling movement would be able to help them there.
posted by lbergstr at 12:49 PM on May 23, 2002

I would think so listless, however, the more i read about this (theory of education?) the more parts of it make sense. I mean, if your real interests/passions require years of secondary education, and you know that is what you want, then this may not work. but if you want something else, and know it is what you want, why not? My little brother dropped out of school, took his GED, ACT and SAT, wrote a wonderful entrance paper, and is plugging away at his degree. Kind of a mix of the two methods...end result is the same (degree), but he got to duck out of 1.5 years of high me, that is worth the trouble right there....
posted by das_2099 at 12:49 PM on May 23, 2002

in retrospect, i didn't even address the "unschooling" aspect of it....oh well...sorry about increasing noise:signal : )
posted by das_2099 at 12:50 PM on May 23, 2002

Unschooling seems to fit my pal Aaron well, of course, he's an extraordinary person that can handle it. I think most teenagers lack the self-control necessary to keep themselves from doing nothing all day.
posted by mathowie at 12:50 PM on May 23, 2002

Yeah, when I was in high school, I dropped out to follow my own interests: smoking pot, dropping acid, playing rock and roll, listening to records, staying up all night, dreaming about how famous I was going to be one day. You might say I designed my own curriculum. I imagine most teenagers would come up with something similar, only theirs would probably include desultory basketball dribbling, and maybe fewer units of Drugs 101.
posted by Faze at 12:55 PM on May 23, 2002

[written before seeing all the excellent points above]

Sounds to me like describing all the great points of communism or a pyramid scheme without taking any problems into account.

I went to a high school that allowed me to create my own classes, then I took a year off before college, then I dropped out to go work at a company, and now I'm very satisfied with my current job. But that doesn't mean it's not incredibly hard. It also doesn't mean that all my hard work will be irrelevent if I go up against someone in a job search with equal skills and a masters degree.

I think a flexible high school and college education is key -- not leaving altogether. In the modern world, most people need to learn how to do a lot of things at once, not learn to drop out to focus on writing the great american novel.
posted by jragon at 12:55 PM on May 23, 2002

Feh. It's filled with faulty observations:

"Portfolios filled with fascinating experiences are wooing admissions officers away from the diplomas brandished by traditional students." How about a quote here from an admissions officer who says 'Yes, I'd love this student who learned on his own about Virgil and was never formally tested. I'll take him above this prep-school candidate!'

"said McCormack said." As an aside, who the hell is McCormack?!

"disempowered" = not a word

It's a poorly-written, unedited article based on faulty research and full of quotes from people who don't talk like human beings, much less 'unschooled.' Ignore this until it shows up in the 'real' media, folks. I'd be embarrased to put my byline on this.
posted by krewson at 12:59 PM on May 23, 2002

Judging from the emotions expressed in the personal stories cited by the author, I'd say that this "unschooling" phenomenon is telling us that we need to really reform the school system.

The point of school is education, and education doesn't just mean book knowledge. Kids should go to school to make friends, develop their knowledge, form morals and beliefs, learn how to learn, and all in all become a well-rounded individual. The public system is lacking in most of those areas, but I don't think unschooling can do most of those things either. It's all about the environment you're in and the people who form it.

I think the public schools could take a lot of clues from the private school system.
posted by tomorama at 1:02 PM on May 23, 2002

I unschooled for the last two years of high school. It was fantastic, and has made my life radically different from what it would have been had I remained in public high school. I think that it's fair to say that the majority of the opportunities and adventures that I've had are a direct result of my unschooling. It's not for everyone, but I'm certain it was the only appropriate path for me.
posted by waldo at 1:05 PM on May 23, 2002

I think one of the problems is that kids and teenagers aren't actually given a good enough reason to stay in school -- from their perspective. We could get them to understand that the main benefit of going to school is that it improves them as individuals we might have won a battle. The problem is, especially in the UK, school feels like something they are forced to do for no other reason than because they have to. In my early years at school I sometimes felt I was being fed knowledge intravenously -- but I wasn't actually learning because my thirst to know about the world hadn't really been stoked.
posted by feelinglistless at 1:11 PM on May 23, 2002

[Disclaimer - I went to a private school]

I have to say that I experienced a generally enjoyable time at school with bright teachers who encouraged me in whatever I did, including making rockets, producing an educational CDROM and giving a presentation about Mars. I know this is atypical, but I would not have had these opportunities if I didn't go to school. It seems to me that given good facilities, good teachers and a wide range of subjects to choose from, there are more opportunities to be had by all at school rather than at home.

We shouldn't give up on schools so soon, not even for the brightest of students - we should instead improve the schools.
posted by adrianhon at 1:19 PM on May 23, 2002

I did unschooling for three years (8th, 9th and 10th grades), then went on to an "alternative" highschool, aced the SAT and got into a slew of fancy schmancy colleges (one of which I now attend). While unschooling *radically* changed my perspective on life and especially my perspective on school, I'm not sure I'd be any better- or worse-off if I had stayed in school. A lot of what kids learn in school isn't the subject matter itself, but techniques for succeeding at school itself. Unschooled kids probably have an edge when it comes to knowing how to learn, but may be more inept at proving it than their traditionally-schooled peers.
And college, as I've experienced it, is all about proving it.
posted by bonheur at 1:19 PM on May 23, 2002

Just because there's no study supporting it krewson, doesn't mean it's false.

I unschooled for my last two years of high school and I really enjoyed it and got some opportunities I would not have had otherwise. For me, it beat public education (although I did get a good one) because it gave me more options, more opportunities, and ultimately, a better transcript for getting into the college I wanted to attend.

The point of school is education, and education doesn't just mean book knowledge. Kids should go to school to make friends, develop their knowledge, form morals and beliefs, learn how to learn, and all in all become a well-rounded individual.

Coming up with your own stuff for education is a good way to get real life experience, rather than being stuck in a classroom balancing fake budgets in home ec class all year. I also disagree with the idea that you need to go to school to be socialized, or make friends. Socialization was really a part of the reforms dating back to Horace Mann, attempting to teach everyone, through public schools, common values. If you are referring to social skills (something different), school isn't necessarily the best place for that, either. Parental upbringing is the biggest factor there, which is why there are the socially ungraceful in all forms of school, as I have scene in my journey through public school, private school, homeschooling and now college.

The other argument I've been seeing is that if a teenager is in charge of his own education, he won't learn anything. It's not like kids who don't care learn anything in public high school now. Besides, most kids who do this probably have some level of parental supervision and accountability, a key factor in any good primary or secondary education.

but I wasn't actually learning because my thirst to know about the world hadn't really been stoked.

If you weren't forced to attend school, you would have the leisure to find topics that interested you, and pursue them. I think unschooling is a good solution for a lot of people.
posted by insomnyuk at 1:20 PM on May 23, 2002

If I had it to do over again, I would definitely "unschool" myself for the last 2-3 years of high school, from which I profited not at all (and my high school was recognized as one of the top 50 in the nation while I was there). College was a night-and-day improvement over high school, precisely because I was able to pursue topics which interested me (almost everything) taught by people who were enthusiastic about their subjects, rather than ignorant disciplinarians.

Ideally, of course it would be better to "fix the schools," but this isn't going to happen. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of kids are suffering daily in the mind-deadening prisons we have created, needlessly and pointlessly. And for all the education they are receiving, they might as well be chillin' on the streetcorner.
posted by rushmc at 2:03 PM on May 23, 2002

There's always that tension between freedom and control in education, and the puzzle of where motivation comes from.

random thoughts on education, which unfortunately are also very formulaic:

I am pro-union, but there needs to be a fair way to get rid of crappy teachers, or at least get them out of the classroom.

Class sizes need to come down.

Schools of education are often bureaucracy ridden nightmares.

Nobody wants to teach--it doesn't pay enough.

If I were left to my own devices I would have wasted my life surfing the web, like I do now.

I can't imaging that smaller class sizes, plus motivated faculty with pedagogies that take advantage of smaller class sizes, wouldn't help tremendously. In fact there's an article on class size in Scientific American that talks about this. But it would be horribly expensive. And you still send them home every day to a place that may or may not foster learning.

Please forgive my rambling on this, it is neither well thought-out or especially coherent.

From another venue:

There was a very interesting interview on Fresh Air yesterday with Dr. Mel Levine, a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School in Chapel Hill. Dr. Levine had a lot to say about how our educational system doesn't work well based upon what we know about
the neuropsychology of learning and discusses the changes he thinks need to be made. You can access the interview, info on his book _A Mind at a Time_ (the focus of the interview), and the "All Kinds of Minds" Website at

Fresh air search for Mellevine
posted by mecran01 at 2:03 PM on May 23, 2002

It is useful to have wealthy parents...all else can be then worked out.
posted by Postroad at 2:03 PM on May 23, 2002

I think the public schools could take a lot of clues from the private school system.

Like what? Pay teachers less and only accept the uppermiddle class (and above) kids? Private schools exist because people who can will pay to avoid the public school population.

On topic: Leaving school to pursue independent studies works for some but would fail for most I think. Usually teenagers suffer from a lack of structure and boundaries more often than benefit from that.

The problem with this kind of approach is that much time can be lost to "rediscovering the wheel" where school is a better (not perfect) place to find out what things should be explored and which things just are better memorized or accepted.
posted by plaino at 2:03 PM on May 23, 2002

For what it's worth, I unschooled (to use the currently popular term) for all but four years (two in junior high, two in high school) of my early education. I got into a great college, haven't ever had a problem getting a job, and now have my own business. I blew away almost every standardized test I ever took, and it's not because I'm exceptionally genetically intelligent, but because I was taught how to think.

Schools are mostly still rigid instutions designed to turn out worker bees, not good critical thinkers. If anything, I think most kids would benefit from leaving the system earlier and then going to part of high school if it suits them. Rigid schedules and force-fed curricula are bad for kids who learn faster or slower than the mean, and tend to crush the very natural impulse to learn. We evolved as learners and technologists — it's bred in the bone, and kids will want to learn if they're not pressured

As for the social skills argument that always comes up, here's a question: is it healthy to spend most of your waking hours with a big group of people your own age and one or two untouchable authority figures? Does that lead you to develop good communication skills, or just learn how to conform?

Then again, I'm fundamentally alienated from the entire institutional structure of society, to paraphrase Utah Phillips — but that doesn't mean I can't function in it.
posted by blissbat at 2:34 PM on May 23, 2002

I blew away almost every standardized test I ever took... because I was taught how to think.

knowing "how to think" won't help you on standardized tests, though as kaplan & princeton have shown, learning "how to take tests" will help a great deal. And that is what most of our education system works towards. In high school I was sure college wouldn't be about tests, but instead about thinking. I ended up going to an "alternative" college after realizing that most colleges were just more of the same, and that probably most jobs were just more of the same after that. (my standardized scores were good, btw)

so, sure: I'm all for alternative education, whether it's an organized alternative or just something you figure out for yourself, but it could certainly lead to an alternative life in a sense - it certainly may make it more difficult to get into the traditional college, traditional career track etc. If that doesn't bother you, there's no problem. If it does, consider your options carefully.
posted by mdn at 2:58 PM on May 23, 2002

My husband and I were having a discussion about something similar today. With our child still in utero, I've already started the "where is she/he going to go to school" freakout. My opinion is that I have incredibly limited interest in putting my child in a public school in Texas, even if we do live in one of the better districts...because, for all intents and purposes, they're taught to be test taking little conformist drones...and Bleh! He claims that because I've never gone to public school, my opinions are weighted too heavily by media reports and innate intellectual elitism. :)

I really dig the concept of the Waldorf schools, but it would involve uprooting, selling the house, finding new jobs...all the other attendant issues of moving...which he thinks is a tad over the top...probably rightfully so. :)
posted by dejah420 at 3:01 PM on May 23, 2002

Here's what I think should be done about our educational system. Some of it was mentioned above. It should also be noted that I am a junior in high school. In this order:

1. Do whatever it takes to find decent teachers. They will make your school experience wonderful or ruin it. It only takes one to do either.

2. Decrease class sizes.

3. Establish more classes by correspondence, distance learning programs, or internet classrooms. This lets the kids who want to get ahead do so and keeps the normal student in school.

4. Kill P.E. Kill Health. In their current state, they are absolutely worthless despite what many people think. Rather, encourage extra-curricular activity and create goals for students to set their own health goals.

5. Make the summer break shorter and add more intermittent holidays.

6. Clean the !@#$'ing bathrooms up. Yuck.
posted by bloggboy at 3:21 PM on May 23, 2002

I have one word for you all: montessori.
posted by gloege at 3:36 PM on May 23, 2002

Yeah, I was very hip on the whole Montessori concept until I got to this part:

Montessori schools are independent, and are not franchised nor overseen by any outside body beyond the regulation of government agencies, except when they voluntarily seek accreditation by one of the world's school accreditation commissions.

Schools are not compelled to register with us, and we cannot speak to their quality or programs.

Montessori is not a copyrighted name.

So, for all intents and purposes, I could start a "montessori" school in my garage...there's no firm teacher requirements or academic requirements such as are required by the Waldorf program. I did a search and there are over 25 "Montessori" schools within 30 minutes or so my house, and yet none of them are accredited, which makes me a little leery. Also, three of them had major grammatical errors in their "listings", which also makes me doubt the veracity of their claims to be educators.

Then again, I should probably wait until the baby is born before I start freaking out about it. :)
posted by dejah420 at 3:52 PM on May 23, 2002

I went to one of the worst public skools in my state and I swear, if I ever have kidlets, they're either gonna be home schooled or gonna be trucked to a non-religious private school.

And my decision is based only on item 6 in bloggboy's list, but that's enough to close the deal for me.
posted by Tacodog at 3:53 PM on May 23, 2002


#4 Kill PE, kill Health.


Reform everything about school but the one thing that people's lives depend on? The US population is more than 30% obese now. And it's not getting better. Michigan is particularly bad.

I say kill the buses. I lived 3 miles from my HS. occaisionally I would run home. On a good day, that took about 18 minutes.

Since College, I have mostly commuted to work by bike or on foot. Anywhere from 3-7 miles. (the 7 miles was exclusively by bicycle since I didn't own a car at the time In the rain, after changing a flat still only took 45 minutes).

Doing this has made me realize one thing-- if I had run to and from HS everyday, I would've been in good shape sooner, rather than reaching that point a couple years after college.

Children are weak. Make them excercise. Adults are weaker. Make them excercise too (harder to do though).

Fat kills.

If you're going to eliminate a class, get rid of "English". By the time you're in HS you're just reading popular fiction from earlier centuries anyway. But now somebody says they're important. So they'll read "Coma" and "Hunt for the Red October" in 2345? Read fiction on your own time. But more importantly, read fiction that you actually want to read. Not tedious 18th Century drek (unless you're into it).
posted by squinky at 4:24 PM on May 23, 2002

If you want to reform education start by throwing out your (your kids')TV and Nintendo.

There once was a time when school was the most interesting thing a kid did on a normal day. Now it is by far the least. It's not that TV and vid games (and drugs I suppose) are EVIL, just that they are too interesting to pass up in favor of studying and doing homework. Keeping focused on studying is far more difficult now than it was even a couple decades ago.
posted by plaino at 4:40 PM on May 23, 2002

That's a thoughtful list, bloggboy. I think the best thing schools could do would be to truly and significantly involve their customers/consumers (the students) in redesigning their educational programs in order to make them both challenging and relevant once again. If they don't, they will quickly become extinct.
posted by rushmc at 5:18 PM on May 23, 2002

#4 Kill PE, kill Health.


I can't speak to the "Health" thing, since that wasn't a part of my school experience, but as for PE? Kill it.

Getting verbally and physically abused by adults who assume you know everything about their favorite sports including how to play them -- let alone care about them -- along with getting the snot beat out of you by your unsupervised peers, contribute nothing to education. PE as implemented is worse than useless, it's borderline criminal. It's not making students stronger or healthier or more knowledgable, just fearful and resentful. There is exactly no place whatsoever in education for what's being called PE. Reform it or can it.

[For obvious reasons, I'm going to refrain from responding to the remainder of that comment.]
posted by majick at 5:32 PM on May 23, 2002

Bloggboy has said everything I wanted to say. I was a public school kid until high school (when I went off to a boarding school in New Hampshire) -- and my experience was that it was the obviously soul-sucking parts that made school lame: the parts that showed your time was worth nothing (like health). Once I got somewhere where there were good teachers who cared I was ten times happier. I was actually *depressed* in middle school because the experience was so lame.

For what it's worth: I'm graduating, jobless, from an Ivy League school in a week, and this thread has pushed me even further towards public school teaching for at least a few years as a plan. On topic, 'unschooling' sounds fine to me, except that it pulls all the obviously really smart folks who get 'unschooled' out of the schools where they could be making classes better for everyone and improving the school environment through example. The younger you are, the less of a difference there is between the top-third and the bottom-third . . . . it seems as though especially younger (middle school) kids should be kept in school. As part of my job search I taught a middle school class just the other day, and the kids learned just as much from each other as they did from me.
posted by josh at 5:36 PM on May 23, 2002

majick, out of curiousity, where/when did you go to high school.

It sounds like it was in a movie.

I attended *public* HS in the late 80s in southeastern VA and PE/Health was nothing like you describe.

We had health education (diet, disease, first aid, minimal sex ed, organ systems). All admittedly rudimentary.

The PE part was almost all non-contact. The roughest it got was wrestling, but that had weight divisions, so you were always pretty evenly matched.

You did all the sports (mainstream US-- flag football, track, field events, soccer, wrestling, basketball, gymnastics, softball, volleyball) not just the teachers favorite. My school system had something called a curiculum.

Is PE really a back-alley mugging elsewhere?

After sophomore year it was no longer required. And (I could be remembering wrong) varsity athletes who did more than one season were exempt earlier than that.
posted by squinky at 6:08 PM on May 23, 2002

The point is to do whatever they're excited about.

Had I done that at 15, I'd have become either a gigolo or a crime lord of some kind.

Perhaps it's not too late...
posted by jonmc at 6:21 PM on May 23, 2002

Unschooling is a terrible concept.

At the school I went to, you could graduate taking five periods out of eight, so averaging about 4 hours a day for 180 days a year. There is no reason that one can't go to school and "learn on their own" at the same time. I went to public school and still had time to study other subjects at home.

My public school offered a lot of class choice, though. I don't think anything was mandatory (except the 230 credits to graduate), but they pushed you to have a curicculum which would be attractive to colleges.
posted by Kevs at 7:14 PM on May 23, 2002

My attitude about learning left me disinterested in pretty much everything.

Ju keep jusing that word. I do not think it means what you think it means...
posted by Bixby23 at 7:47 PM on May 23, 2002

Go to school, just don't let it interfere with your education.
posted by NortonDC at 8:04 PM on May 23, 2002

How does 'unschooling' differ from getting involved in extracurricular activities that interest you? When I was in high school in the late 70s and early 80s (ouch!), I was in band and choir all four years (our band and choir directors were exceptional teachers who taught me much more about life than just music, though they did a good job of that, too). I also had a third music course--stage/dance band--a couple of the years (we had six periods, so for at least a couple of years of high school, half my class time was in music).

In addition to that, I took an active part in the German club, started the speech club and did extemporanous speaking, tried out community theater and, ahem, square dancing. I also worked every weekend at a local restaurant anywhere from 5 to 25 hours from age 12 on. Oh, I also taught myself needlepoint.
posted by tippiedog at 8:08 PM on May 23, 2002

i chose to "unschool" in grade 7 because i was bored to death and didn't want to attend a school for gifted students. i got away with this because i was a professional child making an adult salary so i was afforded an adult level of respect and freedom by my family. i returned to a formal high school (performing arts) in grade 10 but still felt stifled, left again, and never graduated. i didn't bother with university until i was 30 (i have no idea how it works in the states but in canada you can apply to uni as a mature student after passing a series of standardized tests) and enjoyed myself immensely. now at 41 i have 3 degrees but i still make my living doing what i left in grade 7 to do.

that being said, i don't think most children have the focus or self knowledge to create their own curriculum or to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives (most adults are at a loss when it comes to these things!) so i still think a formal structured edu at a public or private school still seems like the best idea. however some kids will always be light years ahead of the pack, or too individualistic for the system, and i think that those numbers aren't as small as we might believe. there definitely has to be room for the alternatives in our idea of what a child should do with it's time, and there should be a process that helps us recognizes these kids so they don't fall by the wayside. in grade 7 i was reading at an undergraduate level and exploring the real world; being stuck day after day in a room full of 12 year olds bored and depressed me so much that i was failing neaerly every class. in the ordinary structure i was a bad student who would never amount to anything. but not all of us need a formal or traditional edu to be successful and happy, some of us are infinitely better off taking the road less travelled.
posted by t r a c y at 9:16 PM on May 23, 2002

To all of you parents out there contemplating letting your kids take alternative educational routes, be very careful. I know a couple of kids who went to Waldorf schools and they all wish they hadn't. Knitting all day and making clay forms is not actually constructive education. Neither is not being allowed to learn to use computers, even at home.
posted by palegirl at 9:41 PM on May 23, 2002

Unschooling is a terrible concept.

Do you have anything at all to back up a statement like that?

Lots of people are skipping out on school, teaching themselves, and doing very well in college and in the workforce. I know several myself.

As for testing, I was never "taught to test." I didn't take a single test until I was 13. So don't try to dismiss by oversimplification. I never understand the weird hostility some people bear toward unschooling, but I'm guessing it has to do with fear of change.
posted by blissbat at 9:44 PM on May 23, 2002

Is PE really a back-alley mugging elsewhere?

Welcome to the San Francisco Unified School District. Please leave your human rights at the door.

Do keep in mind, these are the kind of schools where the exits were chained shut while class was in session. Maybe it's not like that in the rural areas, but in actual cities mine is a reasonably common experience.
posted by majick at 7:08 AM on May 24, 2002

Is PE really a back-alley mugging elsewhere?

maybe not a back-alley mugging, but I seem to recall a combo of (a) standing around and waiting for something to happen and (b) playing volleyball/tennis/basketball in little groups being endlessly mocked by my peers. (needless to say, I'm not too co-ordinated.)

oh, and ugly, ugly, uncomfortable gym uniforms, plus the horror of locker rooms and changing clothing in front of peers in the most physically awkward stage of life.

nothing that inspired a life-long love of exercise, that's for sure.

(I did, OTOH, have a one-semester aerobics class - still felt like a goober, but the teacher was pretty mellow. and I managed to get out of gym by signing up for "marching band," eventually. note that my high school didn't actually have a marching band; the music teacher let me spend the time practicing the viola.)

even as a writer, though, I'd almost agree with killing English, if it's just reading books and regurgitating their "themes" - better to spend the time helping students clarify and communicate their ideas. I'm amazed at how much terrible, terrible writing is out there!
posted by epersonae at 12:10 PM on May 24, 2002

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