How many 100s of articles like this have I read? Yet the cult of the SAT score, of a meritocracy selected by itself, based on academic achievement judged by itself, has conquered all.
The subject is much on our mind, as my wife’s clients and friends have kids who are going off to college this year. Our 20-year-old grade-school dropout also, maybe.
She was laughing about how many different schools she had heard named as ‘the best in the nation’ in particular different subjects. Everyone seems to think that SAT scores and college majors, the more computer-science, biotech or medical the better, are the most important thing about their children, the first thing that you hear is a brag about their kid’s academic achievements. If anyone is even aware of other important attributes of their child, it doesn’t come up in conversation much.
We don’t have much to brag about with our kid, not since he retired from being the star of the local dance troupe. Not much to report about his academics at all, since he decided he didn’t like school, dropped out of 7th grade. Kid is a real hard head, a natural contrarian. (Takes after me.)
We kept him in dance, soccer, music and language lessons. Otherwise, he spent the next few years doing what he wanted, watched a lot of Youtube, was a huge fan of Myth Busters and various science and engineering series, watched the workings of every tool and mechanism in existence, old days to the most modern, played 1000s of hours of games, including MineCraft, in which he built some complex electronics.
He did experiments of all kinds, making wine and beer and growing mushrooms (knew lots about mushrooms and mushroom farming), but especially liked fires and explosions. Thermite was a big favorite. He learned to shoot pistol, rifle, shotgun, we went to the shooting range a few dozen times together. He knows everything about every infantry and tank weapon in history, as he used them in games. He read all 25 in the Sharpe’s Rifles series and most of Cornwell’s other historical novels, science fiction, random stuff otherwise, whatever he was interested in from the books around the house. His education, if you can call it that, was nearly entirely self-directed. He doesn’t know a lot of the things other kids know.
He isn’t a complete loss. He can whistle at near-professional levels, listens to an very wide variety of music and can whistle it all, is taking a piano lesson every week, is becoming musical on the piano and knows it, as his Toccata and Fugue for piano is getting pretty good. He hardly ever practices, except for the incessant whistling.
He manages 10 people doing production for a company at a $nice-million/year run rate, having started out as their first assembler when he was 17. He has written their manuals, welded display frames, dis-assembled automobiles, handled customers via phone and email, translated in business discussions, organized production, experienced all manner of supply chain issues, trained assemblers and wrote the procedures, and dealt with VPs in major car companies, who know him by name. He is experiencing a successful startup from the inside from the beginning, understands a lot about business, works with some very serious and brainy people, will continue working for the company while in college.
He is wildly interested in cars, knows just amazing amounts of technical detail about a very large number of them, has a big crowd of car friends. They work on their cars on the weekend. He is learning a lot about fixing cars these days, having replaced most of the running gear components on his current every-day car, and getting ready to do that on his project car. I had no idea there was so much to know about running gear, springs and shocks and resonances in unsprung weight. There are car parts everywhere in the house these days. He can tell you why every one is the best for what he is willing to spend, the dimensions of choice. He is disciplined about saving money, despite so much spending on his interests.
He and his Friday night crowd, including a couple of young women these days, decided to graduate from board games to poker a couple weeks ago, another interest for him. He just bought a used bicycle for a friend so he has someone to bike up the mountain with. Someone comes to visit most every evening, a good group, so far as we can see.
He somehow knows a lot. He argued history with me a few months back based on reading “The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire” by John Tolland. Yesterday he was talking about how Heinlein organized society in Starship Troopers vs how the audiobook he was listening to now did it, wondered about had any of them worked in history? He surprises me often like that, I remember on the issue of different ways of voting in a discussion of the Electoral College and also yesterday on anarchist colonies in the present. He has introduced me to many interesting Youtube series on everything, always seems to know the best of them in any genre, for example Weld Porn.
Kid picks up a lot, tho I wish he read more books we could brag about. I guess speaking 4 languages counts for something, maybe also the fact that he cooks dinner for himself most nights and makes his lunch for the next day. He bought a wok, watches cooking shows and can whip up a meal from whatever is in the refrigerator. His friends love his cooking, he often makes dinner for a half dozen. He doesn’t clean up the kitchen very well, tho he is beginning to get the garage organized.
Maybe also some of the personal concern he shows for his grandmother, some of the people he has helped out among his friends and how he helped them counts for something. He is a good-hearted kid, despite being such a hard head. (Takes after his mother.)
Academically, he is passing his GED exams with highest marks. He is working on math just now, gets up at 5AM to study before he has to get ready for work. He will probably apply to one of the local community colleges this fall, and plans on an ME degree in the local state university.
We try to console ourselves that he is an outstanding example of a young man growing into a multi-dimensional adult who will undoubtedly do interesting things with his life. We try to take pride in our melding of cultures and genes, in the mix of traits he has, his excellence in so many. We rationalize that his expanding set of interests is not necessarily the sign of a dilettante, that evolutionary search for futures requires that, that exploration is built into young primates, and is responsible for the success of the human species, that complex societies demand combinations of interests, and good combinations inevitably arise. We try to believe we were right to take him out of school to avoid having his love of learning crushed, that skills outside of book learning are important too. We remind ourselves he hasn’t done any of the risky rebellions many of our friend’s kids do, doesn’t drink alcohol and leaves parties when the serious drugs come out.
But if he weren’t so tall, handsome, well-spoken and interesting, we could hardly raise our heads in respectable company. Raising a weed in a monoculture just isn’t done.
One day later, I find this, a more conventional version of the above.
We had people marvel at our willingness ‘to experiment with your child’s future’. One person said we had ruined any chance of a good future, a good life.
No, they are the ones experimenting, the public school system is a new thing in human history, and what your kid goes to very new. The levels of drug use and other risky behaviors are far higher than previous generations.
My kid is doing it in a much more traditional way. Both my grandparents never got past 8th grade, my mother’s father did many variety of farms, and was best in the country at every one of them. My father’s father could run his eyes down a column of 5-figure numbers and write the sum.
No one in the Amish community goes past 8th grade, yet they run significant local businesses and their populations increase fast, they own more and more farmland in the country. Quite a success story! Do you suppose they understand something we don’t?
Really, really, youtube and the net are a complete replacement for schools, so long as you have a community for your kids. Our kid has friends from soccer and dance and our social circles, some for half of his life.
We knew he was intelligent, everyone in the family is. The particular issue with him was he was rebellious, and didn’t like school pushing him. So we removed all the pressure, and told him to take responsibility, we would make suggestions.
He is still taking piano lessons because we and the teacher don’t push him. He plays the piano far better than some of his friends kids who practiced, and then quit as soon as they could. (I originally said ‘all of his friends’, wife said I was wrong.) Or because they were overwhelmed with schoolwork. As a direct result of avoiding homework, he has read many more books than any of them. And listened to more music, can tell you about everyone from Bach, Beethovan and Pavarotti through Joplin, the old blues guys, … Brubeck and popular artists today. And learns it well enough he can whistle it, tell you the chords, … Our kid is very much in touch with our cultural heritage, and has absorbed our best values. And continues to do so, he is re-reading “Moon is a Harsh Mistress” now, on a Heinlein kick. He will be a proper libertarian in no time.
I re-read books he was reading so we could talk about them. He didn’t lack for intellectual stimulation nor social contact. What could go wrong? Well, lots, of course. He could have decided to sneak drinks. But Eddie Eagle Generalized was our approach, so alcohol had no special fascination for him. Also, it wasn’t as if he was un-supervised, just very lightly, as he spent most days home alone.
But as far as the book-learning, no risk at all, lots of precedent, e.g. O’Neill’s Summerhill. The biggest myth of public schooling is that first grade is necessary for 2nd grade, … Wrong, the mental maturity needed for 2nd grade is what is needed for 2nd grade, and ditto all the way through high school. If they have that, they can make up for no education, complete illiteracy, in 2 years and continue on to college.
Our kid decided to go to college, as we always knew he would, and needed the GED. He started that process 1st of the year. No hurry, he is already ahead of his peers who are in college, he has his first serious job and 2 years of experience already!
Our kid was ‘unschooled’. We answered questions, were always interested when he had things to say, made suggestions and encouraged, otherwise left him alone.
Friends of his were ‘home schooled’, meaning they did a standard curriculum, just with their mother teaching. (HS degree, abusive husband, and her next 2 kids are in college, the first earns a good salary and helps the family.) His good friend earned money through HS fixing people’s problems with their computers. While doing HS, he took some tech courses online, then got the books and took the exams for certificates in Linux and Windows. With those, he got a job at a local computer store and was managing their tech dept a year later. Just this last fall, he took a position as a sysadmin for a big corporation, servers and desktops. Formal education is vastly over-rated for the majority of jobs, anybody can learn anything if they work at it.
But the institutions that produce that formal education are a disaster. Take your kid out of school, that school is the risk, it quashes all of normal human development to produce a uniform product. Kids don’t get a chance to grow up with real responsibility, doing real things in the company of adults.
Our 20-year-old and his friend from down the street already have adult’s jobs. Their peers in college are 5 years from having their level of experience and responsibility. By which time, our kids will have 5 more years of experience and a major part of a college degree.
Weeds have a lot of advantages. Grow more weeds.
Another note. This AM, kid comes into the office upset, saying “I screwed up. A guy is coming to look at the car, and I told him the title is clean. I just looked at it, it says ‘salvage’, and I remembered it was stolen and so declared salvage. But that isn’t damage, so I forgot about it. But some insurance companies have a problem with salvage titles. I lied to the guy and need to fix it.” I said “be honest, you screwed up, tell him so.” So he sent a text to the guy, went and changed the online ad. Apologized when the man arrived, and said he would knock off $200 for misleading him.
Compare that to the ethics of Harvard’s freshman class. When do you think they started cheating? 10% in a freshman computer science course, more in government classes.
I believe most people would prefer the dishonest Harvard Freshman over my grade-school dropout just doing his GED :