Too Cool for School

Rachelle Peterson

David Karp did it. So did Robert Frost. Karp, of course, is the twenty-six-year-old founder of Tumblr, the social networking site he recently sold to Yahoo for over $1 billion. 

What Karp did is drop out of school, in his case, the Bronx High School of Science at age fifteen. Frost made dropping out a lifelong habit, quitting three times in his first three years of elementary school before attending a single semester at Dartmouth and, five years later, three and a half semesters at Harvard. Karp and Frost are in good company. Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out, as did Thomas Edison and George Eastman (founder of Kodak), and presidents Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, and Andrew Johnson.           

Quitting school is suddenly popular – and it’s not because Andrew Johnson’s poll numbers have belatedly surged. Rather, the notion is that school is too expensive, too disengaged from the job market, and too elitist for us smart, independent youth who can do better on our own. The movement calls itself “un-schooling,” and it’s become the darling of hipsters, free spirits, and do-it-yourself-ers everywhere. 

Take Dale Stephens, twenty-year-old entrepreneur who was home-schooled until age twelve and then self-educated using free Internet courses, mentorships, and apprenticeships. Stephens started the self-directed learning organization UnCollege and wrote Hacking Your Education, whose subtitle instructs its readers to “ditch the lectures, save tens of thousands, and learn more than your peers ever will.” “You don’t need to be a genius or especially motivated to succeed outside school,” Stephens writes, as long as you have the three key ingredients of grit, curiosity, and confidence. 

Then there’s rueful Yale grad Anya Kamenetz, a self-ed wannabe who wrote DIY-U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Kamenetz hungers for a more “learner-centered” education independent of traditional classrooms, in which “you will decide what, when, where, and with whom you want to learn.” Peter Thiel (PayPal co-founder and early Facebook investor) entices students with just such a prospect. His “20 Under 20” program furnishes twenty entrepreneurial teens with $100,000 and a seasoned mentor, on the condition that the grantees forgo two years of school. 

Even colleges double as self-ed enablers by giving away MOOCs, those free, flock-drawing Internet courses requiring the combined determination of Commodore Perry and Edmund Hillary to complete.  The two largest MOOC platforms Coursera and EdX altogether boast seventy-plus partner universities. Of the top ten universities in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, nine host MOOCs. Only Dartmouth remains unMOOC’ed. For some, the MOOC craze is intoxicating. UVA fired (and, under pressure, rehired) its president Teresa Sullivan after the MOOC-eager board concluded that she crawled, snail-like, towards expanding online education. (Sullivan was in fact proceeding towards MOOCs, but perhaps more like Robert Scott than Roald Amundsen.) 

Unschooling clearly isn’t for everyone. Karp, the Tumblr creator, is a tech genius who attacks his projects with an unflagging workaholic intensity. Frost read voraciously, hungrily consuming the classical canon and painstakingly refining his prose and poetry in its light. Mark Twain, perhaps the nation’s most famous drop-out, trained under numerous newspapermen (including his brother Orion) and Mississippi steamboat captain Horace Bixby. 

What of those students lacking Karp’s acumen, Frost’s diligence, or Twain’s mentors? Stephens calls for “grit,” but in the age of microwave dinners, household appliances, and inflated self esteems, fortitude is not our most universal quality. The road to knowledge, like the strait and narrow path, is elusive to find and strenuous to tread – all the more so when attempted solo. The most arduous task, that of assembling information and ideas into a cohesive whole, becomes even more difficult when one’s education comes piecemeal. 

And how does one know, when facing such gargantuan tasks, whether the effort is worth the prospect of eventual reward? C.S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory of a young boy trudging through his Greek grammar, studying at first because he must earn certain marks to pass the course, please his parents, and escape punishment at the hands of his teacher. Later, when he can read Greek fluently, he’ll devour Sophocles, savoring the beautiful language he once hated. 

But without the threat of bad grades to motivate him, or the promises of his teacher to assure him the chore is valuable, he might never read Sophocles, having quit too soon. From his perspective, he may as well memorize the pattern of his great-aunt’s wall-paper, a task equally boring and time-intensive.   

We know Greek is more constructive than memorizing wallpaper, but only in hindsight, having been taught its value by our own Greek teachers or assured by trusted books. The student, as yet unformed and uneducated, cannot judge what studies best suit his needs, his vocation, or his intellectual development. How can he discern a steep ascent to the mountaintop from a difficult dead-end, when all he knows are the briars, the rocks, and the stitch in his side? 

Two hundred years ago Yale president Noah Porter faced a similar question regarding the prudence of student autonomy. During the 1870s, Porter disputed with Harvard president Charles Eliot over the proposed introduction of electives into a previously monolithic liberal arts curriculum. “Their tastes are either unformed or capricious and prejudiced,” Porter wrote of the student body, against Eliot’s proposal in favor of electives. “If they are decided and strong, they often require correction. The study which is the farthest removed from that which strikes his fancy may be the study which is most needed for the student.” Ergo, today’s disappearance of Lewis’s schoolboy’s Greek. 

We need not return, perhaps, to a one-size-fits-all curriculum, but we’d do well to heed Porter’s observation. After all, not too many of us are Admiral Perrys or David Karps. 

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