I was unschooled. The first time I sat in a classroom was in college, and I learned a lot there. I still remember the names of some Native American tribes from my Native American History class. I made some good friends. I got summa cum laude.
But mostly I learned how to be bored. I learned that I was supposed to be bored, because lectures are boring, and you’re not really supposed to interact.
If you raise your hand too much, you’re sucking up or showing off. In the morning, my brain would sleep through everything the professor said until I raised my hand and said something, tricking myself into thinking we were having a conversation. I learned that grades are more important than knowledge, and getting a degree is much more important than anything else you might do in college.
And later, after college, I learned a very basic lesson that people my age are always learning: college doesn’t prepare you for anything except for more college. Which might be why so many people are applying for grad school now. Or maybe that’s because there are so few jobs. There are still jobs waiting tables, and there’s nothing wrong with waiting tables, except that when you go to a high ranking college, you feel as though you’re a member of an elite, special group of people who win at life and impress other people. And then it turns out that that isn’t really true. Which is very disappointing.
It’s possibly a little devastating because kids grow up in a system that emphasizes the essentialness of the Next Step. There’s always something being prepared for, and that something is going to prepare you for something else, and eventually, you get to college, which is supposed to prepare you for everything after college.
But college doesn’t prepare anyone for life after college. That’s where it all falls apart. Or maybe it falls apart in high school, where no one learns how to write, because they’re too busy learning how to get A’s instead, and no one has time to learn how to do things well, because no one has time to be thorough.
Delaying Real Life
In my opinion, one of the reasons why this entire school system, all the way up, doesn’t work very well, is that the world is always delayed. “Real life” is always a few years away. And so it never feels particularly real. But real life is happening anyway, even as we wait for it to finally begin, because it just can’t help itself.
We live in a strange, transitioning world. I guess that’s always how the world works. But it’s especially that way, with the recession, and with the information age, and the way the workforce has been transformed by the Internet and social media. Suddenly, everyone has a job that didn’t exist 10 years ago. It didn’t even exist five years ago. It has a title that your grandparents can’t remember three seconds after you say it slowly, and your parents keep shortening to “marketing assistant.”
College is not preparing people for those jobs. College is a lumbering, antiquated machine that has “core” subjects, 200 person lecture halls, semesters too short to explore anything in depth, and multiple choice exams. College is a business that makes a lot of money off its clients. College works very hard to make itself sound irreplaceable. People believe that without college, you don’t stand a chance. They also believe that about elementary school, and middle school, and high school.
But here I am, and there are a lot more like me. The world is changing.
College acts as a sort of cocoon, shielding many students from the reality of job searching and rent paying and food cooking and adult life in general. You might get the impression that adult life is full of things that college students need shielding from. Being an adult seems sort of mysterious. And then you get there, and everyone is talking about how they wish they were still in college.
We only need college inasmuch as we need a degree on our resume. And I can’t pretend that no one needs a degree on their resume. I also won’t say that college is a bad experience. It definitely isn’t. It’s a very expensive, often good experience that we need as long as we want to work for people who want us to have gone to college. I hope that the world will continue to change in the direction of choosing employees for their abilities rather than their paper qualifications, and people will begin to opt out or attend an alternative college or do their degree in a shorter amount of time.
My father is a successful entrepreneur who never went to college. His employees are a mix of people with and without degrees. I have two degrees, but I am a writer, and I don’t use either. As people continue to question a school system that fails to equalize even as it promises to give the kids who need it most a chance, and alternative schools and educational methods begin to appear everywhere you look, and the cost of higher education continues to rise, I imagine that new options will emerge more prominently, including the option to succeed without school, all the way through.
As an unschooler, one of the things I’ve had so much trouble understanding about the way education is structured is that it often has very little to do with life. Instead of taking classes about things that someone else decided a long time ago were the sorts of things people should be learning, why not learn about what’s actually happening in your world, and in the world you’d like to inhabit? Instead of sitting and sitting and sitting, why not stand up, walk outside, and talk to people who are doing what you want to do? Instead of waiting to get the key to unlock the Next Step of life, why not break the door down and see what’s inside? It’s much more fun. It’s much more real. It’s an adventure — which is exactly the way life is anyway, if only we would stop pretending it isn’t.
Kate Fridkis blogs about body image/life at Eat the Damn Cake and education/homeschooling at Skipping School. She has written extensively for AOL and been syndicated many times on the Huffington Post, Jezebel, Mamamia, and plenty more. She is 25 and lives in Manhattan with her husband, who thinks unschooling their future kids sounds pretty fun, as long as it involves painting a giant map of the world on the wall.