Monday, December 10, 2018

College-aged kids before 40? The lonely feeling of 'Stop! This whole thing is a hoax!'

So I started having kids at twenty, and now we have five. No need to go over the odd demographic niche I’ve been living in from attic-of-pizza-restaurant to condemned-tear-down in northern Virginia. I love my kids, I go to church, I homeschool. I also have a graduate degree, speak three languages and worked as a development economist for twenty years. It’s the running theme in my life that I kind of don’t fit in anywhere.

But in particular, it hurts to watch my older teens struggle with the overwhelming cultural demand for college-going, when I know the hype-in-slick-packaging, the readily available unbundled alternatives, and the real pain of debt repayment. It hurts, because their friends’ parents are all 50+ and happy as pigs in shit to send Zoe and Chloe to Barnard and Smith ($72,000/year be damned! She’s my pride and joy!), and because my age-mates are all at Gymboree.

I post rants against high school (it subdivides and micro-manages teens’ days to the point that nothing excites them. They become cynical, disengaged, mechanical models of what they think admissions committees expect), and my family and peers quietly click elsewhere. They are all happily snapping photos of 3- and 5- and 8-year-olds at school and pumpkin patches. Most of them see school as the heart of their lives, the wellspring of activities, friendships and community.
"War is peace. Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength."

I post to homeschooling groups, but I feel like only a handful of us are homeschooling teenagers. Other posts are about physically juggling children, cooking and crafts, and the kind of hesitant creativity that seeks continual validation from a thousand other moms. Which books are you using? Which curriculum for such-and-such? Approaching the teen years is a fall-off in conversation. Seems like the kids quietly returned to school, or moms felt over their heads with pipe-cleaner and construction-paper projects. A few tentative mentions of things like edX and MasterClass, but so little reaction that it seems most haven’t heard of it yet. I’m not even sure if I belong in homeschool groups, because in fairness, I’m not really the one doing the schooling. I co-write curricula with my teens every about every two months, then find online resources and hire grad students to co-implement with them.

Among the overseas parent groups that we’re part of, as with most homeschooling groups, it seems the brave, pioneering approach to younger kids (He’s learning so much in Phnom Penh! Life is his classroom in Bishkek!) gives way to timid, conformist pragmatism with teens (He’ll need his APs, and we’ve got to work on that resume!), and so the return to U.S. and formal high school enrollment.

And then there are my tech-industry friends. I guess these guys also belong in the Gymboree category, because the smarter you get, the longer it takes to make a baby in America. I get so confused talking to them. Nobody wants to sound stupid. Of course we are all using Scratch. Of course we follow Sebastian Thrun’s tweets. Everybody is advancing in his free time in coding and art-photography and home micro-brewing. The revolution in education, skills and networking has already happened, Colleen, didn’t you know? They are a curious bunch, because as social progressives, by-and-large they are instinctively defensive about public schools. Teachers are heroes. Schools are the root of the community (cause none of them goes to church). And it helps that they’ve all got great zip-codes. But I suspect theirs is the kind of backyard, wine-and-cheese progressivism that will ease toward closed-circle Math Olympiads, ArtofProblemSolving teams, engineering tutorials, and timely, well-documented volunteer initiatives around the Bay area, all in time for an MIT application. In short, there hasn’t really been a revolution in education, skills and networking, but new formats to an age-old, elite choreography whose subtle cues--wink, nod--their offspring will certainly follow.

And so, my parental peers turn out to be thickly padded, brand-sensitive, or else dimly aware of lower-cost alternatives. My age-peers are still lactating, or else caught up in the warm-and-fuzzy-feeling of zip-code-lucky primary schools.
Believe, believe, believe!
School-bashing to them is like Santa-denial. I can’t bear the reactions in their faces.

But somebody’s got to listen, and I’m finding kinship in my expanding network of Facebook friends, about 18-25 years old in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, and Ukraine. Our connections are the result of years of university-project work and I think a message that’s resonating. School sucks! It’s not only boring, but where they live, it’s devoid of relevant content, corrupt, and required by law. Worst of all, kids are swept into it at a trusting age, conditioned to comply and that compliance--that is, obedience, obsequiousness, neatness, memorization, regurgitation--promises success in the real economy. As teens, they feel, but can’t say, that a decade of their lives is being stolen and wasted. Public universities in these countries often looks much the same.

And so it’s these young adults, 19, 23, 25 who link up with me and seem to share an excitement in finally speaking out. They are emerging from a brain-washed process. They’re disillusioned. They’re pissed. It’s a generation that asks, “What the hell have I been doing?”
Girls gathering in Kart-e-char Kabul for BreakAway
Learning mentored co-study session. They are
pursuing individualized study plans in health,
 journalism and coding.
Because only now they are seeing that the real stuff is on Udemy, YouTube, 24Symbols, Udacity, Codecademy… They have nothing that a modern corporation or international employer wants. They are starting from scratch.

It’s for them that I’m speaking out, even as my age-mates respond with blank, hurt smiles, my sons’ friends scream and flap their hands when their mail arrives, my techie friends have written me off as a Christian conservative. It’s hard to jump in front of anybody else’s teens, wave your arms and say “You’ve got it all wrong! Get off the train now!” And among the upper-middle income, social-signal-sensitive families, the track that Zoe and Chloe will follow in these years is sacred. What I’m shouting--“Get off! Spend a day clicking around YouTube! Volunteer full-time for two-months! Go study at Kenyatta University or NIT-Delhi for a semester! Check out Bartleby! Try Udemy! Take a homestay in western China! Skype daily in another language! Try a local internship! Link-up with experts around the world!”--offers none of the trusted branding and packaging. It sounds suspicious and perverse.

Too bad for brainwashed-by-high-school American teens with plenty of household credit, low ambition and no sense of ownership of their learning. Have fun at Wet-Paper-Bag-College-of-Undergraduate-Degrees. While you are plagiarizing essays and parroting each other’s politics, an unseen cohort is passing you by. They are the emerging millions of intermediate- and advanced-English speakers in low-income countries. They have mobile 3G and cracked-screen Samsungs, but they are sensing sooner than you will that the system is a waste of time. They are cobbling together at $20 and $30/month skills in coding, machine learning, project management, graphic design, translation, and social media-marketing. They would be thrilled to earn $10,000/year. And that’s about a quarter of the student debt that the average American 24-year-old has.

Am I crazy?


  1. OMG....looooove this post. Totally jives with what I have been reading and discovering over the past year or so beginning with the End of Jobs by Taylor Pearson. I am one of those close to your age who has little ones instead of older kids but finding and learning about some of the world schooling families with older kids and even reading Penelope's Trunk's blog (she talks about this issue so much and has older kids also) has had me thinking about these exact issues. Thank you, thank you for writing and posting! As someone just starting I am always looking out for how this "out of the box" way of educating/supporting our kids in educating themselves turns out for people.

  2. I just discovered your work Colleen through the School Sucks podcast. I'm 42 with a 7 year old who is in public school, and a husband who is a traditionalist and thinks "homeschool" means preparing your kid to be a weirdo who can not fit in with normal society. Nevertheless, I am already working towards ways to provide a self directed education for my daughter. My entire adulthood has been a 20 year journey of unlearning all the unproductive habits of school (obedience, conformity, inability to take risks or fail) that have held me back massively as an adult. I can't blame school for all of them - much of it is clearly temperament/environment/family of origin etc - but I do see the limitations of the current model. And I marvel at how unquestioning the rest of the US is about the education system. We are so trapped in the ideology of school. I look forward to exploring Breakaway Learning. Thank you so much for doing this work! -Megan