Teenage Liberation Handbook
Your allies among the Rich and Famous
I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I’d heard of a few “famous” people who hadn’t gone to school, so I went to the library to check up on them. I steered into the reference section and sat down with a tack of Current Biography Yearbooks. I started by looking up the names on my list, but pretty soon I was just turning pages and laughing. Why?
1. On the average, one out of every five or six people featured had dropped out of school or else not attended much formal school. (The Current Biography Yearbook is published every year. It contains hundred of short biographies on people who are currently prominent in some field — worldwide government leaders, entertainers, scientists, writers, artists.)
2. In almost all of the biographies, it was clear that the forces which had shaped these brilliant lives had little or nothing to do with school. Instead, other experiences had inspired and nurtured them.
For instance, Luc Montagnier, French virologist famous for his research on the AIDS virus, was inspired to become a scientist mainly because 1) his father, a CPA, kept a laboratory in the garage, 2) he was allowed to have his own laboratory in the basement, and 3) at age 15, he watched his grandfather die of cancer.
Also for instance, Steven Spielberg learned filmmaking by experimenting with his father’s 8mm camera. In high school, he spent a lot of time making films in order to escape studying algebra and French. Later, he sneaked onto movie sets to watch (his high school grades were too low to get him into film school).
3. Lots of famous people had to go to school — they’d probably never heard of “unschooling” — but had nasty commentary. Examples at the end of this chapter.
I am not bringing up the subject of rich famous people to suggest that it is necessarily fulfilling to be rich and famous. However, information like this is a good kick in the pants for all the unimaginative, illogical people who believe quitting school generates “failure”.
Keep your ears open, and compile your own list of admirable independent learners. Here is part of mine, from various sources including encyclopedias and Current Biography. Some people on the list have more headroom in other chapters.
Some people who dropped out of high school or otherwise escaped much or all of the usual teenage schooling:
Ansel Adams, Joan of Arc, Roseanne Barr, Irving Berlin, Rosamond Bernier, Claude Berri, William Blake, Art Blakey, John Boorman, Pearl Buck, Liz Claiborne, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Buffalo Bill Cody, Noel coward, Charles Dickens, Bo Diddley, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford, George Gershwin, Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel Gompers, Maxim Gorki, Robin Graham, Patrick Henry, Eric Hoffer, John Houston, John Paul Jones, Cyndi Lauper, William Lear, Abraham Lincoln, Jack London, Beryl Markham, Liza Minnelli, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sean O’Casey, Florence Nightingale, Beatrix Potter, David Puttnam, Deith Richard, Clement W. Stone, Randy Travis, Frank Lloyd Wright, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Brigham Young.
Also: one third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States had no more than a few months of schooling up their sleeves. Historian Harry G. Good describes several of them:
Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, a farm boy, became a practical surveyor and learned politics as moderator of town meetings. Roger Sherman of Connecticut was apprenticed to a shoemaker and became successively a writer, publisher and lawyer…Others read medical books and helped a doctor in his practice.
For more, browse through any year’s edition of Current Biography. Also, you might have a look at a booklet called Famous Homeschoolers, by Malcolm and Nancy Plent, available from John Holt’s Book and Music Store (see Appendix C).
Brilliant people often got that way not because of school, but despite it.
Woody Allen said “I loathed every day and regret every day I spent in school. I like to be taught to read and write and add and then be left alone.
Winston Churchill said “I was happy as a child with my toys in my nursery. I have been happier every year since I became a man. But this interlude of school makes a somber grey patch upon the chart of my journey. It was an unending spell of worries that did not then seem petty, and of toil uncheered by fruition; a time of discomfort, restriction and purposeless monotony.”
German novelist Franz Kafka said “As far as I have seen, at school…they aimed at blotting out one’s individuality.” According to Gerhard Prause, Kafka
not only hated the system and the increasing anxiety before examinations, but he was also convinced that school offered too little in relation to the amount of time he spent there. Above all he felt it did not offer enough that was practical and relevant. His greatest criticism was aimed at the fact that education in general attempted to make everyone equal and therefore ignored an individual’s talents and abilities.
Melina Mercouri is the Greek Minister of Culture, as well as a former member of parliament and an actress. “The one great affliction of Miss Mercouri’s childhood,” reads Current Biography 1988, “was formal schooling, which bored her to tears, but since she grew up in a household frequented by politicians, scholars, writers, and artists, she nonetheless received a good liberal education…”
Claude Monet, French impressionist painter, “grew up a lad of unembarrassed daring, rebellious and self-willed,” says Charles Merrill Mount’s biography Monet (Simon and Schuster, 1966). According to this biography, Monet said,
I was undisciplined by birth; never would I bend, even in my most tender youth, to a rule. It was at home I learned the little I knew. Schools always appeared to me like a prison, and never could I make up my mind to stay there, not even for four hours a day, when the sunshine was inviting, the sea smooth, and when it was a joy to run about the cliffs in the free air, or to paddle in the water.
Monet was especially rebellious in his art classes, where he made parodies and caricatures instead of the realistic drawings he was asked to do. Although his drawing teacher considered him untalented, by the time he turned 15 he was in demand as a professional caricaturist.
Pulitzer-prize winning historian Edmund Morris hated high school, and Current Biography 1989 says he “entertained himself by writing novels ‘behind cover of an atlas at the rearmost possible desk of every class.’”
Charles Trenet, French singer, songwriter and writer, went to a Catholic School — the “Free School of the Trinity,” about which he said, “The school might have been free, but I was shut up inside.”