Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, The
Youth liberation is an urgent feminist priority in a country where kids are forced to arise at ungodly hours; are herded into overcrowded classrooms with overworked, underpaid teachers who often can’t say what they really think for fear of parental retaliation; where education has become more about busywork and preparing for the next standardized test than passing on revolutionary ideas that inspire, challenge, and exite; where kids who can’t function within the rigid confines of the classroom get labeled with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and are forced to take Ritalin especially formulated for the school day; where children’s natural curiosity is stifled in the name of compulsory education. For girls especially, the enormous social pressure of school may increase the possibility of developing an eating disorder to gain a sense of control or feel “perfect.”
In 435 revolutionary, practical, information-packed pages, Llewellyn gives kids all the tools they need to free themselves from the constraints of the compulsory education system. Inspired by other radical educators such as John Taylor Gatto and John Holt, Llewellyn introduces the radical philosophy of “unschooling,” which is often misleadingly referred to as “homeschooling,”-the crucial difference being that you are not simply replicating the rigid structure of school at home, but rather, creating your own experiential education with life as a big, limitless classroom. Throughout the book, Llewellyn draws liberally from the testimonies of unschooled kids to strengthen and lend credibility to her arguments and to illustrate the exciting possibilities that life after school has to offer.
After many years of struggle and disappointment as a teacher participant in the compulsory education system, Llewellyn came to understand that force is the enemy of true learning. In chapters entitled “School is not for Learning” and “What School is For,” she traces the history of compulsory education in the United States from its beginnings with the lofty nineteenth-century ideals that well-educated citizens make the best decisions in a functioning democracy, illustrating how these ideals were largely sacrificed to the goals of producing good little workers in an industrialized society, and stamping out cultural differences in minority populations. Llewellyn rightly points out that in the information age, we need a new paradigm for education.
She also discusses how the compulsory education system forces bright, hopeful, idealistic teachers to assume the role of disciplinarians and authoritarian enforcers of the classroom milieu, writing that “their talent and energy is drained…by the constant task of telling people what to do.” Forced to distance themselves from their young students for the sake of classroom management and control, most teachers cannot truly be mentors to young people. Further, she points out that after being forced to obey the authority of their teachers, young people lose interest in forming healthy relationships with adult mentors.
Llewellyn is a staunch believer in the “power and magic of adolescence,” and uses every page of this book to encourage youth to embrace that power and magic. She begins with the basic premise that instead of achieving mediocre mastery of six or more subjects at school, kids should focus on one or two things that they truly love and that some of the best and interesting knowledge doesn’t come from textbooks. “All you need to start with is desire,” she writes. “You don’t need a school-teacher to get knowledge-you can get it by looking at the world, from watching films, from conversations, from reading, from asking questions, from experience.”
With liberal use of gentle humor, Llewellyn identifies and dispels all the potential fears that kids and their parents might have about unschooling-such as not being able to get into college and/or get a good job; dealing with so-called learning disabilities; and having friends. She demonstrates that unschooled kids have no problem getting into college and building careers they love; that for those kids who are labeled as learning disabled, unschooling can help uncover the best ways for them to learn; and that kids can still keep their friends from school or make new ones through all the exciting activities they’ll be able to pursue outside of school. On the last point, she notes that while their friends may be in school, there are also lots of enemies, and school fosters an unhealthy obsession with popularity and “fitting in.”
The Teenage Liberation Handbook also goes into the nuts and bolts of carrying out the decision to quit school. Llewellyn provides numerous strategies for kids to convince their parents to allow them to unschool, and addresses the legal issues involved with dropping out of school. In a terrific chapter called “…but Miss Llewellyn,” which tries to anticipate a myriad of questions that kids might have when considering leaving school, Llewellyn addresses the question of “What if all I want to do instead of school is watch TV all day?” She writes “Well. Don’t misunderstand me. I would turn heartsick and give this up if this book led to a cult of TV parasites who soaped instead of schooled, and I personally would rather be stuck going to junior high school all day than force-fed channel zero for six hours.” She believes that kids really do possess the self-motivation and initiative to take charge of their own schooling, and is confident that after the mandatory post-dropping out “vacation,” that kids will “feel restless and ready to move on.”
Regarding the issue of developing basic writing skills, Llewellyn believes that “the best writing teacher for most people is reading.” She also notes the interesting idea that schools often complicate writing by making it seem so formal and mysterious, and encourages the common sense approach of “writing what you hear yourself say in your head.” She also addresses the issue of motivation by encouraging kids to write about things that fascinate them personally rather than “What I Did for My Summer Vacation” and the other expository essays everyone is forced to write in school. For help and critique, she suggests that kids ask their friends and family for feedback, noting that “even in my tiny 26-student school I was too swamped with my students’ writing to give enough response to any of them.” On the specific issue of punctuation and grammar, she recommends Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and English Composition and Grammar by John E. Warriner, and instills the critical notion that writing is a process-nobody writes perfect first drafts.
When the true learning process begins, Llewellyn provides seven thick chapters of unschooling advice in the areas of science and technology, math, the social sciences, English, foreign languages, the arts, and athletics. She is a virtual encyclopedia of resources, encouragement, and inspiration-challenging teenagers to conduct oral history interviews for history class, write critical book reviews, obtain access to lab equipment and conduct biology experiments, break into journalism, pursue a filmmaking apprenticeship, and travel abroad. There are numerous tips for getting into college and finding internships, how to use the resources at school to your benefit, as well as suggestions for getting involved in political activism on a range of radical issues-which she calls “political science in action.” One criticism I have is that Llewellyn could have included more suggestions of books by women; for example, in the political science section, she fails to mention one text authored by a woman.
If there is one book I wish had been around when I was a teenager, the Teenage Liberation Handbook is it. As I read it for the first time, nearly ten years out of adolescence, I felt the bitterness of an adult pining for lost possibilities of my childhood. But after the initial grief subsided, I was left with the empowering realization that kid and adult lib involve a remarkably similar process-starting with freeing the mind. The Teenage Liberation Handbook reminds us that it is never too late to “drop out,” to reject the institutions of arbitrary authority that bore us, control our lives, and condition us to be obedient, passive, and docile consumer-citizens.
By Grace Llewellyn
Lowry House Publications
Revised edition, 1998
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Nov/Dec 2003
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