The book that has had the greatest impact on my educational journey is The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education by Grace Llewellyn. An opinionated title to be sure, and it is an opinionated book. I was first introduced to this book by one of my most beloved high school teachers, Steve Miranda. He gave the first chapter to us as a reading in a class entitled Literature and Philosophy. The section we read is an allegory about education that illustrates the author’s view of what our educational system does to the minds of the young. It is heartbreaking.
Reading that story was probably the first time I was moved to tears by a piece of writing. Just thinking about that time brings back powerful emotions. That story spoke to me. The author Daniel Quinn defines a story as a device that we humans use for understanding the world around us better. This story helped me to make sense of my relationship with school. It gave me permission to dislike school in a way I never had felt free to before. It gave me words to articulate my distaste, and it showed me that other people could and did feel the same way.
I was touched also because the tale is legitimately a tragic one. It tells the story of a young child, full of enthusiasm and the joy of learning. And it shows how after exposure to the dull monotony of the classroom environment and the “processed gruel” form of knowledge found there, her enthusiasm steadily faded. And finally, it shows her breaking free.
Perhaps the most important reason that this story was so powerful for me was because it made me grieve for myself. It made me grieve for the countless hours, mostly wasted, spent in that limiting school environment. It made me grieve for the massive amount of energy I spent resisting the inertia of that system. It made me grieve for all of the times that I had forced myself to crush my own resistance. But most of all it made me grieve for the lost opportunity that this story represented.
How I wish I had found that book sooner. When I first read that story, I was 18 and just three months away from graduating from high school.
I read the rest of book voraciously as soon as I could get my hands on it. Through that, I gained a deeper understanding of the ideas about school that Llewellyn hinted at in the portion of it that I read for my class. The Teenage Liberation Handbook describes something called “unschooling.” Llewellyn intentionally avoids using the term “home-schooling” because of the baggage that it carries, and also because of the connotations that it is just “school, but at home.”
Unschooling is emphatically different from both traditional school, and home-schooling. It emphasizes personal interest, and self-direction. It defines the role of the parent as facilitator not teacher. Most importantly, it emphasizes that learning can - and should - happen anywhere, and anytime; in fact, it should happen everywhere, and all the time.
The expressiveness of her allegory gave me a hint of what unschooling offered. That hint was enough for me to recognize that I had missed my opportunity. I wanted it so badly.
The emotional response is a huge part of why this book was so influential for me. But I also loved her vision. The more that I read of it, the more engaged I became and the more excited and despairing I felt. I was excited by the possibilities that I saw in what Llewellyn described. I despaired because it seemed so unattainable for me. And I struggled as I read that book. I struggled with whether I wanted to quit school and pursue unschooling. Ultimately, I took the easier path and simply graduated from high school. But even at that late date, I was so inspired by her ideas that I wanted to immediately quit school and pursue an unschooled education for myself.
Since then I have wanted to spread the message. The single thing that bothers me most about my own history is that I never knew that I had any choice other than school. Unfortunately, I’m not much of an activist - far too introverted - and I don’t personally know very many teenagers.
So many other pieces of my educational journey since then are deeply related to my reading of this book. The time that I took off after I graduated high school is a prominent example. So is the two year break I took between my junior and senior year at Western. I had been considering taking time off after high school before I read the handbook, but Llewellyn’s description of what she called “the Vacation” made me certain that I wanted that reset.
For a teen pursuing unschooling, the Vacation is the period of time between when they stop attending traditional school, and when they start pursuing their learning in earnest. Grace warns that if you try and make the transition too quickly, too much baggage about learning is carried along and your attempts at unschooling will be disappointing at best and disastrous at worst. She devotes an entire chapter to describing the importance of it, and she presents a very convincing case.
Reading the Teenage Liberation Handbook made me realize how toxic my attitude towards school had become. Her words helped me decomplect my feelings about school from my feelings about learning. It also helped me to start to recognize the negative cycle I was in regarding hating school and resisting the forms that it imposed. I realized that if I was going to go to college, I needed to do it on my own terms, and I needed to leave behind some of the baggage that I had accumulated about education.