School is broken and everyone knows it. Public schools from kindergarten to graduation have been crumbling for decades, dropout rates are high, and test scores are low. The value—in every sense—of a college education and degree is hotly contested in the news every day. Students face unprecedented debt in an economy with a dwindling middle class and lessening opportunities for social mobility. This has a significant effect on lives and on the economy itself. The student debt crisis reaches through every facet of people’s lives. It affects the housing market as grads with debt are likely to be refused for mortgages, the auto industry as they put off buying cars, consumer spending in general, and decisions to start families. After college, grad school can seem like a refuge from the weak economy, which piles up further debt without clear returns. College students who go on to graduate school also delay the dilemma of the weak job market by using their continued student status to dodge familial pressure to succeed economically. They do this even as it becomes clearer and clearer every day that degrees may not increase their likelihood of getting a job.
This book is a radical project, the opposite of reform. It is not about fixing school, it’s about transforming learning—and making traditional school one among many options rather than the only option. I think all the energy and money reformers spend trying to fix school misses the real problem: that we don’t have good alternatives for people who want to learn without going to school, for people who don’t learn well in school settings, or for those who can’t afford it.
Because while you don’t have to go to school to learn, you do have to figure out how to get some of the things that school provides. Since most of us grew up associating learning with traditional school, we may feel at sea without school to establish an infrastructure for learning. This consists of things such as syllabi to show us an accepted path, teachers to help us through it, ways to get feedback on our progress, ready-made learning communities, a way to develop professional networks that help with careers later, and physical resources like equipment and libraries. In its best and most ideal form, school provides this infrastructure.
But not very many people get to go to school in its best and most ideal form, and my research shows that many learners feel they do it better on their own. People who forgo school build their own infrastructures. They create and borrow and reinvent the best that formal schooling has to offer, and they leave the worst behind. That buys them the freedom to learn on their own terms.
I speak from experience. I went to graduate school at Yale and I dropped out. I had been amazed that I was accepted, and even more so that I was offered a fellowship. Surely this was the fast track to something impressive. But leaving all that behind, to my great surprise, was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. A gracefully executed quit is a beautiful thing, opening up more doors than it closes. I had invested long years and a lot of work in the degree I walked away from, but I also had innocently misguided reasons for wanting it in the first place. I was fresh out of college and my only thought was that I wasn’t done learning.
Nobody had told me that liberal arts graduate school is professional school for professors, which wasn’t what I wanted to be. Here’s what my graduate school experience was like: I took classes for two years and learned one thing. It was not a fact, but a process. What I learned was how to read a book and take it apart in a particular way, to find everything that’s wrong with it and see what remains that’s persuasive. This approach is useful to people who are focused on producing academic writing, and it’s a reasonably good trick to know, but I could have picked it up in one course. I didn’t need two years, and it’s pretty annoying to only get to talk about books in such a limited way.
My third year, on the other hand, was bliss. I was left alone for a year to read about 200 books of my choice. I spent that time living far from school in a house in the woods, preparing to demonstrate sufficient command of my field to be permitted to write a dissertation. This was the part of grad school where I really learned things. And for me, what was most significant about the year was that I learned how to teach myself. I had to make my own reading lists for the exams, which meant I learned how to take a subject I was interested in and make myself a map for learning it. As I read the books on my lists, I taught myself to read slowly, to keep track of what I was reading, and to think about books as part of an ongoing conversation with each other. I learned to take what was useful and make sure it was credible and leave the rest aside. I did this with a pen in the margins of the books and by talking to people about what I was reading. I had the luxury of a year to devote to it, but I devour a lot of books even when I’m busy working at a job, and I could have done the same thing over a longer stretch of time. I learned that I didn’t need school after all.
Years later, I ran into a young, successful woman who was known for hosting a popular monthly salon on art and technology and for her work as a blogger for a cultural institution. She told me she was toying with the idea of going to graduate school, and wrinkled her nose at the thought. But she lit up when she started describing the things she wanted to study, such as art history and curatorial skills. I reached back to my own hard-won lesson about what liberal arts grad school is really for. I asked her if she wanted to be a professor. She said no. So I asked, “Why do you want to go back to school?” She shrugged a little, and said, “Well, I just want to learn things and be smarter about the things I do.” That’s when I got excited. I had some really useful advice on this, and I got to be the person to tell her about it. You don’t need school for that.