about those 12 year old dropouts

There’s a couple of consistent threads in early responses to my book. People tell me it will be divisive, which of course was the plan. Several people have suggested that the descriptive portion (in which I describe the Cult of Smart) is stronger than the prescriptive portion (in which I propose alternatives to the Cult of Smart). I’m not sure I disagree, there. But mostly people are hung up on the 12 year old dropouts.

Well, it’s true: I do say in the book that 12 year olds should be able to drop out, given parental permission. And I stand by that assertion. I also understand why it unnerves people. I think it’s worth unpacking what this says.

First: it’s important to say that 12 year olds are still minors and are still subject to the whims of their parents’ decisions. In the society I imagine, 12 year olds will have to win their parents permission to drop out of school, and I imagine many or most parents will decline to give that permission. That might sound like a dodge but it’s an important element of this.

But regarding those who do drop out. People want to know, what will they do with their lives? And the truth is that they’ll do what anyone might do with their lives. They might take long walks on the beach. They might devour books about Roman history. They might learn to fly a kite. They might help a parent take apart an old Firebird’s engine. They might get a chemistry set. They might ponder the night sky. They might pick apples. They might learn to butcher a pig. They might do many, many things, the many things that we as human beings do.

The end of school does not mean the end of learning. It means the end of a particular kind of regimented, one-size-fits-all learning, the specific dynamics of which are the product of a completely idiosyncratic and directionless history that no one imagines as the only way to learn. It means the end of tests that test nothing and of A-B-C-D-F. It means liberation from the expectations of a system that no one would defend as perfect. Is dropping out at 12 the best thing for most kids? Of course not. The entire point is that most kids are not all kids.

I think when people react violently to the idea of 12 year old dropouts, they are demonstrating their fealty to the Cult of Smart. Because the assumption is that a 12 year old who has rejected traditional education is a fallen child, an irredeemable child. The assumption is that he or she has been lost, that they have become unmoored and will never contribute anything to society. But this is precisely what my book exists to critique. The purpose of my book is to argue that lives lived outside of traditional academics have value, that they mean something, that they have something to contribute. To treat a 12 year old dropout as someone who has failed and been failed is to tacitly assert that only progression through an arbitrary and broken school system matters. I am asking people, through my book, to question this logic, and in this post I am asking you to, too.