When My Teenage Self Schools My PhD Self

When I was 17 years old, I dropped out of high school, mostly because I found school unbearably boring.

Above all, I hated my history class. It was one of those classes where the semester ends right before anyone can have any interesting conversations about Vietnam or women’s history or get much beyond trying instilling a sense of national identity. Everything I was supposed to be learning seemed beyond useless.

 My teenage self was pretty sure that school represented the antithesis of everything I wanted to be. School seemed, in the words of Pink Floyd, like thought control. (I definitely did not need no education.) School seemed like a way to teach students about the importance of schedules, punctuality, and above all, obedience to authority. I viewed valedictorians as soulless people pleasers. It appeared like training for life in a totalitarian and dystopian society in which the greatest freedom was lunch hour. School seemed to have very little to do with learning about how things worked in the real world or anything particularly interesting.

(If you’re a high school teacher, I ain’t hatin’. I’m just recalling how my teenage self viewed school.)

So I started disengaging. I cut school, I read books during class, and after a while, just refused to go. Eventually, I never returned.

People tried to convince me to stay in school, telling me that staying in school would show that I had “stick-to-itiveness.” (I half joke that I dropped out because of the sheer awfulness of the word stick-to-itive-ness. NOT A WORD. What’s wrong with the word persistence? Or determination? Or grit?) People also tried to tell me that I should stay in school because I would learn valuable social skills, as if school was a microcosm of the world. (Plot spoiler: it wasn’t.) People also tried to tell me that school would teach me to build up my “boredom tolerance,” apparently an essential skill of school. (No, seriously. I was supposed to stay in a stifling and boring environment so I could learn how to cope with feeling stifled and bored. This was supposed to be a valuable life skill.)

When I finally left high school for good, a kind teacher (who wisely didn’t try to convince me to stay) recommended two books to me: Jonathan Livingston Seagull and The Teenage Liberation Handbook. I read them both. Of the two, The Teenage Liberation Handbook seemed like a revolution. The idea that I could drop out of high school and have a meaningful life and get an education seemed like a dream come true.

The Teenage Liberation Handbook was based on a very simple premise: instead of sitting in a classroom, get out into the world and do what you want. The author, Grace Llewelyn, argued that above all else, school are designed for control and that furthermore, we believe our bondage to be normal and natural. (p. 39) School, she said, was not for learning. Schools failed at education primarily because they coerced students to “learn” things they didn’t care much about. Compulsory schooling existed to prepare students for factory work, not for creative inquiry. 

 The thing that saved me from being the typical teenage dropout was curiosity. How did the world work? Why were some things this way? Why did we think about things like this and not like that? I read a lot of books, all of which were about things I wanted to read about. I followed interests as they arose. I found myself drawn to the humanities: history, literature, anthropology, and sociology. I tried to get out into the world and make friends with people who were not in high school and had interesting things to say. I think I gave myself a pretty good education, at least good enough to get into community college, then a state college, and then into graduate school and a PhD program. I even graduated with a PhD. (I still haven’t taken the GED. I don’t think I could pass the math part.) 

Many years later, when I was 40 years old, I dropped out of academia.

Dropping out of academia felt nothing like dropping out of high school. I never imagined that someday I’d find myself kicking and screaming not to be forcibly evicted from an academic environment. Dropping out of academia didn’t feel emancipation or an act of rebellion. It felt like rejection.

 I’ve thought a lot about my teenage self as I once again find myself thinking about the meaning of dropping out of academia. Teenage me would be horrified by my devotion to a corporate institution, seeing my allegiance to the norms of higher education as proof of the revolutionaries selling out to the establishment. My teenage self would find my undying devotion to higher education as a fancy form of Stockholm Syndrome and as evidence of my domestication and complicity in systems of oppression. 

(If you’re an academic, I ain’t hatin’. I’m just imagining how teenage me would view adult academic me.)

I’m not suggesting that our teenage selves run our lives. I, for one, am thankful that I never have to relive my teenage years and I’m pleased to report that I have learned that the older I get, the more I realize that I never actually knew everything. Also, I now have better impulse control and think a lot more about how my actions affect other people.

I am, however, suggesting that remembering our rebellious teenage selves can help us break out of our current paradigm in which academia is the only culture in which someone with a PhD can thrive. We could probably use a little bit of the wisdom of The Teenage Liberation Handbook. After all, its premise is to drop out, drop into the real world, and get a life and education.

I started getting at this idea when I wrote about non-academic teaching. The Teenage Liberation Handbook suggests that students think of the whole world as fertile ground for learning. What if we thought about the entire world as a space for us to practice teaching (and continued learning, obviously)? Universities and classrooms are not the only place where we can teach interesting things to interested people.

Academia, for all of its big ideas, is sometimes too small for people. I re-read The Teenage Liberation Handbook and felt re-inspired. Getting in touch with my rebellious teenage self felt good. It felt good to be challenging a system, particularly one engaged in exploitative labor practices. What felt even better was declaring that I didn’t need or want an oppressive academic institution to do what I loved the most in life. I’m not sorry I have a PhD. I like having analytical tools to understand the world. However, creating knowledge doesn’t require school. Creating knowledge involves asking good questions and then pursuing the answers with passion. It involves inventing ideas that didn’t exist before. I literally don’t see how school has anything to do with that.

Part of my struggle as an academic refugee has been the feeling that I occupy a weird, poorly understood, liminal space in the middle of a Venn diagram. I sometimes feel too academic for the non-academic world and not academic enough for academia. I started rethinking that space this week, wondering what might happen if I started thinking about it as a place of creativity, engagement, curiosity, and a commitment to using academic knowledge to solve real-world problems. The teenage me gave adult me a slight smile and a cool up-nod of approval.

With that in mind, I’m thinking this week about how I’m going about being a scholar-practitioner in the world and more specifically, a historian-practitioner. As I’ve done in the past, I’ll be over here letting go of what doesn’t serve me and approaching that which does with insatiable curiosity.