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Smart Kids Should Skip High School

Disclaimer: more thought experiment than actual advice.

Unsorted books make librarians sad
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski.

Skipping college is almost middle-class mainstream at this point. For example, not graduating is an oddly inverted rite of passage in the world of tech startups. Of course, working-class people have been going straight from high school to full-time jobs forever. For as long as there have been universities, educated middle-class or wealthy parents — who are disproportionately white and otherwise privileged — have looked down their noses at the less-rich “unwashed masses”.

However, lacking a bachelor’s degree doesn’t incur the same amount of disapproval as being a high-school dropout. Dropping out of high school is like getting an MFA — it guarantees you’ll end up at McDonald’s (if you can believe the snide, faux-pitying comments). Unlike skipping college, dropping out of high school is reserved for losers and astonishing child geniuses who get admitted to Stanford at twelve. If you can believe the widespread perception.

Technically, I dropped out of high school. I skipped senior year to go to Reed — it didn’t work out in the long run, but that’s beside the point — so I took California’s GED test in June, 2012. It was dead easy. I felt cheated out of three years of my life, because I could have passed the test right away at the end of eighth grade. Maybe I would have needed to study a little to grasp all of the math, but I suspect I could have performed much worse and still passed the test. In retrospect, I probably didn’t need to bother taking the GED at all.

Photo by Don O'Brien: "Classmates of mine in the Worthingto (Ohio) High School class of 1942. [...] I don't recognize the boy nor do I recall why I took the photo."
Photo by Don O’Brien: “Classmates of mine in the Worthington (Ohio) High School class of 1942. […] I don’t recognize the boy nor do I recall why I took the photo.”
I could have spent three years writing and reading and working on interesting projects, instead of enduring the sociocultural hell of high school. Sure, I had a few good classes and a few good friends. But it was mostly tedium. I don’t like to think about how much time and energy I expended doing busywork and memorizing facts I really did not need to be able to recite at the drop of a hat.

(People worry about Google and the instant availability of knowledge making people dumber, because we don’t have to memorize much anymore — Socrates felt the same anxiety when writing and reading were invented. There is no need to refuse to use the tools available to us for the sake of intellectual authenticity or whatever bullshit. Memorization for the sake of memorization is a waste of resources. If you work with information on a regular basis you will memorize it naturally, and if you don’t use the information often, why bother memorizing it?)

Much as I think the current curriculum and organizational structure of high school are crimes against all the budding human minds who are subjected to them, I don’t believe that every single student should skip grades nine through infinity. If you want to be a doctor, a scientist, a lawyer, etc, then you’re stuck. Even otherwise, dropping out will only work if you’re smart and reasonably self-motivated. Creativity and confidence also help tremendously.

Assuming those conditions, going through high school is a colossal waste of time. It doesn’t matter whether you care about attending college later — contrary to what teachers and school board members might want you to think, getting into college is easy if you’re intelligent and work hard to do interesting things.

the smarter you grow
Photo by Enokson.

If your parents won’t play ball and you’re not willing to run away and support yourself — don’t do that unless your parents are actually abusive, not just buzzkills — then you pretty much can’t skip high school. That sucks, but that’s life. However, if you can work on your parents and cajole them into changing their minds, you can escape the terrible and all-too-common fate of lugging textbooks back and forth from your locker in between strictly scheduled boredom sessions.

First off, tell your parents that wanting to skip high school does NOT mean forgoing education. Learning is important and wonderful; putting knowledge into action is even better. Choose and develop a project! A months-long project that will stretch your abilities while occupying your passion. Then study for the sake of working on the project. Build something — a miniature greenhouse for the backyard. Write a novel. Learn how to sew clothes (geometry + art).

And don’t neglect macro planning. Write a four-year outline that predicts what you’ll do instead of high school. Make a budget to match. Then let me know how it goes…

Reminder: thought experiment!

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