Do People Want To Learn?

I’ve written before about how the public school system doesn’t teach the right things. But there’s a bigger problem underlying the whole rotten mess of concrete and bureaucracy that is the modern public school system. There’s one single assumption that underlies the whole thing, and that one assumption is untrue.

That false assumption? “People don’t naturally want to learn.”

If you believe people don’t naturally want to learn, then what about babies and toddlers? Nobody formally teaches little kids to sit and crawl and walk and talk, but everybody knows that all little children learn these things. It’s really obvious that little children are wired to learn and to learn voraciously. Just look at any two-year-old who annoys the grownups by asking so many questions.

So if the concept of “people don’t want to learn” doesn’t happen until later, when exactly does it happen? If you look at kids, it seems to happen right around school age. Children who a year ago would be annoying with their extreme curiosity mellow out, then proceed to sink further into “I hate learning”.

Still, the same exact children who don’t want to learn in school continue to learn voraciously about things that interest them. It may be things adults don’t approve of, like cartoon characters, or video game stats, or how to bypass the screen time lockouts on their phones. But this is still learning, and it’s still curiosity. It’s learning in absence of being forced to learn, which is why it continues to be fun. So evidently, people can and do learn things that they’re motivated to learn and interested in learning, at all ages.

“But people don’t learn the things they need to learn!” you may exclaim. Let me ask you, what exactly is it that we teach in school that people need to learn? And how do we know that they’re not going to learn those things naturally, outside of school?

What do people need to learn? Reading. Writing. Basic arithmetic. How to exist as an adult. But everyone learns these things of necessity; you can’t function in the world without them. You don’t need school to teach that. And after they have the minimum knowledge they need to function in the world, individuals follow their specific interests to logical conclusions.

Still, what about all those other things that we teach in schools? Spanish, differential equations, mitochondria, whatever? What about how to get into college?

Interestingly, there is a strong and growing subculture of people who raise their kids with no enforced education. And the research shows that these kids can get into college and have successful careers at rates equal to or even greater than that of the publicly or privately schooled population. (Sources: Smithsonian, KQED)

So if just letting kids do what they want is so great, why do we all think instinctively that it shouldn’t work?

John Holt wrote this in his book How Children Learn. “All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words—Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves—and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. […] What we have to do is break this long downward cycle of fear and distrust, and trust children as we ourselves were not trusted.”

We don’t think unschooling should work even though it does because the societal wisdom about children, which we all have somewhere in our brains, is wrong. We were taught not to trust how children naturally learn. But we were taught by the very system that profits off not allowing children to learn naturally; we were taught propaganda.

If you don’t need to force people to learn, then, is there no place for teachers, classes, students?

No. There is still a place for that. Just look at all the non-mandatory classes that people take over their lives. People take classes in music and art and tech and science and history and every other thing. Classes can be a very effective way to learn… if the people in them want to learn.

When I was getting started as an artist, I experimented with a number of media through taking classes. When I signed up for them, they were explicitly “for adults”. Not because they had any risqué content, just because they didn’t have anybody to be the schoolteacher, the authority figure. They were meant for adults because they trusted adults. They didn’t trust children.

With some combination of my mom’s persuasive skills and my dashing charm (just kidding, I was like twelve; it was 100% my mom’s persuasive skills) I got into these classes “for adults”. One of them was a wildlife drawing class.

It was a ton of fun and a great experience. I’d been out of school for a while at that point, so I didn’t think it was strange that the teacher just walked around giving advice and making critiques, telling us to help ourselves to complimentary cookies and soda while we drew. I made a few friends in that class, most of whom were many times my age.

A few years later, I took a ceramics class. This one was explicitly “for teenagers”; I think the age range was 15-18 or 13-18 or something like that. The kind of thing that’s meant as an extracurricular for high schoolers.

It was a weird experience. Besides the complete lack of age diversity, there were a ton of really weird rules and expectations. No more than one person was allowed to leave the studio at one time to use the bathroom. I wasn’t particularly annoyed since it didn’t inconvenience me, I was just baffled. It was so unnecessary.

Not only was the class setup weird, but the teacher was also weird. They (I don’t remember their gender) were really distant and not friendly at all, and they seemed to expect this kind of deference. You know those pompous customers you get working retail, where they just expect you to hand them the universe on a silver platter? This teacher acted a bit like that.

I talked to my mom about it on the ride home, and she informed me that it wasn’t that the class or the teacher was weird. It was because it was a class for teenagers.

With classes for adults, you can be sure that 100% of the people there are there because they want to be. Nobody forces an adult to take an art class. If the student has learned what they wanted to learn, the objective of the class has been achieved. But with classes for teenagers, it’s a completely different story. The teacher can’t be sure that the student wants to be there, or wants to learn. Further, they don’t have to answer to the student; the real master for a teacher of teens is those teens’ parents.  The teacher tries their best to make the class interesting and fun, but they have to control what the kids do so that the parents are pleased, and generally act like a schoolteacher, which severely limits their ability to do that.

There is still a place for classes and teachers. These are valuable things. But the public school environment, where the students don’t want to learn and the teachers don’t want to teach and literally nobody wants to be there at all, that is not useful.

So where do we go from here? How does the establishment change?

I propose using the funds that are currently being funneled into the public school system and use it to fund optional classes, held at public libraries. After the “school subjects” are made optional, we can decide to make things mandatory which are important for everyone to know regardless of their interests; things which are necessary for functioning in modern society. Teaching basic technology, psychology, and economics would be a good start: after all, there’s an awful lot of people, tech, and money in the world right now. It also makes significant sense to teach people stuff like basic self-care and first aid, what laws there are, how to pay taxes, how to get insurance, etc etc. These mandatory things, then, can fill the psychological void left by the public school system (appeasing all the grownups who love telling kids what to do), as well as filling the physical void of the empty school buildings.

What do you think? If you’ve got ideas for how the system could be changed, or reasons why it shouldn’t be, stick them in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

The Purpose of College, Past and Present

A lot of people complain that college isn’t doing a good job preparing people for the workforce. They toss around statistics like “only 27% of college grads have jobs related to their majors” and “only 62% of college grads have a job that requires a college degree”. Evidently, the only goal of college nowadays is career preparation, and colleges (or maybe college graduates) are failing at this goal.

Why is that? What’s wrong?

To answer that, let’s look back 200 years, to the Revolutionary War. When the first publicly-funded colleges came into existence, their purpose was to educate the top 5-10% of highly gifted white boys, so that they could become leaders and exceptional men. Our modern sensibilities might be offended by the exclusiveness of “small percentage of highly gifted white boys”—it leaves out girls, people of color, and non-highly-gifted white boys—but for the time, it was very progressive. In Britain, college was explicitly a privilege for only the very wealthy. The Americans, then, wanted to move away from that; they decided that college should be available to any highly gifted white boy, regardless of income.

One of the main contributors to this ideal was Thomas Jefferson, who wrote Bill 79, “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge”, which was presented numerous times through the 1770s and 80s before a heavily revised version was put into law in 1796.

This was still the general attitude through the 1800s. When W.E.B. Du Bois argued for the education of African Americans, he expressly said that college is for only the “talented tenth”, or the “best minds of the race”, so that they can “reach their potential and become leaders”.

“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the best of this race that they may guide the mass away from the contamination and death of the worst, in their own and other races.”

This view remained until the turn of the twentieth century, when it gradually started to change. College became a status symbol; after all, it was only available to the top 5-10% of people, so having gotten into college meant you had something special. Something special that employers wanted working for them. College graduates, then, got their pick of the best jobs.

Since everyone wants great jobs, everyone wanted college. As such, the GI Bill was passed, opening college to a much larger population following WW2. The problem was that college itself was not causing people to get great jobs, it was a status symbol that was merely correlated with getting great jobs, and people committed the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hocI’ve written about this before.

As college became available to more and more people, it became less useful as a symbol. The symbol was, after all, about being part of an elite few. When this happened, college stopped guaranteeing good jobs, or in fact any jobs at all. But yet, the cultural zeitgeist had shifted: college was for jobs now, not for educating future leaders. It doesn’t matter that the curriculum has hardly changed at all since 1851. College is supposed to magically procure jobs, despite the fact that it has absolutely no way to do that.

College had never been designed to prepare people for specific careers that required specific skills. For the elite future leaders it was designed for, it taught more generic things like developing a cultured and educated and intellectual character. This is great and all, but it doesn’t give you diddly for actual marketable skills.

During the actual time period, when the top 5% were going to college to learn how to be great leaders or whatever, everyone else was learning actual job skills through trade apprenticeships. In fact, many of the leaders did this too: they both went to college and apprenticed at a trade, so they could have a means of making a living while they worked on shaping the nation. Being a person who shapes a nation doesn’t come with a paycheck.

So. Why is college failing at getting people jobs? It wasn’t designed to do that in the first place. During the brief period that it did do that, it was because of correlation based on rarity and status, not causation based on education. And now, despite being basically the same thing that it’s always been, college is saddled with the artificial purpose of getting jobs for graduates, which it is incapable of doing.

Once you know the real history, all the artificial, retroactive explanations of the modern day fall away. All the justifications of the continued existence and high price of college fail to make sense. You start to notice that there is literally nothing that colleges do or pretend to do that can’t be done more effectively somewhere else for a tiny fraction of the cost.

You want a liberal arts education? Sure! Go to the library. Read the classics. Read Shakespeare and Dante and then learn Latin and read Caesar and Catullus and Cicero. Go to museums and learn about art. Go to symphonies and learn about music. You don’t need a university for a liberal arts education.

You want to learn more pragmatic stuff, like math and coding and writing? Sure! Take some online courses. I recommend Gotham Writers, Udemy, Free Code Camp, Edhesive, and Khan Academy.

You want a great career? Sure! Look over the job market, see what kinds of skills are marketable, see what kinds of skills you’ve got, and start looking. If you’re just getting started, I recommend the Praxis program.

You want to network with other smart, interesting, accomplished people? Sure! There are a huge number of online groups and forums, as well as tons of conventions and other in-person gatherings.

You want a status symbol to put on your resume? Well, okay, maybe for that you want college. Get good grades in high school, get 5s on APs, ace the hell out of the SAT, get National Merit, don’t forget your extracurriculars… basically work your butt off for four years in high school, then apply to a bunch of colleges. If you’re both lucky and successful, you’ll get the opportunity to pay a bunch of money in order to work your butt off for four more years so you can put Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or whatever on your resume. And yes, this is a very useful and valuable status symbol. But it’s taken eight years of your life and possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In case you want a different route than that, try this. Go apply for a job at prestigious companies in your chosen field, and if you don’t get in, develop your resume and skillsets until you do. It’ll require about as much hard work as college, but unlike college, you’ll actually learn useful skills in the process. Also unlike college, you won’t be in debt by the end; rather, you’ll have been paid for your trouble.

The only reason you should consider going to college is if you’re planning on going into a field that is very, very strict about requiring one. (“All the job listings say they require one” does not count.) For example, if you want to be an accountant, you need a CPA. You cannot sit the CPA exam without 150 credit hours of college, so you’re kinda stuck there. Similar concept with doctors, lawyers, and the like.

Still, in those circumstances, it’s just because the world hasn’t caught up to the uselessness of college yet.

So, should you go to college? Maybe. It depends on your specific goals. But is college the right path for everyone? Absolutely not. And is it a surprise that college isn’t doing a good job at preparing people for careers, given the history? Absolutely not. Actually, it’s a surprise that it’s doing as well as it is.

For everyone to have a good path, the entire educational system needs to be overhauled. But for any given individual, just think long and hard about your career. Don’t march in lockstep down the college path just because college.


A version of this post was published on Praxis’s blog on Nov 5, 2018. Check it out!

Public School: Rethink the Concept

Let me ask you a question. If you could magically instill every youth in America with specific knowledge, what would you teach them?

Presumably, you’d want to teach them something that would be useful to every one of them, so, what kinds of things are important for every American? How about you teach them how the American government works. The world economy. The Fortune-500 companies. You could tell them which things are legal and illegal, because though everyone knows murder is illegal, there are other things that are more complicated and less obvious. You could teach them their human rights.

Perhaps you could also teach people how to take care of themselves. You could explain what medicines to take for what problems, symptoms for common ailments, and under what circumstances to go to the doctor. You could tell them about things that are harmful to their health: smoking, vaping, unprotected sex, etc. You could talk about symptoms of mental illnesses and healthy ways to cope. You could teach them first aid.

Why not also talk about practical life skills? How to get a job, vote, pay taxes, get a mortgage, get and maintain insurance, or budget finances. Most people are going to become parents, how about we teach them how to raise children?

These are not theoretical questions. We have a method of instilling knowledge into American youth. It’s called public school.

If you think about it, the basic concept is ingenious. We have a program with mandatory attendance, for which purpose we have the resources to transport children to and from a truly gargantuan number of individual buildings. At each building, we have a standardized curriculum, which has specific yearly checkpoints for completion. For twelve whole years, from age six to eighteen, we have the undivided attention of the nation! The undivided attention of the future!

Yet alas, we squander our opportunity. We teach pointless trivia that, in the age of the internet, can be found out instantly. We force people to learn things that aren’t useful to the majority of them.

Why do we do this?

Governments move slowly. The things which we teach in school today would have been much more useful to have memorized when you actually didn’t have a calculator on you, sixty or so years ago. Part of the problem is that the bureaucracy just hasn’t caught up yet.

But there’s another problem. Though people are pushing to change schools, they’re all pushing in different directions. Many of them aren’t asking the fundamental question: “what is the point of this period of mandatory education, anyway?” And of those that are asking, most reply that the goal is college. As if that does anything other than pass the buck.

It seems to me that the buck should stop immediately. The purpose of educating youth is to prepare them to be adults. One part of being an adult is making a living. Another part of being an adult is being a good citizen (knowing what laws exist and how the government works, perhaps also learning history and civics). Adults need to be financially self-sufficient. Adults need to know how to avoid scams. Adults need to know how to raise children – even if they themselves don’t have children, they will inevitably be around kids at some point. Adults need to know how to care for themselves and others.

We teach none of that in high school or college.

A lot of people have it stuck in their head that it has to work this way. That public school is supposed to be useless; as if it’s a necessary evil. That teaching everybody calculus and teaching nobody first aid is a reasonable state of affairs. It’s not.

There needs to be a complete rethinking of the purpose of the school curriculum. Not just “how do we do a better job of preparing more people for college“. Not just “how do we tweak the existing formula to make it a little better in some areas”. We need to completely rethink the concept.

Why College Should Not Be Free

At the moment, there is a debate over whether or not college should be made free for everyone. And at first glance, the obvious answer is yes. College is outrageously expensive, and making it free would allow everyone access without forcing anyone into debt.

But there’s a presumption backing this “obvious” answer, and the presumption is that college is necessary. It would be perfectly reasonable in a context where the thing involved (i.e., food, clean water, etc.) is a basic human need, but college is not. I covered some of the reasons in my essay, I Am a Four-Year College Opt-Out—high monetary cost, high opportunity cost, lack of applicability of the coursework to the real world, etc.—but in essence, college is not the only path to success, and for many people, it’s not even a very good one.

But even if college isn’t necessary, what harm would it do for college to be free for those who want to attend? After all, debt is crippling the nation’s youth, and wouldn’t it be nice if that went away? Of course only a stingy old fart who doesn’t think young people “deserve” an education would say free college is bad, right? Why am I writing this essay?

To answer these questions, let me skip back in time and tell you a story. It is 1920. The uppermost level of compulsory education isn’t 12th grade, it is 8th. High school as we know it now does not exist; in its place sits something that looks more like college: an elite, expensive program which only accepts the top 5% of applicants. Because high schools only accept the very best, those who graduate are almost guaranteed high-paying jobs.

This began to change in 1954. Some guys saw all the high school graduates getting great jobs and had a bright idea. If we make high school free, they thought, then everyone will be able to get a high school education, and thus, a great job! The problem was that the only reason high school graduates had gotten great jobs was because of the rarity of their education. And over the next fifty years, as high school was made free and subsequently mandatory, a high school education became completely useless. The only thing gained was four more years of compulsory schooling before children, now more properly young adults, could begin working.

This has already happened before! This whole argument and discussion, should we take this elite program and make it free, of course we should because it’ll give everyone good jobs, it’s happened before! It will be just as ineffective this time as it was last time, because nothing has changed. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is still a logical fallacy, and people are still making it. In the exact same way as before. Those who fail to learn from history are, as they say, doomed to repeat it.

Now let me present a possible vision of the future. It is 2056. College has been made free and mandatory, and the little value it still had has been completely erased. The only thing gained has been four more years of compulsory schooling before young adults, now more properly adults, can begin working. The societal definition of “child” goes from “under 18” to “under 24”. The average human lifespan doesn’t change, it simply becomes normal that humans spend the first full quarter of their lives in the artificial school environment, which is just as pointless as ever: the students care as little about learning as the teachers care about teaching, nobody gets paid enough, and everyone is miserable. One day, a 24-year-old kid reads an article which says people are trying to make graduate school free, and she thinks, “Huh. That seems like a good idea. Then, everyone could have a good education for free.”

In writing this, I don’t want to cast my ballot on this issue as “the system is fine the way it is”, because the system is not fine. But the way to fix it is not to commit the same logical fallacy that we already made less than a century ago. The problem is complicated, and a complicated problem cannot be fixed with a three-word solution. “Make college free” is not the answer.

I hope this essay can open a discussion on the real answer. It will have to contain a solution to the college debt crisis. It will have to take into account the fact that our current public school system was designed to churn out good factory workers, despite the fact that we now need entrepreneurs instead. Preferably, it should contain a solution to the public school system’s current problem of not teaching important skills (how to pay taxes, what laws exist and how to change them, etc), but I know better than to get my hopes up. I’ll settle for just finding a way to teach skills that are legitimately important for purposes of starting a career, such as the importance of both cheerfulness and good writing. But even if this essay can do none of that, I hope that it at least made you consider this debate in a different light.

See you tomorrow.

How I Was Homeschooled

From a pretty early age, I’ve been homeschooled along with my siblings. But what exactly do I mean when I say that? It can be difficult to get solid information on how homeschooling works, primarily because “homeschooling” is really a big bucket full of many philosophies, reasons, and families.

Most people homeschool because they want or need to school their children differently than how the public school system does it. There are a number of ways this could present itself: there are highly educated professionals who believe they are more capable than a public school teacher to teach their children; there are parents of children with developmental disabilities who believe they will be able to help their children individually better than a public school teacher who has to corral fifty kids each day; and many more.

Across these various reasons, the most common method of organizing the homeschooling process between two parents is to have one parent working, and the other staying home to homeschool the kids. This seems like the sane route: after all, so goes the common wisdom, kids take up a lot of time and require a lot of attention. If the breadwinner has an office job, they’re not going to be home often enough to help the kids; if they work from home, the kids will be bothering them with questions so often that they can’t focus on working.

For most families, this probably is the sane route. But my mother, Stanford graduate, pilot, researcher for NASA, cancer survivor and entrepreneur, would not take “sane” for an answer. Throughout her childrens’ entire homeschooled lives, my mother has been working around 50 hours a week, plus running three small businesses. And this has created a very strange kind of homeschooling, with some very strange and specific benefits and drawbacks.

The obvious drawback is that she’s had a lot less time to spend on homeschooling her children. And at first, when we were just quitting traditional school, and when we were just getting used to the concept of working from home, it was difficult. But rather quickly, it developed into a bunch of neat advantages.

Firstly, since she’s been actively working a career, she factored a ton of career preparation into our homeschooling. Where a lot of homeschool parents are myopically focused on getting their kids prepared for college, my mother was also preparing her children to work. With that in combination with our work for her businesses, we got a very well-rounded and immersive understanding of careers and business.

Second, since several of her jobs have involved hiring entry-level employees, she knows what colleges tend to prepare people for, as well as what they don’t. With that knowledge, she could systematically teach us the things that we would need to know for our future careers that we probably wouldn’t learn otherwise.

One such lesson that I learned very, very early on was the importance of a positive attitude. If you’re willing to learn and you’re cheerful, everyone will be happy with you, even if you aren’t very good at your job. But on the other hand, if you’re an asshole, you have to be leaps and bounds better than everyone else – I’m talking twice as good as everyone else in the office, combined – for people to tolerate you enough to keep you. You don’t learn that in high school or in college: if you show up and you learn the material and you get good grades, literally nobody cares how pleasant you were to be around while you did it.

It wasn’t just the career itself. It was also the apparent drawback of her lack of available time that also turned out to be helpful.

My mother was never available at the drop of a dime. I had to wait for her to be done working, and I frequently had to plan out when I needed to talk to her about something. I got used to sending her emails asking for help with things. More recently, I’ve had mentors that I can contact, I see a lot of the same thing that I got used to growing up. You can’t take for granted unlimited time from a mentor. They’ve got a full-time job, and though they’re happy to help, their time is a limited resource. So it was with my mother growing up.

If you think about it, this is the polar opposite of the public school system model, where the teacher’s job is to teach, and nothing else. People don’t value what is abundantly available, and you can tell that school kids don’t value the time of their teachers. But you can be sure that employees value the time of their mentors, because they know that their mentors have important, unrelated jobs. And so my siblings and I valued our mother’s time, like we would value a mentor’s.

Further, sometimes we just couldn’t reach her. Sometimes she was at the office, on a business trip, or her clients were having time-sensitive issues. And so, sometimes we just had to find an answer from somewhere else. This was another way in which our education was very different from the traditional school system: a school teacher is supposed to have all the answers to all the student’s questions. A student’s first, last, and usually only resource is their teacher. On the other hand, my mother’s semi-frequent absences meant that to answer our questions, we had to do research on our own, or reach out to each other.

The relationship I had with my mother, and the relatively unique type of homeschooling that we all had growing up, was useful in a number of ways for shaping all of us. I’m glad she was crazy enough to do it.

I am a 4-year-college opt-out. Here’s why.

A few days back, a family friend asked when I planned on going to college. I said, “I’m not. At least not right now.” I didn’t have the time to explain my reasoning to her, so I don’t think she understood. But here, I have the time and the words, and I’ll try to explain the reasoning behind this massive and unconventional life choice.

Let’s skip back ten years, to the summer of 2008. My siblings and I are debating with our parents about where to go for dinner. As with most families trying to decide on things, we vote on it. By purely counting heads, the option the kids want should win, but my parents throw a wrench into the rules: “adults get five votes”. Suddenly, the kids are outnumbered.

I don’t mind all that much – I still get free food, after all – but I’m curious as to the reasoning. “So we get five votes when we turn 13?” I ask, being a Jew, who gets her bat mitzvah and becomes an adult at 13. “No,” says my mother, “it would be silly for you to be able to just age into it. You have to earn your five votes. For our purposes, an adult is someone who’s graduated from college.”

From that point onwards, I made it my goal to get into Stanford, where both my parents went, and in fact where they met. It seemed an accomplishable goal: both my parents had gone, and so from a genetic standpoint I had everything I needed. Furthermore, I considered, they were not genetic flukes in terms of intelligence: most of my grandparents had gone to high-end schools. My maternal grandfather went to Harvard, my paternal grandfather to Yale.

I took my first class at my community college at 14, thinking it would up my chances for getting into Stanford if I already had an Associate’s by the time I graduated from high school. My brother, who had decided on a similar track, took the class with me. I wasn’t sure about a major yet, but it also didn’t really matter: there were a ton of prerequisites I had to take, for both high school and college, before I needed to worry about it. So, we took Spanish 1.

I had a great time in that class for a number of reasons. I was absolutely stoked to be going to college, albeit a podunk community college. My professor was great (only later did I find out that this was a blessing rather than a rule), the coursework required a lot of study but was nonetheless fun, and I got awesome grades. I felt I was preparing well to go to Stanford in four years.

The knowledge that I was going to a four-year college, and furthermore, I was going to a top-tier college (Stanford preferably, but Yale, Harvard, or something else comparable would also do), saturated my entire childhood. I made every decision based on what would get me into the colleges I wanted to go to. By my sophomore year, I’d either taken or planned for seven AP tests. When it came time to study for the PSAT, I spent nine months doing so to the near-exclusion of all else. For my Associate’s, I chose only those electives that would prepare me to apply to the colleges I wanted to go to.

Until sometime in the spring of 2018, when everything changed.

Unlike a lot of major life shifts, it didn’t happen slowly. It happened in one fell swoop of three chaotic weeks, as I realized three fundamental things.

Firstly, I was sick of taking classes. It had been four years, and community college courses had turned from a joy to a slog. Seldom did anything I worked on in my courses relate to the real world, and if it did at all, it reflected real-life work through a funhouse mirror. I was close to graduating high school with my Associate’s in computer science, and I felt I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. At last, I thought, I could start doing meaningful work and creating value for real people! Wait, no, I couldn’t. I had to go to college. Didn’t I?

I started to doubt my rationale for pursuing college so ardently. I’d decided I would do it when I was a child, mostly because my parents had both done it. When a child thinks something is worth pursuing, it’s not because they’ve done a cost-benefit analysis and decided that it’s the logical conclusion based on their knowledge and previous experience. A child thinks something is worth pursuing because it sounds impressive, fun, or cool.

Further, societal expectations had pushed me away from questioning the idea of going to college. Even when I questioned the usefulness of college, I needed only to look at any book or article, or to talk to any human being, and I would have my wishes to attend college validated. On top of that, even the people who said college might not be a necessity for everyone continued to say it was the best option for smart people. And given our societal propensity for scoring children on standardized tests, it was always very apparent to me how smart I was, at least from an intellectual standpoint.

But now it became apparent that college was not the best option for me, or even a terribly good one. Everyone knows that the cost of college in dollars is excessively and often prohibitively high, but on top of that, I had to face the opportunity cost. My goals in life, like most other peoples’, had to do with the real world, with making money in real life, with having a career. If I went to college, I would put all that off for four more years. And for what? A name on a résumé and a few connections. The former might not even be necessary: I didn’t know enough about the work world yet to know whether any of my future employers would even care whether I had a degree or not!

Lastly, I realized that I had another option. Sometime in the spring, I heard about a business internship program called Praxis. Their business model: create a more practical college alternative by giving young people a six-month professional bootcamp, followed immediately by a chance to apply what they’ve learned through a six-month internship at a startup.

The process of learning about Praxis was what kickstarted me out on questioning the path I’d presumed my life would take from childhood. I had to face the facts: recently, despite my stated goal and plan for getting into a top-tier school, I was moving towards it like a duty, an obligation. When I was younger, learning had been a joy; now, I yearned to apply what I learned. I had kept going because I saw college as an inevitable end for a smart person like me; if not that, what else?

The answer to that previously-unanswerable question became Praxis. The application process was intensive, with a multitude of essays and interviews on a very tight timeframe, but I came out the other end with a scholarship and a plan. A very different plan than the one I’d had before, but also a plan I liked a lot better. A plan that brought the light at the end of the tunnel closer, instead of further away.

It was still hard to cope with my decision. For the next few months after my turning-point, I doubted myself a lot. It felt horrible that I’d spent so long working monomaniacally towards a goal only to quit at the last second. But I had to remind myself, I wasn’t quitting. I was choosing a better alternative, since I had more information at seventeen than I’d had at eight (surprise surprise!). I reminded myself that the statistics showed the uselessness of college as a preparation for real-world jobs. That tons of people, entrepreneurs especially, became very successful without degrees. That the field I was going into—technology—didn’t have a strict degree requirement (unlike, say, accounting, where you cannot practice without a CPA, and to sit the CPA exam you need ~150 credit hours of college). That Praxis provided me with the sort of community I was hoping to get from a top-tier school.

At the time of this writing, I’m a month into the six-month professional bootcamp. So far, I’ve hand-coded my personal website (the one you’re on right now!), fixed up my LinkedIn and résumé, and created a personal pitch deck (more on that in this article). Everything I’ve done is immediately applicable to my career.

Contrast this with the inapplicable classes and assignments from last year: AP Latin, during which I badly translated texts by Caesar and Virgil that had been translated much better by others, and tried impossibly hard to be a little less horrible at literary analysis; AP English Composition, during which I wrote a ton of essays and analyses I’m never going to publish because the prompts are so obscure and the topics would be boring to read about, and also tried to be a little less horrible at literary analysis; and AP Java, which consisted mainly of writing code on paper, by hand, with a pencil: something no programmer in their right mind ever does.

Finally I’m working on projects and learning skills that will actually matter to me in the long run. While I was in school, I frequently had to say to myself, “This may seem obscure or stupid or useless, but it’s moving me towards my eventual goal, so it’s worth it.” Now, I don’t need to: everything I do has an obvious connection to my goal. I was dreading the next four years of my future; now, I have a fresh start.

I’m looking forward to it.