Smart Kids in Distress

Posted Mar 8, 2005
Last Updated Nov 8, 2011

Over the years I have spent a lot of my time contemplating the idea of education. Some of my favorite authors were obsessed with education, such as John Dewey. While my passion to discuss and/or debate the topic has waned over the last few years, the importance of it in my life has not waned.

Yesterday I was driving with a successful entrepreneur who marveled over the cost of collegiate tuition. We both questioned if higher education was really worth the time and money so many people put into it. But our talk was academic, both figuratively and literally—we are grown men who look at formal education as something for the young.

Then last night I finished some programming and received an email from a young person that brought my mind back to the topic. I’ve received enough of these emails now to realize that some of the views I’ve expressed over the years on education are shared amongst others.

Typically, the emails I receive from young people about education state that they are often bored or unchallenged—they mirror the sentiment I had as a student that school is mostly a game rather than an educational journey. It seems that free thinking and artistic students have the hardest time in schools… perhaps because their minds have more appreciation for abstract paradigms than less creative students.

I sympathize with these students. But then I pause when they ask for advice on how to approach their schooling. I don’t feel it would be responsible for many students to follow the same path I took by dropping out of school, not because I am ashamed of my education—but because the path I took was very difficult. I hope that most students avoid some of the mistakes I made as a student.

So I want to offer a little bit of fatherly advice for young thinkers and artists that are struggling in school.

When I was still in high school, I expressed to teachers my feeling that school was not giving me what it was supposed to give—education. I started to rebel. Then a sympathetic teacher said to me, "You have to pick and choose your battles.” He said that some battles are not worth the effort because such battles don’t affect the outcome of larger wars.

It didn’t really sink into my teenage mind. I was so aggravated with my schooling that I ignored his comment and clashed heads with other teachers and administration at an increasing frequency. I thought I would make a point by taking a stand.

Unfortunately, my actions burned bridges rather than made allies. Instead of commanding respect (as I hoped) I lost credibility among teachers. Teachers, who are inundated with hundreds of students, don’t have time for an argumentative student questioning their curriculum. As a student, I resented the fact. Now, as an adult full of responsibilities that often force me to balance efficiency against effectiveness, I can sympathize with the plights of the teachers.

Don’t make enemies. Turning your teachers into enemies is the worst thing you can do as a bright and artistic student. While the teachers may not give you the attention you deserve, they are still valuable resources to you. They may not be able to devote time to your needs, but they can help you on your way with advice and recommendations. Making an enemy of a teacher only makes your time harder—because she might be less inclined to help you as time goes on, and she may start going out of her way to get rid of you.

Play the Game better. While you may have come to see school as a game… don’t let it totally demoralize you. Instead of feeling depressed about it, try to use it to your advantage. Instead of giving up on your work, do it and do it well. Let the teachers know how well you can do their tasks not with derisive comments but instead with excellent reports and projects. Remember, actions speak louder than words. Prove to the teachers you can excel… you never know, it might get your teacher to respect you more!

Study Independently. You should not expect your high school to teach you everything that you’ll ever need to know. It wasn’t designed to do that. In fact, there are a lot of things school was simply never set up to do… and it’s something that really tripped me up as a student. It makes sense that the largest portion of school focuses on the basic/general aspects of education because those are the things most people will need in their lives. It’s up to you to go to libraries and websites and bookstores to find information on the subjects that interest you; the moment you feel like you know your calling in life, start studying it tirelessly on your own time. If possible, find a professional in the career you want to pursue, and get under his/her wings.

Don’t Drop Out. I am not ashamed for dropping out of school. However, you have to understand that I don’t recommend you do it. In fact, I won’t let my children drop out. I expect them to excel with their studies in and out of the classroom. Dropping out of high school automatically puts a social stamp on your name that is hard to avoid. The reason I want my kids to get a high school diploma has nothing to do with what a diploma signifies; I insist they get a diploma to avoid the stigma I’ve had to contend with over the years.

That’s really the gist of my advice. And I know it’s not a great set of revelations. I know that some young people might feel let down… but really I think it’s the best advice to follow if you struggle in the way I did during high school. Keep in mind that you are not as alone as you think… that others have felt the same as you do; remember that no matter how lame school may seem, it can be as much an opportunity as you allow it to be—even when it fails to fulfill some of your deepest expectations.

I do hope that more educators start wondering why so many of the creative students that pass through high school end up fading from school halls rather than leaving with their diplomas. I don’t know if there is any reliable measure of what percentage of creative/artistic students end up dropping out (young musicians, artists, poets), but if there were a measure it would be interesting to see the statistics. It seems in my experience as a journalist with a leg in the arts scene that many of the talented and passionate artists in the world were rejected from the standardized system.

I doubt there is really any finger to point, actually. It’s just the way our culture has evolved. But I hope that the schools take note of the trend and do as much as they can to recognize the distinct struggle that young artists and thinkers sometimes face in school. I am sure there are things that teachers (and parents) can do to help students face challenges rather than encourage students to run away from their struggles—something that teachers and parents do unconsciously by being unaware of the struggles.

Learning Approaches

Essays dealing with the often heated debates on learning styles.

  1. Some thoughts on learning
  2. Smart Kids in Distress


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