Not letting school interfere with your education

A common slogan of the school-of-life, experiential-learning-based Unschooling Movement is Mark Twain’s “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” (See, for example, here.)

And, indeed, it’s natural to picture Mark Twain getting his real education first as a Tom Sawyer-like boy playing hooky along the banks of the Mississippi, and then, after dropping out of school at the age of 11, as a printer’s apprentice, a steamboat pilot, and a silver miner out in Nevada. But what this narrative leaves out is what Twain did when he wasn’t at work. According to his Wikipedia entry, Twain “educated himself in public libraries in the evenings, finding wider information than at a conventional school.”

Wider information than at a conventional school: this casts Twain’s famous adage in a whole new light. Instead of seeing him rafting or steamboating down the Missippi, we now see him sitting at a lamp-lit library table, engrossed in Carlyle’s French Revolution or William Edward Hartpole Lecky’s History of European Morals.

Even Tom Sawyer, who, when asked by his Sunday school teacher for the names of the first two apostles, famously calls out “David and Goliath,” is better read than many students today. Here he is playing hooky with his friend, quoting lines memorized from a book about the adventures of Robinhood:

Just here the blast of a toy tin trumpet came faintly down the green aisles of the forest. Tom flung off his jacket and trousers, turned a suspender into a belt, raked away some brush behind the rotten log, disclosing a rude bow and arrow, a lath sword and a tin trumpet, and in a moment had seized these things and bounded away, barelegged, with fluttering shirt. He presently halted under a great elm, blew an answering blast, and then began to tiptoe and look warily out, this way and that. He said cautiously—to an imaginary company:

“Hold, my merry men! Keep hid till I blow.”

Now appeared Joe Harper, as airily clad and elaborately armed as Tom. Tom called:

“Hold! Who comes here into Sherwood Forest without my pass?”

“Guy of Guisborne wants no man’s pass. Who art thou that—that—”

“Dares to hold such language,” said Tom, prompting—for they talked “by the book,” from memory.

“Who art thou that dares to hold such language?”

“I, indeed! I am Robin Hood, as thy caitiff carcase soon shall know.”

“Then art thou indeed that famous outlaw? Right gladly will I dispute with thee the passes of the merry wood. Have at thee!”


The boys dressed themselves, hid their accoutrements, and went off grieving that there were no outlaws any more, and wondering what modern civilization could claim to have done to compensate for their loss. They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.


In an age in which presidents leave no child behind and compulsory education extends through age 16, a more up-to-date image of a child not letting school interfere with his education shows that child secretly reading Gulliver’s Travels or Popular Science behind his Pearson Leveled Reader, his Everyday Math Student Math Journal—or (if possible) his Common Core Ipad Initiative tablet.

In an archived blog post, Joanne Jacobs writes:

I went through school before the invention of “gifted and talented education.” There was no tracking till high school. I read in class, which made it possible to go through 10 books every two weeks. (When the library gave us three weeks, I started reading longer books.) It’s the core of my education. 

Most of the best-educated people here in America were and are voracious independent readers, and most of what they read is (or was) in addition to, or instead of, what’s assigned at school. We might think of accomplished people who “didn’t let school interfere” as free-spirited geniuses who spent their youths tinkering and daydreaming. But, for most of them, book learning was key, and the careful, organized reading and rereading, concentration, and recall practice that this requires, requires, in turn, great discipline.

Nor is reading the only way in which those who become highly educated in spite of school, in fact, show much more discipline than those who merely pay the kind of attention, and do the kind of work, that classroom teachers expect of them. I know mathematicians who taught themselves calculus in middle school; writers who wrote and self-edited notebook upon notebook of prose as tweens; and painters who, as teenagers, painstakingly copied scores of great paintings—all on their own initiative. In the process, these people also experience more structure and direct instruction than most kids do in today’s classrooms.

As Mike S writes in his comment on Joanne Jacobs’ post about the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman:

Feynman was terribly bored in high school physics, and so his teacher took him aside and gave him a graduate level book on advanced calculus. Feynman would ignore the class and sit off to the side working through the extremely difficult problem sets.

Nor do autodidacts eschew things like regurgitation and drill. Benjamin Franklin reports teaching himself how to write by reconstructing model texts from memory; other polymaths I know regularly use flashcards.

Ironically, at a time in which schools claim to be following child-centered learning principles, it’s getting harder and harder for children to not let school interfere with their education. New obstacles include:

1. Increased homework loads, increased busywork within those homework assignments (such that smart kids can’t just breeze through them quickly), the growing influence of homework completion (as opposed to final exam grades) on course grades, and the growing competition for spots at the best colleges. All these make it harder for those who aspire to the top colleges to find time for extra-curricular activities.

2. The rise of pod-based seating arrangements, hands-on and group-based activities, teachers circulating through the classroom instead of mostly standing at the front of it, and the decline of textbooks and workbooks. All these make it harder to sneak your own books behind those textbooks and workbooks and secretly learn on your own.

3. The growing resistance to letting kids work independently and get ahead of their peers academically. Very few teachers today would do for a budding science genius what Feynman’s teacher did for him.

The rise of computers and tablets in the classroom, you might think, would open up broad new realms for self-teaching—assuming the school’s firewall doesn’t block information-rich sites like Wikipedia. All the distractions of the Internet, however, make Internet-based self-teaching workable only for the most self-disciplined of autodidacts. Also, classroom technology is increasingly turning grade school classrooms into Panopticons in which the teacher can monitor everything that goes on. We have software that projects onto the teacher’s desktop computer what’s happening on every student’s screen tracks where students are looking and what kinds of facial expressions they are displaying in response.

In short, however student-centered our schools claim to be, it’s getting harder and harder for today’s kids to not them interfere with their education.

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