Valuing a Different Kind of Education

This piece was written back in July, for a writing project that ended up being shelved for the time being. So, I thought I'd share it here instead! A look at how I value (or don't value) the uniqueness of my education.


I had an epiphany about my own relationship to my learning and education recently. This came about after a couple of different minor events.

First, I had a lovely exchange with a reader. They referred to me as a “successful young professional,” and continued to say that “I guess my definition of success (at least what I had in mind when I was writing to you) is that it is based on the connections you've made with the fellow people in your field, the ideas you offer to your field, and your mastery of the subject. Your blog has allowed you to make those connections and get those ideas out there. And considering that you've been unschooling for more than awhile, I assume you are, at the very least, on your way to mastery.” I was taken aback, never having been referred to as a “professional” before, and flattered that someone thought I seemed so successful.

Secondly, after my parents had spent the day with some old friends they hadn’t seen in a while, I nervously asked what they’d said about me and my recent pursuits. How did they make me sound? I wondered did I come across as successful, or a real loser?

The next day, in the car with both parents, I got in a conversation about school and work. I said that I couldn’t see myself taking courses in non-fiction writing through a university, because I felt for the most part they were teaching a style of writing and communication that is somewhat outdated, as I don’t think most universities (and the professors who teach at them) have fully embraced the changes that the internet and blogging has brought. I also talked about how outdated traditional CV’s and resumes are becoming, as increasingly what’s important is building some type of online portfolio, especially when showcasing any type of work that you can fairly easily do without any type of degree or diploma. Experiences are now starting to matter more than degrees, I said.

Later that day, the epiphany came. I thought, wait a second, I say all this, but I don’t actually believe it when it comes to myself. Over the last couple of years, I’ve become expert at making myself sound as traditionally successful as possible. “I worked catering last year,” I say. “I’m considering going to culinary school.” I tell people “I was homeschooled,” and try to assure them that I turned out perfectly fine.

I’ve become invested in making myself seem as normal as possible.

I didn’t set out to do that, and in part I ended up doing so just out of a desire for privacy. Why should I expose my life and choices to the judgement of near strangers? I thought. 
"Normal" sisters? I don't know about normal,
but I think we're pretty cute regardless!

That’s not the only reason, though. There’s a part of me that feels ashamed of my background. Ashamed of what I haven’t done. Namely that I haven’t worked in a “normal” job, ever, or ever been financially independent. Ashamed that, at 23, I don’t have more to show for myself.

This has lead to a series of attempts to at least try and look successful, even if I don’t feel like I’m actually that successful.

I suppose this says something about how deeply embedded these cultural messages are, that someone with my background in education, who regularly talks about how great self-directed learning, unschooling, and skipping college is, can so blithely fall into a trap of judging my own success by such rigid standards.

Not only is this bad for my self-esteem, it’s also bad for my success. If I really believe in everything I say, which intellectually I do, then I need to actually start acting like it.

I have been successful in many ways. I’ve built an extensive online portfolio, in the form of archived blog posts and a personal website chronicling various pursuits and experience. I’ve had my work published in various alternative education magazines, journals, and even a book, and have spoken at several conferences. I’ve turned down some media interviews and accepted others, and I’ve had many people express that my work has impacted their lives in a meaningful way. I’ve met and talked to people doing similar work whom I admire and who provide inspiration to me.

All this is to say that I’ve created a body of work that is appreciated by lots of people in specific alternative education circles, all while feeling really positive and excited about the work I was doing.

In Blake Boles’ book College Without High School, one of the suggested Zero Tuition College “assignments” is to “become a public intellectual.” Expanding on what that entails, he writes: “public intellectuals research, think, talk, and write about a social problem but don’t necessarily hold formal credentials. They spread their messages via blogs, websites, books, magazines, podcasts, videos, and other media platforms.” I told my sister, Emilie, “apparently I’m a public intellectual.” she laughed. “That sounds amazingly pretentious,” she added.

It does sound more than a little pretentious, it’s true. But it’s the first time I’ve seen essentially what I’ve been spending the usual university years doing laid out as a desirable and worthwhile alternative to college or university.

It’s also yet another reminder, among the many that lead to my aforementioned epiphany, that what I’ve done in my life, so far, is not just important and meaningful, but “marketable.”

When I strive so hard to make myself seem more normal, my choices more conventional, and my experiences more in line with my traditionally schooled age-peers, I lose out on an opportunity to not just sound more impressive, but share the genuinely cool accomplishments I’ve made and experiences I’ve had.

My unique background is an asset, not a weakness. A reason people might find me interesting to talk to at the least, or offer me amazing opportunities at the most. The reputation and body of work I’ve built for myself can continue to be both meaningful and challenging, as well as leading to money making opportunities (either through opportunities I create myself, or through a potential employer wanting to hire me based on my experience).

Perhaps all this should have been obvious. Bits and pieces have been, at different times. I’ve been proud of some work, greatly valued some experiences, knew that some of what I had done was important to others.

But I didn’t really value the unconventionality of my lack-of-college experience, or appreciate just how much I’ve gained by doing things differently.

After having the thought that I was ashamed by what I hadn’t done over the last few years, I was quickly flooded by excitement at the idea that I could speak with pride about what I had done.

Such a simple yet profound shift, to go from “look at all I haven’t done” to “look at everything I have done.”

Whether you’re a teen or grown unschooler, an unschooling parent, or a young adult who’s chosen to forego college or university, I think it’s important that we cultivate just such a mindset. It’s so easy to get caught up in comparing ourselves to those who are doing things more traditionally, but we do a great disservice to ourselves when we do that. In focusing instead on the value in the true uniqueness of our experiences and education, we can instead be proud of what we’ve done and how we’ve chosen to “get an education” in our lives so far. Feeling confident in the skills we’ve gained and things we’ve done outside of school seems important to me primarily because of how much better it is for my emotional well being. But it’s certainly also of great benefit being able to share that confidence with others. If you’re secure in the worth of your unique experiences, work, and skills, you’re going to be better able to present yourself and your accomplishments to the important people in your life, and better able to turn your skills into ways to earn money, make important connections with people doing work you admire, and build a life that feels truly successful to you.

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