Living in the Berkeley Student Cooperative houses from age 18 to 21 was a formative experience for me. The “co-ops” offered community, adventure, new friends, great food, great parties, and an alternative lifestyle that gave flavor to the college experience.
I’ve long desired to recreate the co-op living experience and for other young people, and ZTC offers just that opportunity. So in January 2012 I plan to open a student cooperative house in Asheville, North Carolina, which will enroll 4-6 college-skipping young adults.
The purpose of the house is for a small group of ZTC students to come together and support each other, work together on projects, hold each other accountable to their goals, and create a fun-loving community.
You may read more details on IC.org, but here’s the concept a nutshell:
I just added three new projects to my Projects and Goals page:
You don’t have to always agree with John Taylor Gatto to appreciate his passionate, unique, and well-researched views—all of which are relevant to ZTC. This excerpt from his 2006 article The Richest Man in the World Has Some Advice for Us about College…(P.S. He didn’t take it himself):
North American economies dazzled the world for centuries because they encouraged resourcefulness, individuality and risk-taking to dominate the marketplace, and these qualities were encouraged in everyone, not just in the elites.
Three North American commercial juggernauts are currently blowing away competition all over China: computer hardware and programming, fast food franchising and commercial entertainment (singing, dancing, story-telling, games and all the rest).
Each of these businesses is almost exclusively the work of dropouts, from college, high school and elementary school. They are erected from imagination. Our fast food franchises don’t really sell “food” at all, but two intense tastes – salty and sweet – surrounded by clean, well-lighted places and spotless toilets and primary colors. They sell a return to early childhood and its simplicities.
Our computer world is built upon imagination inscribed on silicon chips on grains of sand. It’s magical. And our entertainment industry, which dominates China and every place else? Assembled from the raw material of people pretending to be who they aren’t and singing their hearts out about emotions some writer made up.
We need to realize what all this means. We need to follow the path opened by our unparalleled jazz domination of the planet.
Over in China, at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music (the oldest continuous music school on earth) they have a hard time believing that jazz can even exist, that with imagination and courage you can hear a piece of music once and ring dazzling changes on it forever.
Jazz writ large has always been the key to North American genius. As David Richardo, the great philosopher of capitalism often said: The road to wealth comes from understanding what it is that you do best, then doing it. It’s time we abandoned the cowardly path of imitating what China and India will do best in the future, realizing that our own security can only be preserved by encouraging imagination.
While the arguments against college are powerful, they often fail to convince people who had a great time in college. That’s because most critics don’t provide constructive alternatives. Yes, college is really expensive; yes, it’s probably not for everyone; but what’s the real alternative for a 19-year-old without tech sector ambitions or a trust fund? How can you replace the invaluable experiences that only seem to happen in college?
To better this answer this question I thought of 10 great things that I got out of my own college years (at UC Berkeley) and asked how realistically—as my 17-to-21-year old self—I could have otherwise found them.
Modern life is full of scientific and statistical claims; learning how to navigate real science from the bullshit serves me in both day-to-day affairs (like choosing nutritious food) and abstract theorizing (like thinking about energy policy). I gained this ability from doing physics lab projects, reading peer-reviewed journal articles, assisting in actual scientific research, and studying the history of science (astronomy in particular). How else could I have gained this sense of scientific competency?
I entered my college years with a preexisting scientific curiosity; I could have fed that by working with a local astronomer and reading top-rated science books (of the kind found in Barnes & Noble) instead of textbooks. To replace the two best courses I took—Introduction to Astrophysics and History of Science—I might have browsed free online lectures and followed their assigned readings. I also could have designed my own experiment (something non-capital-intensive, like measuring the effects of pollutants on a certain California tree species) and asked for mentorship from a college professor or graduate student. In post-college life I’ve found that books, blogs, videos, and good conversation are all I need to keep my science knowledge growing.
Between my childhood and adulthood, websites became essential for promoting any business, community, or idea. The ability to quickly design, build, publish, and maintain a website has been crucially important for my entrepreneurial growth. However this skill didn’t come from college at all; I taught it to myself using online resources. And I would have done the same without school.
Arguably the greatest thing that I gained in college was wordcraft, the result of writing long responses to complex questions, getting them evaluated, and taking feedback. I didn’t take any writing classes; all my assignments came from my liberal arts classes. I worked the hardest in education courses and on my 40-page senior thesis on alternative education. How else could I have gained nonfiction writing skills?
Learning to write demands two factors: lots of reading, and deliberate practice-style writing challenges centered around your interests (which is essentially what my education courses and senior thesis provided). I already loved to read good nonfiction, and I would have done that without college. To find the deliberate practice, I could have taken writing classes independent of college or joined a local or online writing group. Or even better, I could have joined the burgeoning world of blogging and written daily entries about big topics that mattered to me. Through the blog I could get instant writing critique from friends, family, and the internet at large. And unlike college papers, this writing would feel highly useful, practical, and relevant to me. (This is in fact an approach that I’m currently using with a 13-year-old mentee.)
All these I gained from living in democratically run student cooperative house. Unfortunately, such houses are hard to find whether you’re in college or not; I was lucky to join the largest campus cooperative system that exists in Berkeley, CA. To replace the co-op experience I could have directly sought out a cooperative house on IC.org, found a group house on craigslist, or started one myself with friends. (Creating one of these for ZTC students is another current project of mine.)
This was another special feature of UC Berkeley: the DE-Cal program which sponsored student-organized, student-run classes. Through DE-Cal I planned and led three classes in which other undergraduates enrolled and participated for actual college credit (two on alternative education and one on personality typing). How else could I have gained this invaluable experience?
Conferences (specifically unschooling conferences, of which there are 5-8 per year) could have provided opportunities for class/workshop leadership. Not Back to School Camp, where I could have started working earlier, offers workshop and week-long “project” leadership opportunities. Alternative schools, libraries, and community centers provide free venues where I could have offered classes to the general public. I could have gone digital and created a video workshop series and instructional website. Or I could have simply led a DE-Cal course as a sponsored non-student, a loophole of which many San Francisco bay area locals took advantage.
Throughout college I lived a short walk away from the Graduate Theological Union library, a massive collection of books from every world religion. I spent at least a hundred hours flipping through Buddhist and Taoist texts and practicing sitting meditation, walking meditation, and other techniques I found between their pages. Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and wilderness backpacking also fueled this spiritual introspection. But did I need college student status to do these things? Certainly not. The GTU library was open to the public and a loan card was available for a small fee. Unburdened by a school schedule, I could have taken longer backpacking trips. A free 10-day Vipassana meditation course might have been in order. The opportunity to find a belief system that matters to me was (and is) continuously available to me.
In UC Berkeley’s Moffitt library I stumbled upon Marc Reisner’s award-winning book Cadillac Desert: a history of water in the American West. As a California native I was fascinated to learn the twisted history of environmental engineering, shady politics, and narrowly-avoided catastrophe that delivers reliable water to 30-something-million people in the drought-ridden Golden State. Reisner’s book spurred me to further research the story of the West through books, movies, documentaries, and an excellent class on American Environmental History. The truth is that I could (and would) have done this self-directed learning without the help of college. I was just as likely to stumble on to Cadillac Desert outside of UC Berkeley as I was inside, as no professors assigned it to me.
Deep green environmentalism, Marxist socialism, syndicalist anarchism, Austrian school libertarianism, plus regular old conservatism and progressivism: in college, I encountered each of these perspectives and more. And I loved it. Each new political theory was like a set of clothes to be observed, tried on, and seriously considered. Then I discarded the pieces that didn’t fit and kept those that did. My style changed over time with exposure to new people, books, articles, and discussions. Ultimately after a few years of such exposure, I felt that I had an informed and defensible belief system. How else could I have achieved this without college?
For all their vitriol, online forums and blog comment boards are great places to start challenging and building your political beliefs. Were I to purposefully skip college, I could have used online sources to lead me to longer articles and books, and then I could have found a group of people with whom to trade ideas and arguments. The student co-op houses mentioned above would have served this function perfectly.
Frisbee is something that I learned to really enjoy. My dad got me chucking disc when I was young, but I got serious in college. Whether doing trick throws and catches, playing a game of ultimate, or just messing around, I honed my skills by tossing each day with a core group of friends and joining pick-up games on the weekends.
Of course, I could have just as easily done these things without college—all I needed was a bit of social courage, a good field, and a $9 disc. (I recognize that more traditional sports—football, track & field, rowing, etc.—are less easily replaced outside of college.)
Finally, the biggy. In college I learned how to be fully “social.” To me that means, how to:
I did these things in high school, but I simply didn’t like many people at my high school. College was a different story: I liked most people who I met at Berkeley. I immediately found mature, interesting, and inclusive social circles. I enjoyed the parties. I was actually on my own. Without the rich social life that college afforded me, I would not be the same person that I am today. How else could I gained it?
The best answer to this challenging question, I believe, is twofold:
Colleges hold a virtual monopoly on young adult social life; so as I argue elsewhere: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Move to a nice college town. Use craigslist to move into an off-campus student house, join extracurricular groups, get a job, go to house parties, and otherwise crash the college social life. Yes, this is challenging without the pre-baked friendships that college dorms and classes provide. But once you find your “in,” you can become that one with the rest of them. As you know, finding and joining a student co-op (which often offer opportunities for non-students) is my favorite suggestion for an instant, high-quality, college-level social life.
But the deepest friendships come from shared interests and values. Were I to search for a young adult social life without college, I would focus on finding a few really neat subcultures that match my passions. For my age 17-21 self, that would have meant searching for niche communities oriented around backpacking, web design, free schooling, unschooling, summer camps, outdoor education, democratic co-ops, writing, astrophysics, international travel and more. I could have sought out these communities via college/community/online interest groups, regional conferences/gatherings/camps, employment/internship/volunteering, travel/couchsurfing…any opportunity that would have connected me with those who share my interests.
The clever critic will argue that, even if many high-quality alternatives to college are available, how does a college student know that these even exist? In other words: How do you know what you don’t know?
As my 17-to-21 year old self, would I have discovered all of these high-quality activities on my own? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean that without college I would have been condemned to sitting alone and twiddling my thumbs. That’s why mentors, guides, advisors, and experts (aka MAGEs) are vitally important for college skippers. To buck society’s expectations you need the help of people who have done it before.
With the help of a few knowledgeable friends, family, mentors, and advisors, I’m confident that I could have replaced my college experience with self-directed learning. Could you have? What great things did you gain in college, and where else might you have found them? Let me know in the comment section below.