Secondary - School’s Damaging Priority Paradigm By Tirzah Duncan
Having been unschooled my whole life, I find the
importance placed on school to be baffling. Adults seem determined to impress
upon children the idea that everything else is secondary, that there is
no higher good than completing your homework and reaping good grades. “Be
good, stay in school,” has been said to the point of cliché, and to the
point that “being good” is considered synonymous with “staying in school.”
I am most exposed to this paradigm during November
or, as I think of it, National Novel Writing Month. The challenge of the
NaNoWriMo program is to write 50,000 words, an entire novel, in thirty days.
At a rate of 1,667 words per day, this is difficult but doable, and… not
as important as finishing your English homework, apparently.
To the parents of many high school students trying
to write a book, this great literary undertaking is entirely secondary to
the letters teachers will mark on their children’s report cards.
Other age groups have their frustrations. Browsing
the online forums for NaNoers in their twenties to forties, especially,
I’ve found people venting frustrations about work, kids, and spouses making
it difficult to find writing time. But only in the teen forums have I found
so much evidence of a wholehearted hostility towards the writer’s efforts.
I’ve come to avoid visiting those particular forums;
it’s depressing to see what so many of my fellow teen-aged novelists have
to contend with. It feels like every other post has been about how 1) the
young writers are drowning in homework, and/or 2) their parents don’t understand
what they’re trying to accomplish.
There is a spectrum within these hardships, naturally.
There are the parents who are excited for their kids to be doing NaNo and
are perhaps even doing it themselves – but most of these want to be sure,
of course, that homework doesn’t fall by the wayside. Then there are the
parents who don’t really care what crazy things the kids do in their free
time, so long as they don’t slack on schoolwork. And worst, there are the
parents that actively oppose the creative undertaking, insisting that their
children should focus on school, not writing books.
The most damaging thing about this attitude in adults
is their idea that school is supreme, and all else is secondary: the idea
that school is so vital to success in life that living and learning and
following or finding passions and reaching impossible goals are only viable
if school comes first.
There’s a particularly tragic incident I heard about
a few years ago. To paraphrase from memory, the girl, a first-time NaNoer,
had just completed the 50,000 word challenge. Drifting about in that stunned
golden haze that accompanies the end of an impossible project, she found
her mom and told her, “Mom, I just finished my novel,” to which her mom
replied, “That’s nice. Did you finish your homework?”
Did you finish your homework?!
A child does something that most people, for lack
of discipline and drive, will never do, and the answer to it is did you
finish your homework? Are we so busy writing reports on the classics of
yesterday that there’s no time to write the classics of tomorrow?
But what if these teens aren’t writing “literature”?
What if they’re writing terrible fan-fiction or gory imitations of their
favorite pop-culture novels? That’s great: They’re writing a book! Even
if they don’t find that they have passion for writing – NaNoWriMo is how
I found my life’s calling – there are still rewards.
Many who have finished, teens and adults alike, have
said that completing the 50,000 word challenge showed them that can do anything
they set their minds to. They discovered that by breaking down a gargantuan
task and tackling it every day, they can accomplish the impossible. But
gaining self-discipline and self-confidence is quite secondary to turning
in that essay on Napoleon, reads the paradigm.
Besides this, I don’t think people are taking into
account the research that goes into noveling. These kids will research the
battle of Waterloo of their own volition, if they’re writing a historical
novel set in Belgium in 1815. And it’s not just the historical fiction writers
who look things up. I’ve heard people carry on quite happily about all the
super-cool things they’ve learned, perhaps about theoretical physics and
wild canine habits (for their werewolf science fiction thriller, of course),
or maybe they’ve found out what A Midsummer Night’s Dream is all
about (since their romance’s dreamboat protagonist is a theater kid). That
kind of learning will stick with them.
So far, I’ve mostly written fantasy. Because of my
NaNo projects, I’ve read books on writing, grammar, and the art of punctuation,
as well as books on history, warfare, and politics. I’ve spent hours researching
weapons and psychology, terrain and travel, metal- working and hide-tanning,
sled dogs and winter survival, and plenty more. I’ve learned so much more
than if I’d been forced to study the very same subjects. Guess what? That’s
what happens when people follow their passions. But society would have us
remember that learning is quite secondary to finishing all that social studies
I’ve not even touched on the obvious fact that writing
a novel is a creative endeavor, a chance for people to stretch the wings
of their imagination. If the participants have never even penned a short
story, it’s an opportunity to see if they might like writing. If they’ve
written before, just never anything so huge, it’s a time for them to push
the boundaries of their artistic comfort zone. If they’re novelists, but
they’ve never written anything so fast, it’s a chance for them to see what
happens when they have to put words down faster than their inner editor
can snatch them back.
And whether they’re a first-timer or a seasoned veteran,
they’re going to have the first draft of a novel at the end of the month.
Surely that’s worth something, isn’t it? Only if school comes first, say
too many parents and teachers. Art, craft, passion, knowledge, self-discipline,
self-confidence, and self-motivation: These are the things that the priority
paradigm tells us are secondary to schooling.
There are students who have wrangled class credit
for their novel, and I’m glad for them. There are now 20,000 classrooms
participating in NaNo programs for school, which thrills me – so long as
it remains optional. There’s no better way to put someone off of noveling
than forcing them through 50,000 words of it!
The thing that disturbs me isn’t the lack of noveling
in schools. It’s the mindset that school is more important than noveling.
Indeed, school is assumed to be more important than any non-curricular inclination
or passion a child might have.
If a student just climbed Mt. Whitney, or finished
an online course on understanding the stock market, or built a dugout in
their backyard complete with electricity and plumbing, or launched an ad
and design company, or perhaps has done all of the above and written a novel
in the past year—that’s nice. But did they finish their homework?
If for whatever reason, you can’t free your child
from under the pile of schoolwork, or if the children you see struggling
are not your own, do all you can to tell them the truth: Next to life, school
is entirely secondary.
Tirzah Duncan, aged nineteen when she
wrote this article in 2012, is a thoroughly unschooled fantasy writer. She
spent her childhood dashing after whatever fascinated her, which mostly
consisted of online games, books, Scotland, business, and martial arts.
Then she fixed upon writing, and has been working to make a career of it
ever since. You can check out her work at her
website, or at her