Follow the normal path

Here’s an email I received last night:

Dear Mr. Walsh,

I’m a public school guidance counselor and I am aware of your work. Im writing to tell you that you shouldn’t be so open about your opinions regarding college… I get that you don’t think all kids should necessarily go to college and that’s fine if that’s your opinion. But it could be dangerous for you to be so open about it… It might not be for everyone but IDEALLY all kids will follow the normal path.

Please consider becoming an advocate for education rather than an opponent of it. I’m afraid you may be doing serious damage in your community.



Well, I have been lectured by many a guidance counselor in my day, but I have to admit that I thought it would stop after I graduated high school. At least this one didn’t tell me that I need to be on medication.

This email of course represents an extremely common attitude. And that’s what makes it so disturbing on so many levels. I think we should all naturally cringe when any government worker uses the phrase “follow the normal path”. In fact, “follow the path” sounds like the title of a Scientology seminar or something. Sorry, that’s not a fair comparison. I mean, we’re talking about a bizarre cult that preaches pseudo-science, fabricated history, hedonism and false salvation. But enough about public school.

I admit that I am guilty of being both an idealist and a radical, so maybe that explains why I am so horrified at the notion of putting all kids on a preordained “normal path”. It’s normal, but is it good? Or is it good because it’s normal? And in order to put all kids on the “normal path” don’t we first have to make them “normal” themselves? We certainly can’t have any pesky abnormal specimens on our normal path, can we? After all, they might be “too open” about their “dangerous” ideas, and next thing you know they’re causing everyone else to develop some critical independent thinking skills! Oh the horror! Dear God, they might even stop taking their pills and start exploring their own unique and creative potential! Someone, quick, double their dosage and turn on the TV!

Look, there is only one “path” we should ALL be walking down, and that’s the path of truth and virtue. But — because truth is as real and as wide as the universe itself — that path can come in a billion different forms. It’s a damn crime that we only allow our kids to follow one particular form of it. And we do it, not because it’s necessarily best, or right, or the most fulfilling, but just because it’s “normal”. And it’s normal because that’s what everyone does. And everyone does it because it’s normal. And the circle spins round and round and round.

The saddest thing is that these kids come out of high school and their lives have been planned for them for so long that they truly don’t comprehend, and they certainly don’t take advantage of, the freedom they now have. I don’t mean the freedom to get drunk and play video games all day. I mean the freedom to actually DO something. Anything. They have no kids (hopefully), no dependents, no spouse, no mortgage, nothing tying them down or constricting them. They could go anywhere, pursue any dream, explore anything, take any risk, set out on any journey. Yet we force them to squander this moment by quickly putting them back on “the normal path” and shipping them along the conveyor belt to the next facility.

The normal path is fine for normal people. But your kid might not be normal. Try seeing that as the beautiful thing that it is. And then try letting your abnormal kid try an abnormal thing.

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3 Responses to Follow the normal path

  1. mrz80 says:

    Hmm… food for thought, that

  2. Word Warrior says:

    Your piece, “Kids Go to College or You’ll Die…” is what got me started (er, captivated) here. I’ve written a number of posts trying to bring some sanity to the discussion of “college is normal and you’re not if you don’t go”. Sacred Cow, that is, just like the government school system.

    Here’s the train of thought I’ve been on since homeschooling and unraveling my thoughts on education: there are HEAPS of subjects kids are compelled to take that add to a waste of time and not much else. (Which consequently *have* to be taken to jump through the hoops to go to college, another reason we should be suspicious.)

    Consider: why do we teach our children long division? Couldn’t we save a lot of time and learn something more important if we just started out teaching them how to use a calculator, the only thing they will ever use to do long division?

    Maybe you could write a post on all the wasted time on non-necessary subject matter.

  3. littlehouseofpenguins says:

    I have to disagree with you, Word Warrior. I think that knowing how to do various mathematical steps oneself is crucial to understanding what is going on with the higher math, even if those steps themselves aren’t something that you uses a lot in everyday life. (I do happen to frequently do long division in my head for all sorts of purposes, anything from figuring out how many chapters of a textbook my daughter should do a week in order to finish in a year, to figuring out which grocery item is the better deal.)

    I think it’s hard to say in the elementary school and middle school years just what is important and what isn’t. So much of it depends on the child. There’s definitely a certain amount of education that makes for a good well-rounded individual (I firmly believe that even an accountant should know what chlorophyll is and how to write an essay), but in the high school years and beyond, I think it’s okay for kids to start focusing a bit, at least on the general subject areas that they’re interested in. Before that, though, I think it’s hard for kids to be able to truly figure out what kind of subject they really need to study, as they can be so easily influenced by a course that has a fun or boring teacher, or the specific curriculum the school uses.

    Matt, I think you have a good point about the “normal” path. And it does penalize people who don’t follow it. Even if you, say, take a year or two off to do some missionary work, and then apply to colleges, you are penalized because you aren’t applying right from high school. And of course, there are many challenging degrees that don’t require high school education (they may require trade school or on-the-job training, just not college), and some of them pay as well as college degrees, but without the student debt!

    I think one of the biggest disservices we do to kids is to encourage them to go to college without knowing what they want to do. There should be no “undecideds” in college. Or, at least, they should only be students who haven’t entirely narrowed down their specific degree, but already know in general what they should do. If you have no idea what you want to do, why would you want to spend $20,000 a year taking classes that might not even help you on your way? I would personally encourage my kids, and any other kids who came to me for advice, to wait for college until they knew what they wanted to do, and to try to graduate with no debt, either by saving up before they go, or by working during school, whatever it takes. And to analyze whether that $80,000 or whatever degree will actually make them earn enough more in the marketplace (taking into account those 4 lost years of work time) to be a good choice.

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