The Teenage Liberation Handbook

This book is radical. It tries to persuade teenagers to drop out of high school — in order to “get a real life and education” as its subtitle says. This is a dangerous thing to give to your child, because there is a significant correlation between amount of formal education and almost any outcome you care about, including longevity, divorce and poverty rates. Yet informal homeschoolers and unschoolers are outside of that measurement, and by most accounts are doing super. As a college dropout myself, I am sympathetic to alternatives to school.

The purpose of this book is to encourage the teen to make their education their own responsibility. They can remain at school, or as a homeschool take only some classes, or find apprenticeships, volunteer, or even skip directly to college. In short they are designing their own self-education, where ever it may happen. Along the way they develop a better idea of themselves and many more life skills then they would in formal school.

Today as the quality of the average public education declines these ideas are not as extreme as when the book was first written in 1991, but they still aren’t as accepted and common as they should be either.

This is a dense, packed book, overflowing with ideas, tips, anecdotes, cautions, and multiple views — all speaking to the teen and not to parents. It does not lay out a 1, 2, 3 plan. It is messy, challenging. The book itself is probably a pretty good filter for whether the idea of self-education is a match for a young person.

Our son petitioned us to be unschooled, and it turned out that one year when he was 12 was sufficient. It was one of the best years in our lives. Yet in his liberation from school, he discovered what learning “on his own” really meant. It’s challenging. He then choose to go to high school, but with a new attitude that he was in charge of how much and how well he learned. That new found responsibility for his own education made that one year of unschooling totally worthwhile.

There is a whole slew of homeschooling textbooks, advice, and well-crafted tutorials. All directed to parents. This is not one of those. This is a scribbled permission slip giving a teenage permission to consider alternatives for their own education. -- Kevin Kelly

The Teenage Liberation Handbook

Sample Excerpts:

This book is a wild card, a shot in the dark, a hopeful prayer.

This book wants you to quit school and do what you love. Yes, I know, that’s the weirdest thing you ever heard. Hoping to make this idea feel possible to you, I tell about teenagers who are already living happy lives without school, and I offer lots of ideas and strategies to help you get a real life and convince your adults to cooperate.

“Excuse me?” you interrupt, “Quit school? Right. And throw away my future and pump gas all my life and get Addicted to Drugs and be totally lost in today’s world. Right.”

If you said that, please feel free to march straight to the nearest schoolperson and receive a bushel of gold stars, extra credit points, and proud smiles. You’ve learned exactly what they taught you. After you get tired of sticking stars to your locker, do please come back and read further.


Suggest a trial run. you could start unschooling in the middle of August, so they have a couple weeks to see how you manage. Also, that would allow you to recover from the previous school year. You could agree that if they’re not satisfied with your way of educating yourself, that you go to school. A drawback to this sort of timing is that you may feel cheated out of your normal summer vacation, and thus not as exhilarated as you would if you quit in, say, October. Also, the whole idea of being watched and evaluated runs contrary to the idea of pursuing interests because you want to. Still, you could probably psyche yourself into it and make it work.


If you are completely confused as to how to start structuring your life, here’s one way: Do “academics” for two hours each day–not necessarily lots of subjects, or the same ones every day. You are not going to dry up in you don’t do 45 minutes every day of “social studies.” Do some kind of “work” or project for four hours. In your leftover time, read, see friends, talk with mom and pop, make tabouli. Take Saturdays and Sundays off. Sound arbitrary? It is. I made it up, although it is based on a loose sort of “average” of the lives of a hundred unschoolers, mostly college-bound. Once you try this schedule for month, you will know how you want to change it.


This book has said a lot of nasty things about school. Now it’s going to say something nice. Schools have darkrooms, weight rooms, computers, microscopes, balance beams, libraries. They have choirs, bands, track teams, maybe even a Spanish class you want to take. Many enterprising homeschoolers have found ways to use the school resources they want without having to endure everything else.

This chapter tells about a few of those ways schools can cooperate with homeschoolers, and gives examples of particular homeschoolers who have taken advantage of school resources. If the schools in your area have never tried anything like this, you can pass this information along to them, and assist them in setting up a program that helps both you and them. Yes, them.


  1. I’d suggest another book, if you can find it: “Stopping Out”. It’s aimed at college students who want to “drop out” while preserving the option of coming back into the college system when they figure out what they want to do with their lives. (Or who want to take time before entering college for the same purpose.)

    College isn’t the right answer for everyone. We _used_ to have a decent vo-tec system in this country (vocataional/technical education) for those who were looking toward skilled trades; that’s largely been eroded, but there are still some excellent vocational programs out there, and respectable schools which will provide the skills needed to enter those trades as more than a drudge trying to learn on the job.

    There’s nothing wrong with organized education. It’s an efficient way to learn. The trick is finding the education which meets your needs.

    The other thing that people miss, when questioning the value of schools, is that the _real_ lesson high school and college teach you is how to learn efficiently even when it’s material you aren’t hugely interested in. If you intend to be any kind of knowledge worker, that’s has far more value than it’s usually credited with.

    1.  …the _real_ lesson high school and college teach you is how to learn efficiently even when it’s material you aren’t hugely interested in.

      Some schools can do this with some people.  Lots of schools fail to do this with lots of people, as the difficulty in learning something you’re not hugely interested is dependent on how related that thing is to what you are hugely interested in.

      And the fact is that schools (high schools and colleges alike) spend a whole lot of time and resources “teaching” things that are not only uninteresting to a significant portion of students, but completely unrelated to the lives they intend to make for themselves.  That’s why there is often more memorizing going on in schools than real learning.

      1. More often, schools utterly fail to explain why and how material *is* related to what students want to do. Sometimes because the teachers don’t know, sometimes because they themselves find it intrinsically interesting.

        1. This is true. I think one reason they have trouble explaining why and how material is related to what students want to do is because it so often isn’t.

          I’m not a big fan of “spoken word,” but this is very impressive (and it speaks to my point!).

  2. I’m not sure about the dropping out of school part, but the book has a lot of neat stuff you should try whether you’re in school or not. It actually fits a lot with the “Maker” approach to the world. 

    1. What is the “Maker” approach anyway?

      I’ve built things from either kits or from scrap since my age was measured with a single digit.  I have a workshop equipped to do everything from building a plastic toy rocket to assembling an automotive engine or rebuilding an automotive transmission.

      Yet, I don’t seem to mesh well with self-identified Makers.  I just do stuff, I don’t really put a label on it nor do I overstate its importance to anyone but myself.  Sometimes friends join me, sometimes not.

  3. I remember this book from the 90’s.  It was very helpful when my daughters were in high school and unhappy about it.  We all read it and were able to frame some options that worked out well in the long run.  Wonder what brought it up to the frothing top of the culture now?

    1.  I was wondering the same thing! I loved this book when it first came out, and seeing it reviewed now got me prematurely excited for an updated edition. The biggest thing that dates this book in my opinion is that it predates online education. Part of the reason why I work for an online school is because I think it fits in with the unschooling model well – it is sort of an intermediate step. If a students is afraid to embrace unschooling right off the bat, moving to an online model with a more flexible schedule allows the student to start practicing greater responsibility for their education while leaving time for the cool projects that interest them and still getting a traditional high school diploma.

  4. I’ve given this book to each of my younger cousins as they turn 14 (I have 23-ish 1st cousins).  Not because I want to see them leave school, but because no one ever presents a rational case for even considering it while you’re in high school.

  5. You do realize this book is out of print and there is a follow up by the author: “Guerrilla Learning: How to Give Your Kids a Real Education With or Without School” by Grace Llewellyn

      1.  I couldn’t find it in print a couple years ago and purchased a used copy. Also have the Guerrilla Learning book.

  6. “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library. – Frank Zappa

    1. As a college graduate with a worthless degree (Computer Science), I think that maybe this book has a point.  

      For those who think I’m crazy:  I “can” make $100k US $ per year IF i live in a very expensive place to live with crazy high taxes, but still have to keep up on the industry constantly, and be on call “just in case”.  With Zero job security.  Instead, I live in a lower cost of living state, pay less in taxes, and put my kids through private school, not for the education, but for the network of influential friends they are making.  

      Now, I work in a field that you wouldn’t normally think of as high paying (and it isn’t for beginners and young people), and although I have to work many evenings, I make almost 80k, have benefits and perks, work less than 40 hours per week, it’s also a union position and I am much happier.  

      Also, my managment is always very very supportive without asking for more from me.

  7. Hey… I’m actually in this book. Way back when I left a “magnet”high school and spent the next 3 years teaching myself, near the end of that Ms Llwellyn contacted me through some mutual friends and had me type up my experience, and Lo it was published in that very book. So yeah, late 80s/early 90s. My comp copy had a totally different cover though.

    1. What do you think of that experience (not going to high school) now? Did you benefit from it? Did everything turn out the way you wanted?

      1. It worked out fine for me. Educationally it was ok to good, long time just fine, I don’t think I am any more or less successful because of it. I guess if you want to be on a high stress high performance business track it might be a hindrance but all the same I ended up going to a good college, have a job that gives me ~6 weeks of paid vacation a year, own a  house and just bought 10 acres of land. Not rich, or even upper middle but living good and pretty content. If I had it to do over? I might have left school earlier actually.

  8. I read this around the time I dropped out of high school.  I don’t recall this book being challenging, but maybe just because it matched my mindset at the time.  What I remember most of all was how much time it spent showing all of the associate-degree paths to meaningful careers. At the time I was frustrated that a book about un-education would spend so much time on formal education, but in later years it came back to me and I’ve always searched for those options.

    The advice in that book served me well, I suppose.  Although I’m about to start grad school, I’m a little bit older and I’ve had tons of self-driven, character building experiences in part because I had this mindset back then.

    I will say this:  There is very little reason to finish high school.  Get a GED and start community college if you are sick of the lack of education you get in high school. I started at community college within 6 months of dropping out because I got bored. Now I’m starting grad school along side brilliant students from Cornell, Tulane, and other great schools. If you are smart and seek out education beyond a GED, that GED will never hurt your job prospects. It never hurt mine. (If you are not smart…finish that high school diploma.)

    1. It’s been my experience that very few that drop-out and get an early GED end up seeking or completing post-secondary education.

      For those that do *complete* post-secondary education there may be rewards greater than simply getting a high school diploma, but for those that *don’t* complete post-secondary education the best that they can claim is that GED, which won’t serve them as well as even a high school diploma.

      In my view, the negatives significantly outweigh the positives given the chances.

      1.  I guess it all depends on what you want in life. There are A LOT of people who finish high school and do shit with their lives as well. In my experience it didn’t really hold me back nor impeded anything significantly. All four of my sisters did similar things education wise and they are no more or less successful then any other random four young people in their area.

        Really if you go this route  the mind set shouldn’t be s/he “dropped out”, if that is the underlining attitude going into it yeah no wonder their education stopped there. But if  you actively take control of your education, which is what this book advocated for, you can become a much better educated individual.

         If you show up to a job interview and dress sloppily and act dopy it doesn’t really matter if you have the GED or HS diploma , conversely you show up and know your stuff and are articulate and can speak to life experiences you got a good shot at it. 

  9. A friend of mine gave me a copy of this book. It was recommended to him by the late Aaron Swartz. I’m generally in favour of a more structured homeschooling approach but the book is an interesting read. 

  10. My representative in the state House is a home-schooled right-winger who is utterly unaware of his own ignorance.  Being in school, and being forced to interact with people who think differently, might have given him exposure to different ideas. 

    1. Yea, it was my impression that most of the home schoolers are religious nuts. Is that not correct?

       The two kids who got home schooled in my neighborhood when I was a kid were religious nuts.  No idea how they turned out.  They seemed very… socially fragile as children.  Attempts to play when them frequently ended poorly (I was older than them, so just saw this happen repeatedly).

      I would never want to home school my kids.  It seems horribly isolating.  Would probably be better if I were more gregarious, however.  I could see it as a temporary thing, for one reason or another, however.Really the whole idea seems nightmarish unless the family is very social.  Lots of extended family, neighborhood friends, church community (but not crazy-church).

      Maybe less of an issue for teenagers, as opposed to pre-teen’s.

      I definitely support the idea of significant time off after high-school or during college.  I didn’t do that myself, but maybe it would have been good.

      Part time school is an interesting option as well.

  11. I’d like to see the evidence of schools & education getting worse & worse. I teach at-risk youth who are returning to school in downtown Toronto & have to tell you that I’m envious of the education they’re getting. If only the teachers i had were as inspired & talented as the people i work with. There are great teachers & programs out there doing incredible things. To blindly say education is getting worse is misinformation & disingenuous.

    1. I think there’s an argument to made that at least in some places (particularly in America) education is becoming more standardized. That doesn’t necessarily make it worse, but it does mean that students with different learning styles may get left out of the loop. 
      If a kid can take charge of their own education, then more power to them. I’m going back to school right now, eleven years after college, and I’m loving it. Online classes and my own curiosity are giving me drive and flexibility. Being able to shape my education and my future path are empowering. But I’m all grown up now. (and being treated for previously undiagnosed anxiety and ADHD.) No way could I have handled an environment this unstructured as a teenager.

  12. I think a person’s reasons for dropping out play an important factor in how successful the rest of their life will be. If they drop out because they are lazy or prefer to take drugs, then the arc of their life is predictable. If they drop out because they have a burning ambition to do something or just feel stifled by school, then they may be the next Steve Jobs.

    I dropped out of college and it’s worked out great for me, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. Life tends to be easier if you play by the rules and follow the safe path everyone else does. For the majority of people, this is the best option.

  13. I would approach this with caution.  Dropping out of formal education is not a good choice for most.  I did that in 1976 and it worked out great for me.  Today I volunteer with “at risk” youth in an attempt to pay forward some good into society.  Most of the kids I work with, age 12-18, live in public housing with unemployed, drug and/or alcohol addicted parents.  Those not in public housing live in multi-generational homes with 15-20 to a home.  All of these kids have difficulty reading and many can’t read at the 5th grade level.  The public schools suck but dropping out is just about the worst thing any of these kids could do.  Unless one has basic skills to educate themselves they should stick with traditional schooling. 

  14. “Yet informal homeschoolers and unschoolers are outside of that measurement, and by most accounts are doing super.”

    By whose accounts? This is just as much of a goofy generalization as saying that public schools are wretched hives of scum and villainy and we need to let the free market take over.

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