An Argument for Playing Hooky

Posted by on February 6, 2012 in Education, Featured, World

I’m given a lot of freedom as a teacher in my English as a Second Language classes, but there are some words and expressions I’m not allowed to teach.

Sometimes while waiting for my students to pour into the classroom, I fantasize about writing one of those forbiddens on the blackboard; in big, white chalky letters; like the opening scene of some cliché American film.


The school system is in serious need of some serious absenteeism.
I think about all the frayed ends of half-sewn thoughts I’ve heard over the years from adults that have finally formed a single garment:

“Once you finish school, that’s when the real learning starts.”
“He’s just as smart as you, but he has street smarts.”
“I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” (Mark Twain)
“Let the world be your classroom.”

That single garment is one of those loud, neon t-shirts that a spunky 16-year-old would sport. It’s raised print reads, “Play Hooky.” Most of us would probably brush it off as another snarky teenage act of rebellion – (“one day he’ll grow up and appreciate his education”) – but what if he doesn’t? What if it wasn’t just a t-shirt? What if you heard it from retired American schoolteacher John Taylor Gatto, who famously quit his job in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed after being named New York Teacher of the Year in 1991?

This is what he said: “It is absurd and anti-life to be a part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class.” It prohibits to you from accessing the real diversity and richness of life – those aspects of the “real world” that people keep telling you about that makes things get so much better, yet we are inexplicably required to wait until a pre-determined age to experience it.

Students are told to let the world be their classroom, yet they are required to be in the classroom 10 months out of the year, 7 hours a day. They are given revolutionary thinkers like Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs as examples and then reminded that their educational pathways to success were unorthodox and exceptions to the rule. They are told to think for themselves, yet they are never given the time to do so. Their free time is taken up by homework and extracurricular activities and with the constant accompaniment of televisions, iphones, PSPs, etc., solitude is so overrated.

“Keep in mind that in the U.S. almost nobody who reads, writes, or does arithmetic gets much respect,” Gatto continues. “We are a land of talkers, we pay talkers the most and admire talkers the most, and so our children talk constantly, following the public models of television and schoolteachers. It is very difficult to teach the ‘basics’ anymore because they really aren’t basic to the society we’ve made.” (Case in point: Mitt Romney’s $374,000 annual speaker fees.)

Nevermind the politics, the No Child Left Behind Act and the Race to the Top. Bureaucracy will continue to bulldoze through any and all “viable solutions” without arriving at the conclusion that a total overhaul of our educational system is desperatley needed.

When/if that overhaul does come, I hope it looks something like this innovative school plan in Sweden. In the mean time, teach your kids the virtues of solitude, let them read some John Taylor Gatto, and don’t be too hard on them when you catch them playing hooky. If anything, it’s a good sign that they’re showing their own brand of curiosity for what lies outside their daily holding cell.


Ashley is a friend of anyone who is fighting the good fight for social change. She has worked for environmental advocacy in Montana, poverty eradication in Guatemala, and peace and conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. She now lives in Bilbao in the Basque region of Spain where she teaches International Relations English and is pursuing her Masters in Language Acquisition in Multicultural Settings.

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