An Absence of Books: One Teen’s Lament about Today’s Education


In this age of hyperbole, here is something that actually is amazing. It’s an essay from Ruby LaRoca, who won the high-school essay contest at The Free Press, with her article called “A Constitution for Teenage Happiness.” 

Ruby recommends reading old books, memorizing poetry and inviting senior citizens to parties. (Which of course made me think, “That’s what a good church does!” We read from a really, really old book every week. Occasionally, we invite people to memorize stuff. And there are plenty of senior citizens to be friends with.)

Anyhow . . . get a load of the opening paragraphs of Ruby’s essay on why she bailed on high-school: “When people ask me why I sacrificed the sociable, slightly surreal daily life at my local school for the solitary life of a homeschooled student in 2021, I almost never reveal the reason: an absence of books.

“For many students, books are irrelevant. They ‘take too long to read.’ Even teachers have argued for the benefits of shorter, digital resources. Last April, the National Council of Teachers of English declared it was time ‘to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education.’

“But what is an English education without reading and learning to write about books?

“Many of our English teachers instead encouraged extemporaneous discussions of our feelings and socioeconomic status, viewings of dance videos, and endless TED Talks. So five days into my sophomore year, I convinced my mother to homeschool me.”

Without ever saying it straight-up, Ruby’s five-part prescription for teenage happiness is a stirring protest against the ruling gods of contemporary culture, deities that are driving so many teens (and adults) into a ditch of depression and chronic anxiety: speed, competition, information, convenience, and self-absorption.

She compares always having a phone in your pocket to always having a glazed donut handy. “Having a phone in your pocket is like always carrying around a glazed donut that constantly tempts you to snack on it—but if you do, you know it will ruin your appetite.”

In her final paragraphs she quotes a friend who wishes “there were higher standards for us.” She doesn’t mean having a resume that outdoes every one of one’s peers, or winning the rat-race by getting into one of “the best” most-competitive colleges, followed by a six figure job (or more) in the tech world. She means learning and loving to learn. She means becoming a humane human being. Here’s Ruby:

“My roommates at Latin summer school, a group of some of the kindest and sanest teenagers I have ever met, agree that most of their friends are unhappy and anxious.

“‘I wish there were higher standards for us,’ said one. Another declared, ‘I wish we had higher expectations for what we learn.’ Teenagers actually crave self-guided, unstructured time and the kind of rigor in school that makes you feel energized, not enervated.”

Thank you, Ruby LaRoca, for being a teenage truth-teller.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. In these modern times, graduating from high school is about was worthless as being vice president of the United States. A bucket of warm spit…..

    At 16 your could start an apprentice program to be a plumber…. you could go to community college and earn college credits….. you go work on an organic farm somewhere, earn you GED and go to some small non-completive college after that.

    The data shows college grads making a lot more money, but there isn’t much of a gap between competitive colleges and your 2nd or even 3rd class run-of-the-mill State schools. Or trade school….

  2. Renaissance man (definition/Colin’s Dictionary):
    ‘If you describe a man as a Renaissance man, you mean that he has a wide range of abilities and interests, especially in the arts and sciences.’

    There is something to be said for the benefits of a liberal arts curriculum/education with rigor!

  3. In my opinion (with no data to back it up), today’s high schoolers rightly feel insulted that they’re presumed to have such delicate sensibilities, their curricula must be dumbed-down, they can’t be assigned a searing novel like, “Cry, the Beloved Country” about the struggle under apartheid. Or, to use an American example, “Black Like Me” and “Catcher in the Rye” which were on my required list around 10th grade. I think it’s find to talk about one’s feelings after reading a novel as a class…though I can’t imagine any real revelatory discussions follow. But assigning Ted Ted Talks — wow, I had no idea our education standards had sunk so criminally low.

  4. Maybe the solution is to assign more first-rate short stories by such masters as Chekhov and Raymond Carver. After all, America literature is distinguished by short stories, once stimulated by a strong magazine market for them.

    • I could not agree more…I agree that Carver’s “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” would have an appeal to young readers. Hell, anyone of any age would like them. (Though it may be fair to say, they were too ruthlessly cut by Raymond Carver’s editor. That is another article, perhaps?)

  5. Thanks all for your comments.

    I like the idea of reading great short stories, but it seems a band-aid on the bigger issue. Namely, is there content to teach or is the only content our emotive self-expression?

    If you are a short-story fan don’t miss George Sanders book “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain,” which is a tour de force on Russian short stories.


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