Sunday, May 15, 2011

Think You Need to Graduate High School to Be Successful? These People Didn't

Did you know that people didn’t always have to go to school and that it wasn’t long ago that we even had Presidents who knew they could be successful without going to high school?  Did you ever wonder why it seems like people from history seemed to achieve success at much earlier ages than they do today?  Well it's because in the past youth were not required to go to school at all in many states in most of the 1800s. By 1918 every state required students to complete school, but in most states it was only elementary school.  This meant that by the time they were teenagers adolescents had a chance to integrate into society.  Some might be learning a trade, others the family business, some might follow a pursuit of writing or singing, some became entrepreneurs, some became interested in politics, and for some of the academically minded they might continue studying academics, though people like Einstein and other great minds found school too oppressive and confining.  

It wasn't until the time of the Depression that the age of compulsory attendance was increased.  John Taylor Gatto explains that this was due in part to keep youth out of the work force and in part to create a consumer society.  However, before youth was forced to stay in school until around 16 in most states, many youth were doing just fine.  Today, if you don't choose to graduate high school, you're often considered a drop out and kids are dropping out in droves.  Our nation has about 1/3 of students dropping out of high schools and in large urban areas like those in which I've lived (Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas) the rates are around 50% which is also the drop out rate for Black students.  Clearly something is not right.  Even many of our most successful students, like this valedictorian, (and me!) weren't happy with their high school education.

Well something you may not know, is no one has to go to school and you don't have to drop out.  You can opt out and head straight to an apprenticeship, career, or you can attend college without ever having to bother with high school.  If you've bought all the hype about the importance of a high school diploma, it may comfort you to know that there are many successful people uninterested in conforming to the mandates imposed upon them by boring teachers and classes they often don’t have a saying in selecting. Below are just a few such people who didn't bother getting a high school diploma and moved on to better pastures (Source: Dropouts Hall of Fame). 


  • Jane Austen, novelist. She left school at the age of 11.
  • William Shakespeare, playwright, poet. Only a few years of formal schooling.
  • Mark Twain, printer, riverboat pilot, prospector, newspaper reporter, humorist, author of the first great American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Left school in fifth grade.

  • Walt Disney, producer, director, screenwriter, animator, developer of Disneyland and Disneyworld.  Frederick Tudor, the Ice King. Left school at 13.
  • Lucille Ball, actress, comedienne, producer. Co-founder of Desilu Studios. Late bought out her husband's share to become the first woman to own and run a production studio.
  • Andrew Carnegie, industrialist and philanthropist. Elementary school dropout. Started work at the age of 13 as a bobbin boy in a textile mill. One of the first mega-billionaires in the U.S.
  • Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin Music, Virgin Atlantic Airways, and other Virgin enterprises, balloonist. Left school at 16.

  • Christina Aguilera, singer, songwriter.
  • Mary J. Blige, Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, record producer, and actress.

  • Jerry Lewis, comedian, actor, singer, humanitarian.
  • Patrick Stewart, actor, producer, director, writer.

  • Abraham Lincoln, lawyer, U.S. president. Finished barely a year of formal schooling. He self-taught himself trigonometry (for his work as a surveyor) and read Blackstone on his own to become a lawyer.
  • Martin Van Buren, U.S. president. Little formal education. Began studying law at the age of 14 while apprenticing at a law firm.
  • George Washington, U.S. president, general, plantation owner. Ended his education after a few years of elementary school.
  • Andrew Jackson U.S. President, lawyer. Little formal education;
  • Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazilian president. With a fifth grade education only, he shined shoes on the streets of Sao Paulo as a kid but later became a steelworker union leader.

  • Albert Einstein, Nobel prize-winning physicist, discoverer of the General and Special Theories of Relativity. He left school at 15.

Public Servants
  • Lyon, education pioneer, teacher, founder of Mount Holyoke College (America's first women's college). Dropped out of high school. Started teaching at the age of 17.
  • Florence Nightingale, nurse. No formal education. Home schooled.
  • James Francis Byrnes, U.S. representative, U.S. senator, Supreme Court justice, U.S. secretary of state, South Carolina governor. Left school at 14
  • Yogi Berra, baseball player, coach, and manager. Quit school in the eighth grade.
  • Andre Agassi, tennis player, winner of 8 Grand Slam titles. Quit school in the ninth grade and turned tennis pro at the age of 16. His father would say he was driving the kids to school but, instead, actually took them to local tennis courts to practice.
  • Mario Andretti, race-car driver, author.

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