Author Charles Webb Fights the School System to Keep His Son from Becoming a Graduate
When anti-hero Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) Braddock showed his disgust for American middle-class manners and morals in the 1967 film classic The Graduate, millions of young citizens cheered—and went on to live respectable, Establishment lives. So it goes. But some people never forgot the lesson of The Graduate—and chief among them are its author, Charles Webb, his wife, Eve, and their two sons, John, 16, and David, 13. Since 1967 Webb has written several novels, including Marriage of a Young Stockbroker. Eve, a painter, shaved her head and put a ring through her nose to argue that women should not be judged on physical appearance. The whole family wintered at a deserted French beach resort and summered in a Massachusetts nudist camp. Even such cathartic experiences did not wash all the rebellion out of the Webbs’ blood. They now live in a VW van and a trailer and move every two weeks from one Ojai, Calif. campground to another. They have also embarked on a new crusade to remove their youngest son from school. “We couldn’t function in a situation where I’m a painter and Charles is a writer while David is unable to express himself creatively,” says Eve. “It’s too much guilt to bear.”
The Webbs have filed suit against the state of California, arguing that David should be allowed to take a high school equivalency test and drop out of the alternative school he now attends in an Ojai home—just as his brother, John, did when he turned 16 last June. “There are important things to talk about that the school system does not accommodate,” says Charles. “It’s not just what kids learn in school—it’s the attitudes they absorb. Good manners are almost anathema to them.” As an example, he cites John’s arrest for shoplifting in nearby Ventura in 1979. “The attitude at his school was, ‘A lot of kids do it,’ ” Webb complains. “I’m not saying John’s school was a particularly bad one—it wasn’t—but it got us thinking.”
Charles, 41, and Eve, 40, decided to spend eight months last year in France. “There was a language barrier,” Charles recalls, “and it seemed a good idea to teach the kids at home.” During their trip back to the States in April, the family met some members of a Fall River, Mass. nudist colony who invited them to join and bring their anti-school ideas along. “They said we’d never be disturbed or detected because the authorities were too embarrassed to go into nudist colonies,” says Charles. The boys’ relaxed schooling grew even more informal. Classes were held in the buff. “We got into anatomy a little bit,” says John. But even though Eve had once hosted a Manhattan art show in the nude to protest New York marriage laws, the family found the life unnatural. “Aside from school, we only ventured out in our underwear,” Charles says, blushing. That reticence prompted them to return to California—but not before they conferred with Boston deschooling guru John Holt, who told them that at least 10,000 parents across the U.S. were teaching their own children, sharing the Webbs’ dismay with conventional schooling. Emboldened, they decided to challenge the law.
California authorities will contest the suit. (They didn’t in John’s case because he was older.) “The petition fails to show any breach of the law,” scoffs one state attorney. “All Mr. Webb seems to be saying is that the state is being unfair.” The Webbs claim that David—who took up art a few months ago—is unable to work as a cartoonist. To support their contention that he is a professional in the field, they point to his more than 20 published efforts in a local newspaper.
Meanwhile brother John, freed from the discipline of school, has embarked on a journalistic career. His latest project: interviewing students at his school about shoplifting. The de-schooling crusade has had its impact on Charles Webb’s career too. Since he has given away most of the $100,000-plus royalties from his books and movies to environmental groups, he can’t afford a lawyer. He and Eve wrote the brief in David’s case themselves. “It’s hard,” he sighs. “The legal people we meet aren’t very helpful.” To research procedure, Charles had to give up work on his new novel—his first in three years. Its perhaps wishful title: Getting to Heaven without an Attorney.