“Don’t Tell Me I Can’t” by Kevin Cooper (aka Cole Summers) deserves a place in the alternative education canon.
Kevin Cooper, known to the internet as Cole Summers, was taken from this world far too soon—he tragically died on June 11 in a kayaking accident. But in his 14 years of life, he accomplished more than most of us do in a lifetime.
At age 6, his parents handed him the reins to his own education, giving him the freedom to choose what to study. (He chose Warren Buffet videos on YouTube, because he wanted to learn how to get rich).
At age 7, he started his own business, breeding meat rabbits and selling them to restaurants. He set up a corporation and became the majority shareholder, just like a Silicon Valley startup.
At age 8, he got his first truck through trade with a neighbor—and discovered that an 8-year-old can in fact get a vehicle titled in their name.
At age 9, he bought a 350-acre ranch for $130 per acre to expand his business into breeding meat goats.
At age 10, he bought a house, which he then renovated and sold for a profit. He learned flooring, roofing, cabinet making, painting, and electrical work – again, from YouTube.
At age 14, he wrote an autobiography about his education called Don’t Tell Me I Can’t, a fitting title for what is essentially an ode to kids pushing the limits of what adults think is possible.
Kevin Cooper was the most ambitious and inspiring unschooler I have ever met.
I found Kevin on Twitter this past spring, and I knew immediately he was an unschooling legend in the making. He was successfully running a holding company controlling multiple LLCs, including one for his rabbitry and one for his properties. He was helping support his disabled parents and brother. And he was working on a plan to tackle the environmental problems of industrial hay farming and aquifer depletion, which were threatening to make the valley where he grew up uninhabitable.
He was an unschooling success story, an alternative education inspiration, a shining example of what is possible for kids to accomplish. At 14, he had already done more for education than many education professionals do in their whole lives, just by being living proof of how far someone can go when they let their interests drive their education.
That’s what Kevin’s book is all about.
I started reading Don’t Tell Me I Can’t while I was waiting for a takeout order. I imagined I would read the introduction while I waited for my food and then go home. Instead, I ended up sitting at the restaurant counter reading the entire book cover-to-cover while my food grew cold (much to the amusement of the wait staff, I imagine). I was captivated. Kevin’s book was the most compelling story of homeschool possibility I had ever read.
Kevin wrote in his introduction:
“Like every other kid, I’ve had people tell me I can’t do something because I’m ‘just a kid.’ This silly, adult idea that being young makes us incapable and incompetent has discouraged so many kids from learning what they’re capable of and pursuing their dreams. But one of the biggest blessings in my life has been that every time I’ve heard that nonsense said to me, I can be sure of two things. First, it’s never my parents that said it. Second, my parents will not only allow me to work to prove whoever said it wrong, but they encourage me to do so.”
Kevin’s book is an argument for letting kids drive their own education and for letting them tackle life head-on in any arena they find interesting. His own story is proof that it works.
From first grade on, Kevin’s education was built around what he was interested in. First he wanted to know how people make money. After he and his dad started listening to Warren Buffet videos, they pivoted into mental models and learning how to think.
When he wanted to try making money for himself, he convinced his parents to let him start his rabbit farm, and he learned about business and math through bookkeeping and setting up his business’s legal entity.
After paying taxes for the first time, Kevin heard about Amazon’s $0 tax bill, and decided he wanted to learn about corporate tax law for 5th grade math so he could learn how to pay no taxes too. That was the first time he realized he was different:
“On the ride to Cub Scouts one time, my friends started talking about what they were doing in school. They were all joking around about having to memorize the names of all the planets in order. [My friend] Michael said “it’s stupid. Like, when will I ever need to know that?”
Then they asked me what I was studying. I started talking about how companies can pay certain expenses, like payroll, in stock, creating paper losses that reduce their taxes and maybe even create net loss carry forward. Wow, the looks I got from everyone. They told me they had no clue what I was talking about. I just shrugged it off and said “yeah, I’m weird,” but I was confused. I still thought back then that they did all the same stuff I did.”
This stark difference in Kevin’s education is what led to his extraordinary life. Because he was free to chase the things he cared about, he was able to achieve outcomes far beyond what most people think is possible for somebody who’s “just a kid.”
Kevin’s book was released in May of 2022. Less than a month later, the world lost more than we’ll likely ever know. Kevin was a giant in the making. He would have accomplished feats on a geographic scale, like reversing the disappearance of the Great Basin Desert’s supplying aquifer. He had ambitions to spearhead environmental change and advocate for unschooling, so more kids could be set free to chase their passions like he was – an endeavor his parents plan to carry on, as they shared when they broke the news of Kevin’s heart-breaking, untimely death.
Kevin’s book deserves a place in the unschooling and alternative education canon: an honest and beautiful case study of what’s possible when parents trust their kids, and when kids let their passions become the driving force of their education.
Hannah is a career development coach and a course instructor. She works as an advisor at Praxis and an instructor at The Objective Standard Institute. You can find her work at hannahfrankman.com.