College? No thanks.

Uneducated but not unlearned.

At TED talks, the most viewed video — now surpassing 14 million hits — is “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” by England’s Sir Ken Robinson. Not long into the 18-minute lecture, Robinson answers his query. Yes, schools do kill creativity. “I believe this passionately: that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or, rather, we get educated out if it.” And, says the consultant, who helps European and American educators reform their entrenched systems (in 2003 he was knighted for his “service to the arts”), such a tendency “is profoundly mistaken” these days, with “the whole world engulfed in a [digital] revolution.” Robinson’s advocacy has sparked debate over the purpose and applicability of education, ever the same bored kids and boring teachers.

You would think America’s schools would cave under all the criticism they receive. What’s distressing is that the critique is withering from both ends. Take job and career prep. Robinson tells his audience: “You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid — things you liked — on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. ‘Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician.’” At least, not a money-making one. The reality is, however, there’s hardly any way into the arts that doesn’t involve waiting tables. What’s more, not everyone is artistic. Kids need training, especially the talentless. Where else will they get it but in school?

Damned either way: teach job skills, and the school squanders the young’s creativity; teach creativity, and graduates, sassy and fulfilled, have few marketable skills.

Yet, Robinson’s talk, like that of dogged independents in the home-schooling movement, reminds us of the unteachable traits, like ambition, imagination, persistence, turns of character that may not mean a steady paycheck but are necessary to a society’s growth. Where would our culture be without those unschooled self-starters like Thomas Edison and Bill Gates? How do we think about the “education” of other rarities, all high-school dropouts, like Count Basie, Marlon Brando, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosa Parks, Charlie Chaplin, Horace Greeley, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller?

The young read (or, these days, probably hear) of these bootstrap pioneers, filled with purpose, and say, “Why not me? Why do I have to go to college to be someone? Isn’t there another way?”

There is. UnCollege, a year-long process of self-directed education, as one university dropout and entrepreneur has trademarked it, hoping to direct the faction.

The idea is that your education is your responsibility. You can use your latent talents and abiding passions to get where you want to go. Just remember, you must first steer clear of the path, often de rigueur in the annals of American success, that maintains that a four-year degree is worth mountainous debt, useless knowledge, and entombed creativity.


Nico D’Amico-Barbour is unsure about a lot of things, but one thing he’s not unsure of is that college offers nothing that he needs to live now. At 22, tousled-haired, with a preternaturally wise face, he is gainfully employed, a dedicated autodidact, and a fair-weather college student. Five years ago, D’Amico-Barbour, then enrolled at High Tech High, dropped out “for personal reasons.” He tells me this over a vegan cookie and hot tea at Filter in Hillcrest. All his High Tech friends graduated and went on to college. Not him. Eventually, he passed his GED, took five classes at Mesa College, got bored, quit, and found a job running a coffee shop for $8 an hour.

Nico D’Amico-Barbour admits that “friends and family struggle to understand” his decision to avoid college.

Nico D’Amico-Barbour admits that “friends and family struggle to understand” his decision to avoid college.

High-Tech High did ground him in one thing: “That place taught me how to learn.” But other than a few good history classes, with project-based group learning, “I never really got any real knowledge there.” Such knowledge is, for him, narrowly defined — it’s applied. Only life, D’Amico-Barbour says, gives knowledge.

He admits that “friends and family struggle to understand” his position. They may not recognize how well informed he is. He listens to NPR podcasts and updates himself with news blogs daily. (At times, his conversation drifts into current politics.) His passion, though, has been to work, “not to sit and listen.” He values starting his own business, studying on his own, and steering clear of homework and what he calls the “deferred gratification” of university life.

D’Amico-Barbour boils down his counterintuitive path to a stronger longing, a desire to “experience hardships,” defined as the daily vicissitudes of work, paying one’s way, riding the bus, and so on. He says he grew up with well-off parents, partly in Europe, where he studied Italian. With such a tended life, he seldom faced the difficulties he relishes while living on his own.


Nico discusses college

Nibbling on a cookie, he admits that “My parents would, today, step in and help me” go to college “if that’s what I wanted to do. It’s unfortunate that I have a free education waiting for me, and millions of Americans don’t. Most Americans look forward only to crippling college debt or not being able to afford much of anything. That’s an example of what’s wrong with our system.” In a sense, he feels his advantages “nagging at him. I sometimes joke that I have to pay off my birth.” College would exercise that birthright, perhaps another reason to say no.

D’Amico-Barbour calls college “a fabricated environment. It’s fake. We set up buildings, an environment with dorm rooms, for 18-year-olds. You always hear two aspects about college: the parties and the pranks; and the flipside, the learning opportunities, pulling all-nighters to learn an esoteric concept. It’s completely fabricated. It will never be experienced again.”

Worse, college is a “platform for enforcing the status quo.” The American class system has not changed in 250 years, D’Amico-Barbour says. It’s bent on rewarding the same bluebloods with opportunities and money. The undiscussed goal, which college “perpetuates,” is privilege. Even affirmative action “just indoctrinates people of a lower class into the upper class.” College is no longer the democratically open and financially accessible institution it used to be, in the halcyon 1960s, when it was often free.

Comments

I Love This Guy. Tell It Like It Is. Nothing wrong with learning on your own, duh. And how much debt to the bank are you willing to take on without a job, maybe not even prepared to work with college behind you. Can also be institutionalized stupidity - how many doctors do you know who understand integrative medicine or homeopathy?

Here’s another thought-provoking article by Tom Larson, whom I recall also wrote about real estate just before everyone realized that had become a bubble. The guy who runs the Instapundit web portal often links to news items reinforcing his theme that higher education is the next such fiasco.

The topic has my attention, since I’ve got a bright middle-schooler whose friends all want to go to Harvard--and think she’s weird because she doesn’t. She doesn’t because she knows I’d be opposed even if it were free. And yet I think education can be a great thing, even for its own sake, apart from whatever it does for one’s earning potential.

Learning, of course, is always possible, via books, DVD courses, etc. A proper formal education, seems to me, would involve close relationships between eager young scholars and eminent greybeards who’re ready to share their perspectives. The reality in most cases is huge lecture halls with tests graded by TAs, and ever-increasing tuition fees to support expanding administrative staffs. Most kids seem to think going to class and completing assignments is enough. To be honest, at that age I did too.

Another argument for going, especially to the name-brand schools, is the prospect of forming alliances with that rare fellow student who’ll end up inventing the next Facebook, i.e., it’s the chance to piggy-back into a lucrative opportunity. Yes, but to me that still seems like a long shot, in view of the cost.

Factor in the inevitable courses that will be an absolute, blatant waste of time, and the reality that many graduates have poorer earning potential than a plumber or heavy-equipment operator, and it’s very hard to see why college should be in every kid’s future.

But on the other hand, the alternative, with its lack of obvious direction, can be scary. As Davis mentions in the article, life gets in the way of pursuing an education. That’s the best argument for going after it early, before things become too complicated. And even though it may otherwise be meaningless, having a degree does indeed mean a lot to employers. If you don’t have it, you’d better have some other accomplishment or quality that’s just as impressive.

Sure hope we get this sorted out before my daughter finishes high school.

It's not about earning potential. It's about being an educated person.

Yes, earning potential has always been higher for college grads, because more doors are open to the educated. But higher earning shouldn't be the goal of education, it should be a pleasant result of being educated. See the difference?

Fact: less than 7% of grads work in a field related to their major.

College used to mean something. Everybody who went studied Latin and often Greek. They studied They read the classics of Western Civilization in literature, philosophy, history, natural science, and theology. They studied mathematics. They came out well rounded EDUCATED people capable of thinking and feeling at a higher level than non-college grads.

Then colleges became super specialized with only lip service paid to core education. And then the silly majors started to work their way into the system... women's studies, ethnic studies, musical theatre, communications, et cetera. (There might be a place for those as part of a whole, but not as an education

So now, the only serious work being done is in the so-call hard sciences. But it's being done by a bunch of narrow minded wonks who aren't well versed in philosophy, literature, history, and theology. So they have no perspective for their work.

And college professors... once they were people devoted to the cause of knowledge. Now they're a pack of vultures fighting over the corpse of funding. They work short hours for long money, and their career advancement is based on publishing papers (of often dubious value) rather than on teaching. Half the time, their classes are taught by graduate students.

I haven't even started on the booze-crazed, sex-crazed culture of most campuses.

Why would anyone want to go $100k in debt for the above?

I love biographies so, for the record- Rosa Parks was educated although, technically, also a drop out:
Rosa's mother Leona McCauley, "a teacher, taught Rosa at home until 1924, when at the age of 11, she was sent to live with her aunt in Montgomery, Alabama, to continue her education. Rosa attended the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, an all-black private school where Rosa performed janitorial work in exchange for tuition. She began high school at Booker T. Washington High, but was forced to drop out to help take care of her ailing mother and grandmother. In 1932, Rosa met and married Raymond Parks, a local barber and civil rights activist. Raymond was a self-educated man with a desire to gain as much knowledge as he could. With his support, Rosa returned to school, and in 1934, received her high school diploma." (US History.com)

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