Follow Up to Comments on Why Is College the Default

I appreciated the many comments to my post Why is College (4 years, $160k) the Default?. The points were varied but steady in theme: don’t write off college! Technology educator Richard Kassissieh encouraged me to think about who works at colleges and why – ie professors are paid to make their minds available to you. Entrepreneur Chris Yeh admitted that he’s overly educated but couldn’t imagine life without it (I will address this in a moment). He makes the good point, “It is very seductive to believe that just doing what you’re passionate about is enough. But the world works in a certain way, and even if you decide not to follow those rules, it’s important to know and understand them.” Venture Capitalist David Cowan remarked that he learned the most in college by accident in the moments when you’re not “supposed” to be learning. He concluded, “Can you reproduce the experience without enrolling? I doubt it. You’ve got only one short life–why screw around with it? Seize the opportunity that people your age across nations and centuries have only dreamed of. You’ll love it.” The best comment in my opinion came from investor and civic leader Richard Springwater (excerpt): “The one thing that college can give you that you can never get anywhere else is a foundation in the basic literature of our culture. I find myself using my college education every day because all ideas are connected and they all go back to sources. The right school for you will operate in a purposeful way to introduce you to the canon of essential works. This is harder than it sounds because it cannot be self-assembled – you need an institution that understands its mission in this light and organizes its curriculum with a focus on the linkages. Over the past 40 years, most schools have pandered to the demands of their students for more electives, and to their faculty for more freedom to teach their specialties, and the result has been a directionless in education. The fact is that the consumers (students) have a variety of goals, most involving careers or killing time, with a small minority actually interested in what you describe as “learning to learn.” Someone who learns throughout his life for no reason other than abiding curiosity is called an intellectual. If you recognize yourself, than you need to find a place that will appreciate and understand you.”

Let me make one general point, first: I have not written off college. Indeed, as I have chronicled in my College Process posts or School posts I am visiting schools and will be applying to many in the fall. On the surface, a university environment seems like it would be a chocolate factory to me: tons of super smart people, guest speakers, a Yellow Pages thick course catalog of engaging courses, and so forth. These are all prime drivers in my excitement about college – I know I will milk its resources to death. On the other hand, I fear many of the reservations I have about high school (and the formal education system in general) only continue at the higher ed level. Given the extraordinary cost and time that one needs to devote to obtain a degree, I’m embracing alternative methods to acquire the same knowledge and experiences.

When Chris says above that “he couldn’t imagine life without it” (Stanford/Harvard education) this crystallizes a key point in my mind: for any kid who wants to go places, an official college degree seems so automatically essential that anything to the contrary seems beyond our imagination for how it could work. Along these lines, Kathy Sierra did a follow up post to her “Does College Matter?” post which prompted this discussion. In it she cities a cognitive scientist at Northwestern (previously chair of the CS department at Yale) who, after complaining that most of his Yale students weren’t there to get a strong education and mostly to party, get a good job afterwards, etc., says: “A good deal of cognitive dissonance is at work here. Because people labored so diligently at school for so many years, they convince themselves that there must have been a lot of learning going on.”

It surprises me that a Yale prof would say this – for I suspect this is less the case at the very top universities in the country. I think you will often hear similar things at middle tier colleges like where Seth Godin taught when he told me most of his students were there to get a degree. Because of the trade-offs I have made in high school (lower grades, run a company) I most likely cannot get in to the very top tier schools. There are tons of great schools out there, but many of my blog readers email me and say things like “Harvard’s a great school” or “You can go anywhere you want, why pass up?” Simply not true.

Finally, David Cowan above asks “You’ve only got one short life – why screw around with it?” The rebel in me says, Why NOT screw around with it? It seems to me that the world’s most preeminent thinkers and doers who literally moved the human race forward were those who wanted to screw with the status quo. People called ’em crazy at the time, but history has thanked them. And I look up to those people who thought different.

24 Responses to Follow Up to Comments on Why Is College the Default

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