One of the great things about Facebook, other than the pictures of food you’re not eating, cats you’re not petting, and concerts you’re not seeing, is the way it brings you things on the Internet you’d never see otherwise. Like today, I found myself on Glenn Beck’s website, nodding in agreement. (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.)
It seems the lovely lady who cuts my hair (hi Amelia!) commented on something one of her friends posted, and since Facebook insists that I see every little bit of my friends’ activities on Facebook, even the ones that involve people I don’t know, I saw her comment and the original posting, which was a discussion between Beck and Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe about college.
Specifically, that the idea that a college education is a mandatory prerequisite for a successful or prosperous life is not necessarily good advice, particularly as baseline tuitions climb past $25,000 a year.
By way of illustrating what I mean, I will use a few examples, the first being myself. I went to the University of Maryland directly after high school with no real plan — I just went because that’s what people do after high school, and I didn’t have any better ideas. So when I got there, I focused almost all my energy on drinking (my undeclared second major), experimenting with organic mind expansion, and trying to meet girls. (I did great in the first two subjects, not so great in the third.)
I started out hoping to get into the journalism program, but I realized pretty quickly that a) I’m not really built for calling strangers and getting them to spill their secrets and b) I really didn’t like the other people in my introductory journalism class, so I figured if this is what the people are like in the field, maybe I better not go into the field. So I switched to English because I’ve always been a reader and a writer and I didn’t know what else to do. I took some interesting classes, but they had nothing to do with any specific vocation, because I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do when I finished. (I’m still trying to figure it out.)
As it turned out, by far the most useful and lucrative thing I learned in college was how to bartend: I got a job as a barback at a busy club and worked Friday and Saturday nights every weekend for my third year of school, got promoted to bartender, and kept the same schedule until graduation. When I finished school and moved to California, I got a bartending job the first week after I took my apartment; I got a writing job in the dot-com boom through a customer at that job, and five dot-com gigs later, when the bubble burst and I couldn’t get arrested in the editorial business, I went back to bartending, which was my sole source of income for the next ten years and continues to feather my nest to this day.
I don’t mean to say that I regret going to college, because I don’t: I had a great time there, and I suppose there is some general value to all those English and history classes I took, even if they didn’t really apply to anything I did after. But it’s hard to say in hindsight that I got my (actually my parents’) money’s worth, except for being able to list my diploma on the bottom line of my resume.
One of the most memorable moments of my academic experience was shortly before I graduated, when I got back one of the last papers I wrote for one of my favorite courses (American Studies 330, “Critics of American Culture”). Wrapping up her comments on my paper, the professor had written, “The big question is, what exactly are you going to do with your talent? Has anyone at this University provided any decent advising to you?” It was at this moment that I realized that other than pointing me in the direction of some interesting reading, I hadn’t really learned much of anything except how to drink beer from a funnel and how to fashion an improvised waterpipe from found objects. I finished with a far from impressive 2.9 GPA and felt woefully unprepared for any kind of “career.”
I’m lucky that my parents could afford to bankroll my education, but if I had taken out student loans for it, I would probably still be paying those loans off and wondering what exactly I had bought with all that money.
By contrast, my wife started graduate school about five years ago, at age 36, with a very clear goal: she was going to become a teacher. That laser focus on exactly what she was there to learn, combined with the fact that we were paying the tuition bills from our savings (and that every day she was in school was a day she was not contributing to paying our bills) meant she finished earning her Masters’ a semester ahead of schedule and with a 4.0 GPA.
Should my good friends’ son, who spent a semester in the Caribbean last spring on an intensive marine biology program go to college to continue studying marine biology? He absolutely should, because he knows that’s where his interests lie. He is going to get a lot out of college because he wants to learn what they are going to teach him. If he had a 2.7 GPA in high school and no real idea of what he wanted to study? I’m not so sure.
The point is not that there is no value in a college education, just that there’s infinitely more value to it when you know what you’re going there to learn and more importantly, when you actually want to learn it. If you don’t know what you’re going there to learn, you’re going to spend four years checking off boxes and just trying to get through it, as I did. I got through it by minoring in funnels and waterpipes and (once in a while) birth control; there’s no reason you can’t learn all those things while you work the kind of job you get with no college education and live in the kind of apartment you can afford when you’re 19 and work that kind of job.
A couple of years waiting tables or stocking shelves might be just the thing to help you focus your mind and figure out what you’d rather be doing, and once you figure that out, you can go into college with a focus and a purpose and you’re a lot likelier to come out ready for the world.
And it’s entirely possible that you will decide that what you want to do is something that does not require a degree, AND THAT’S OKAY. Somewhere along the line, skilled trades have been stigmatized as “for dumb people” and while education is a great thing that everyone can benefit from, it does not equal intelligence, skill, or human value. More people need to know that there’s nothing wrong with bartending, or being a carpenter or an electrician or a plumber or a hairdresser; those are all very lucrative fields for people who are good at them (hi Amelia!). They don’t require a college education, but that doesn’t mean they don’t require any education or any skill: you have to apprentice, work under someone more skilled than yourself, learn from them, get better, and as you get better you make more money and best of all, you don’t go into debt to do it: you get paid as you learn because it’s still a job.
I sincerely hope that ten years from now, my son has the same kind of focus and purpose that my young friend the marine biologist has. (At present, he does not appear to necessarily be university material.) If he does, I will move heaven and earth to make sure he’s able to get the education he needs to do what he wants to do.
But everyone’s not like that. I certainly wasn’t, and neither were the vast majority of the people in my Funnel Studies program. So the first college application essay my son writes is going to be addressed to me and his mother. I want him to explain why he wants to go to college, what he hopes to achieve there, and how it will prepare him for life after. If he doesn’t have a better answer than “everyone else is going and there are chicks there,” I’m not going to drop $50k a year to put him through the Waterpipe Construction Program — not when I can teach him myself for free.