Is university necessary?
January 22, 2013
Learning Through Critique
James Paul Holloway
University is necessary. It is necessary as an institution because of the value that it brings to students, and through them to society. The education it provides is necessary for young people because of the discipline and structure that a university provides for intellectual development. This provides the strong foundation on which their future contributions to society are built.
Some of my readers are already chewing on what they imagine my arguments will be, searching for a single counter example. These are easy to find: Bill Gates. But of course Gates did go to college; he simply did not graduate. Michael Dell. Oops, same story. Andrew Carnegie! Never went to college at all. Success! University is not necessary! (And if you accept this argument, then university is exactly right for you.)
Of course Andrew Carnegie did endow a college, which is now a rather good place called Carnegie Mellon University. If university is not necessary, why did he do such a thing? Because Carnegie recognized the importance of education, as do Gates, and Dell. All three have supported higher education broadly, with significant sums. It is not
useful to draw conclusions about the value of higher education from successful entrepreneurs like these. Carnegie was a singularity, as are Gates and Dell. They are not like everybody else: they were lucky, especially in their timing, they were wicked smart, they were hugely ambitious and driven, and they were not typical.
The question is not, “Can some people be successful in some measure without going to university?” Of course, some individuals can, and this is a largely irrelevant fact. The question is, “Can you be successful in truly meaningful ways without going to college?” The answer for most of you is “No.”
Education is truly not the accumulation of facts but is rather the habits of thought that would remain if you forgot all the facts that you learn. Education is about the wisdom that you develop as you wrestle with interesting and difficult concepts. It is about learning to perceive problems, and this is harder than it sounds, for most problems go unseen. Education is about learning to be creative, acquiring persistence and developing smart techniques to overcome barriers. It is about learning to work with others who are very different, and learning to understand and even welcome their different perspectives.
Of course all of these capabilities can be developed without going to university. But most of us would fail to fully develop them without the stimulation, environment, and challenges that the university sets for us both inside and outside the classroom.
The core to the development of these capabilities is the challenge on our thinking that a university education provides to each of us. This uncomfortable but critical critique on our approach to problems is the primary method by which humans improve as learners. We can of course learn on our own, but most of us are very poor at self-critique. We are either overly critical, or insufficiently critical, or self-critical of the wrong things.
While we can receive critique from other quarters and in other forms, at university we voluntarily place ourselves in the hands of professional and sometimes stern critics – professors. Perhaps we could all go start companies and receive critique from co-workers or investors. But those critics have many inconsistent motives, and providing feedback is never their primary function; they give feedback only to advance some other agenda, such as protecting an investment. In a university setting, critique is delivered with the primary purpose, and often with the only purpose, of improving the student’s thinking.
University education also provides structure and design. Exercises and assignments are designed to produce intellectual growth. On our own we don’t select the right exercises to develop ourselves; we select exercises that are too easy, or too hard, or poorly aligned with the areas we need to develop. A curriculum is designed to be coherent and broad, rather than immediately or necessarily utilitarian. A university forces you to stretch in uncomfortable directions, because the primary goal is to improve your thinking.
There are many discussions these days about how a university education leads to better employment or better pay. This is mainly true because compared to those who do not receive university education, graduates have developed stronger creative capacities, a greater ability to implement ideas, stronger intercultural skills, an enhanced ability to successfully communicate more complex ideas, and a deeper understanding of social responsibility. Employers realize this; society realizes this.
Universities are the unique intellectual space specialized and dedicated to challenging young people and critiquing their response to that challenge in order to make them more skilled and capable at recognizing and addressing problems. This brings value to the students as individuals and to society as a whole. Could some singular individuals contribute greatly to the world without a university education? Of course. But the rest of us are not singularities: we are capable individuals with that special human gift: the ability to grow through smart effort and useful feedback. The university is the place where we are directed in that smart effort and receive that feedback. The university is the place where we grow, and where we learn to continue that growth even after we leave.
Learning Through Experience
With the rising cost of higher education, the question of whether or not school is really worth it has become easier and easier to answer. While it is the most traditional way to set yourself up for success in the future, it by no means maximizes your learning potential, your time, or your potential for future success. In the past, universities prepared our country’s future leaders. However, today, youth without traditional educations are changing the world while others sit in class. The era of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Sean Parker was just the beginning; the era of Sahil Lavingia, Dale Stephens, and Alex Banayan has just begun. Young leaders are taking initiative, foregoing the delay we call school, and pursuing their passions immediately.
Take a look at the most recent billion-dollar companies. A majority of these founders don’t even have a degree to begin with. Again and again, we see the story of success: Bob enrolls in college, drops out to fully pursue his passions, and ultimately becomes successful. Not that dropping out of school ensures success, but had Bob or say, Mark Zuckerberg, stayed in school, we could all still be hanging out on Myspace.
With the ten grand, or more, that some are spending on this upcoming semester of college, there are a variety of other ways to discover, explore, and pursue one’s passions. One might even have the urge to take one of these opportunities in the field you love…but, oh…right…school is in the way. Mark Twain once said, “I have never let school interfere with my education.” Many of us as students repeat this quote over and over in order to avoid school’s common interference, but do we truly follow this maxim? College is a great opportunity to have, but don’t let yourself forget about the tradeoffs. While some are busy spending their very limited mindshare thinking about that class they’ve been struggling with all semester, their mind could be exploring the dozens of opportunities that lay right in front of them. Although school is in no way a negative experience, in many cases, it is simply a delay to achieving one’s goals and directly pursuing one’s passions.
School is great for a few things: mainly discovering your passions, connecting with peers from diverse backgrounds, and having a great time, all of which you can do without paying the hefty tuition. Think about it. Once one dismisses the necessity of having a degree for their future success, they unlock their true potential, and save themselves tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The rise of the Internet and the information revolution led by Google, Wikipedia, and others provides an unparalleled opportunity for self-directed learning. Traditionally, to acquire knowledge one had to have access to experts and literature on a subject directly; today, one only needs to power up their computer. Not only are the online resources seemingly endless, but also online education continues to improve, while traditional education seems to have stagnated. Some may even argue that some of these online alternatives have begun to exceed the bounds of traditional education. Best of all, it’s free, or relatively free as compared to your college tuition!
Additionally, employers are now looking more and more for applicants who are self-starting, independent, and take initiative. Self-directed learning and projects provide the perfect opportunity to display and enhance these traits. As the world has become more connected and technology has advanced, the tools and methods for measuring competency have begun to go beyond the degree. A majority of high school graduates now enter college in the United States. The price tag on a college degree continues to rise, and the value of that degree has continued to fall as the visionaries of our country realize that degrees correlate to, rather than cause high performance and success.
Sure, school might maximize one’s chances of living a stable, moderately successful life with two and a half kids, a modest house, and a job. But is that really what we want? Does our generation want to forego pursuing our passions in order to be part of a shrinking, mundane “middle” class?
Save yourself the money, take a semester off, and pursue your passions. There’s a reason why people who do so never come back to school. Are you going to play it safe and take the blue pill, or do you want to pursue your passions now and take the red pill? Be warned: if you put your passions aside now, you are going to do the same in the future. Take off the suit and tie, wear yourself, and make it happen.