I am largely self-taught. I read dozens of books per year, and have since I was 14. I have used the university to augment my own intellectual pursuits, dropping out sporadically as the stifling* nature of the university interfered with my ability to learn. I never hesitated to take a course if I found the subject matter interesting, even graduate courses. After seven years and four schools, I earned a liberal arts degree, and launched into a career for which my degree was totally irrelevant.

Years later, my interest in science was piqued to such an extent that I went to a local state college to take classes in science, mathematics and computers. Why? Ever try to learn physics on your own? Where do you begin? How do you know where to begin? If you grew up on science-fiction novels, you'll start with an elementary quantum mechanics text, or a book on relativity. Guess what? None of it will make any sense. You don't have the background. So where do you get the background? The books in the public library are all either too easy or too hard. How do you know what to study first?

1) Ask someone more knowledgeable than yourself for advice. This involves a face-to-face discussion, and many hours of discussion. Where do you find this person?

2) Go to school and take some intro classes. Go to office hours and talk to your TAs and professors. Sooner or later, you find someone halfway sympathetic, and you pick their brain for a good book list (bring pencil and paper). You keep coming back with questions whenever you get stuck. If the person is cool enough, you can keep picking their brain long after you don't go to that school anymore.

Trust me: a book on non-abelian gauge theory, commutative algebra, or algorithmic structures isn't going to read like the latest Tom Clancy book. It's going to be really hard to read, and you will get freaked out a lot, and will need a warm human face to set you straight. You can't learn these things with a book alone.

I did two years of a Doctoral program in the sciences, and left with an M.S. I refused to take my qualifying exams because they were ugly and hard enough that I had to spend months in a ugly headspace in order to pass them, and I wasn't interested in abusing myself that way. I know I was as knowledgeable as any of my peers who passed the exam, but because I never took them, there's no proof that this is true. The qualifying exams were a mean-spirited hazing ritual, and by then, I had learned enough in school that I could read any book I was interested in, and had enough phone numbers and email addresses of people who would help me get unstuck when I got stuck.

I was a TA for five years in grad school, and I have some comments to make about the quality of an undergraduate education.

a) I had one student who couldn't read. Flat out couldn't read. How did he get into college? Adult literacy is a real social problem, and illiterates are ashamed of themselves enough without me making it worse, but if you can't read, college is not the right place for you.

b) I would get roughly one or two students per class who had an impeccable grasp of the written word. I am mildly dyslexic, and I am using a spellchecker as I write this, but I spell things right, and my syntax is coherent. Why? Because you are reading this without being able to see me, and this text is your only experience of me. What I want you to think about is what I am writing, and every mistake I make derails your thought process, and gives you something to focus on other than my intended message to you. I know what words mean, and I choose them according to their meaning. In my experience, less than one out of ten students I taught could write clearly enough that their syntactical mistakes were not a major distraction to what they were attempting to write and its meaning. I was not an English teacher, and I was rarely given an opportunity to help my students with their writing.

c) Almost nobody but math, computer science, and philosophy majors learns any logic at the university. (Nobody is a singular noun). Nearly the only people to study rhetorical logic are Classics majors and members of the Debate team. I have very little faith in the ability of the average college graduate to scan an argument for fallacies, or to spot a self-contradictory argument.

The main thing that college teaches is how to serve many different masters. Someone with a B.A. and a 4.00 GPA knows how to soothe the damaged egos and mollify many, many different types of people. It takes a baseline level of intelligence to do this, but it also takes a shrewd judge of character. This puts them in good stead in a corporate environment. That's why companies are looking for college-educated employees. They don't care about your field of expertise, for the most part. They want to know you are good at being a good employee.

Is this necessary to career success? In a corporate environment, it very well might be. In business? Possibly. In science, yes. In education, yes. In a position of authority? Less so. In a trade? Not at all.

Only a quarter of people in college would be in college if college were merely about a love of learning. Even fewer would attend if they understood:

a) That a B.A. alone won't really get you a top-salaried job.

b) How expensive college is, and how long it takes to pay back student loans.

c) that joining the upper middle class requires much more than a piece of paper.

So what about skipping college? It depends on what your goals are. Attrition rates at universities are high (somebody Google me a quote here) because the method of a university education does not address every condition. The university alienates as many people as it embraces, if not more.

You can be smart without college if you have a lot of other smart people in your life whom you talk to on a regular basis. If you try to be a lone genius in an attic somewhere, you will end up a crackpot who lines their hat with tinfoil so the CIA can't read their thoughts. You have to talk to other smart people. You have to talk to people who have attained some intellectual mastery in their lives. How do you know if your peers are genuinely smart? How do you know a master from a fraud? Ultimately, you have to make up your own mind.

*The whole course-credit-grade system is not an ally of free and boundless inquiry. Wander too far from the recommended reading list of a given course, and you will fail the course. Want to leave in April to visit an archaeological dig on the island of Rhodes? Too bad. Catch the professor making blatant errors? Too bad. Get assigned an inferior textbook, a TA who doesn't speak English, a section dominated by brainless agonized windbags who abduct the discussion group like it's the Lindbergh baby? Too bad.

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Tags: Colleges and Universities, Education, Graduate school, Higher education, Undergraduate education


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Comment by Him on August 13, 2009 at 3:07pm
If you find the need to go to college, don't over-pay.

Super-Cheap Accredited Colleges: $11/day (or Less)
Comment by Jeremy Gross on August 5, 2009 at 11:35am
I meant a statistical quote. In Ohio for 2007-08, the attrition rate for college students (over six years) was 48%. For state colleges across the USA, the attrition rate for students in that same year was 53%, or a slight majority. 72% left for poor academic performance. but that still leaves millions who left for other reasons, including financial, and out of sheer boredom. Students are clients paying for a service, education. How well do these colleges serve their students when so many of them are leaving before services are fully rendered?
Comment by Eric on August 5, 2009 at 1:51am
This has been very informative, thank you.

Also, to google you a quote, I'd like to direct you to http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Education

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