January 3, 2017
Back in the ’60s, an interviewer asked the “King of Folk Music”, Bob Dylan, what his goal in life was. Bob answered something to the effect of:
“I want to make enough money to go to college, so one day I can be somebody.”
Bob had a good sense of irony. And certainly, he was always more inclined to think outside the box than to follow the well-trodden path. That was part of what made him so interesting and part of what made him so successful. A similar sentiment was expressed in a song by his peer, Paul Simon:
“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”
In those days, just like today, the customary idea of success was that you attended university for a number of years, you received a degree, and then you would be given a job where you could wear a necktie and receive a salary that had an extra zero behind it.
Then, as now, that’s quite true for anyone who seeks a career in engineering, medicine, law, etc., but less so for virtually everyone else. Those who pursue a degree in gender studies or 18th-century French literature are likely to find that, after they graduate, they’ve learned little or nothing that translates into potential income.
Of course, universities value such courses highly and professors love to teach them. After all, they never really left school themselves. They went straight from being students to being teachers and never had to learn to be productive in the larger world. As such, they are the very worst advisors to students wondering what courses to take in order to one day seek employment.
This is not to say that such subjects are uninteresting; it’s just that employers don’t hire people because they’re interested in their courses. They hire them based upon whether they’ve acquired knowledge that’s applicable to their businesses.
There will always be a need for engineers, doctors and lawyers, but the pursuit of studies that stand little chance of producing a return may be a waste of a significant chunk (or all) of your parents’ savings, or may result in years of indebtedness in the form of a college loan. In addition, you could be wasting several prime years at a time when your energy and imagination are at a peak.
Recently I was asked my opinion by a young woman who was considering university. She’s not only bright, but sensible and organised beyond her years. My suggestion was that she enter a university in another country (away from her parents), and take some basic courses in business management, accounting, economics, etc. After a year, she should plan to drop out and travel the world for a year with a backpack. Her parents should give her enough money so that she’d be alright if she runs into unforeseen problems, but, aside from that, she should try to work her way around the world doing a variety of jobs. In doing so, she should follow her own choices and her own timetable.
Were she to do this, I believe she’d return home after the two years with the self-confidence, self-reliance and adaptability to take on virtually anything. Her “education” from that time would stay with her the rest of her life. As Albert Einstein stated,
“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”
Today, especially in the US, there’s a push toward the concept of everyone going to university, with some leaders and would-be leaders suggesting that university education should be available to all, for free. They don’t mention how it might be possible for the already-imposed-upon taxpayer to pay for this enormous additional cost, other than to “tax the rich some more”. (This is not exactly what makes up a viable business plan.)
Nor do they offer an opinion on what happens when the great majority of people have university degrees, but the great majority of jobs don’t require them. (Could it be that they’re imagining a society where no one accepts the job of collecting the garbage; where no one pursues a career as a fireman, a mechanic or a carpenter?)
In my own country…