Is college a waste of time?

Larry Sanger

More from the anti-intellectualism dept.:

I admit this is news to me: a “Thiel Fellowship” has been set up by PayPal founder Peter Thiel, which encourages tech entrepreneurship by under-20-olds with the requirement that the recipients not go to college for two years.  Peter Thiel, as it happens, has B.A. and J.D. degrees from Stanford, so it’s a fair question whether he would have taken his own advice.  I recently had a similar reaction to Ken Robinson, Ph.D.

One of the fellowship recipients, 19-year-old Dale Stephens, wrote a provocatively-titled essay reprinted in “College is a waste of time.”  As a former college instructor, I’d give it a C.  The essay’s argument is undeveloped; its thesis, that college is a “waste of time,” gets only the scantiest support.  Moreover, I can’t help but observe that this is a short and dogmatic essay, well exemplifying the generation of self-important, dogmatic young techies that dominate discourse about the Internet these days.

Let me preface these remarks by saying, first of all, that I too sort of dropped out of the academy.  I had wanted to be a philosophy professor from the age of 18.  But, a few years before finishing my dissertation, I became disillusioned with academia–it’s a familiar story.  I did finish my Ph.D. in Philosophy, though, partly because Jimmy Wales promised to increase my salary once I earned the degree.  My complaint, anyway, was that academic research tends to reheat arguments and focus on the trivial, which is an inevitable feature of the publish-or-perish economics of academic hiring.  But I wouldn’t recommend that college students drop out, if they want and have the aptitude for jobs that require college degrees. Moreover, a college degree can, even today if you attend a liberal arts institution, broaden and improve the mind.  Skipping graduate school, well, that’s another question. Some jobs require it, some don’t.

So what is Stephens’ argument that “college is a waste of time”?  It is more or less a laundry list of complaints about college:

1. College rewards “conformity rather than independence.”

2. College rewards “competition rather collaboration.”

3. College rewards “regurgitation rather than learning.”

4. College rewards “theory rather than application.”

5. College actually reduces “creativity, innovation and curiosity.”

6. “Failure is punished instead of seen as a learning opportunity” in college.

7. College is very expensive.

8. But “there are productive alternatives to college,” as one can see in the lives of people “who never completed or attended college.”

9. LinkedIn, Facebook, StackOverflow, Behance, and other sites together allow us to document our accomplishments and get them “socially validated,” and evaluation of acccomplishments on such sites will take the place of college degrees for hiring purposes.

10. Therefore, college is a waste of time.

The trouble with this argument is that the premises are in some cases quite questionable, and those that have merit do not support the conclusion.  I’ll make some comments on each.

Premise 1: whether college rewards conformity rather than independence really depends on the field.  In the humanities, for example, conformity to P.C. is pretty rigorously enforced, and one can never be quite sure if endorsement of the professor’s idiosyncratic views is expected or not.  (As a rule of thumb, if a professor spends a lot of time trying to convince you of something not everyone in the field believes, then throwing it back in his or her face isn’t a good idea if you want the best grade.)  On the other hand, most professors find attempts to think originally and creatively refreshing, and they reward attempts, or successful attempts anyway; I did.  Also, don’t confuse the conformist attitudes of your fellow students with your professors, who, even if they are dogmatic or ideological, generally have some appreciation for genuine intellectual creativity.  As to science, in the basic courses anyway, “independence” is beside the point; either you learn the material or you don’t.  Bottom line: college as it is done today tends to make people more ideologically “pure” or conformist, but also frequently better able to range across a wide landscape of intellectual possibilities.

Premise 2: if Stephens is actually saying he’d prefer more groupwork, I’m surprised; I really hated groupwork in the classes I took.  Collaborating in Wikipedia or Citizendium is one thing–that can be amusing.  Collaborating on a college paper or assignment, on the other hand, is usually tedious and annoying, at least in my experience.   Anyway, let’s suppose college does rewards competition rather than collaboration.  Why is this bad, even by Stephens’ lights?  Stephens, like the anti-intellectual types who perennially talk down college, seems to think that what is important in evaluating college as an institution is its ability to prepare students for thriving careers.  This is not really correct, but suppose it is.  Well, the marketplace is full of competition, so prima facie getting practice competing isn’t bad preparation.  It is true, to be sure, that collaboration also happens all the time in business; but let me assure you that doing more groupwork in college will not help you in the slightest, especially in courses like philosophy and chemistry, unless you are in an applied field.  For example, if you’re doing film production, then by golly I’m sure practice in collaborative film production is exactly what’s needed.  But then, in such fields, it’s easy to find college programs where just such collaboration happens regularly.

Premise 3: does college require regurgitation rather than learning?  “Regurgitation” is itself a frequently regurgitated concept, a favorite of disaffected high school students and educationists alike, according to which memorization for a test is criticized because the facts tend not to be understood, or “digested,” properly.  Well, it depends on the college and the student, first of all; at Reed College, most of work done outside of science and math took the form of essay writing, and little regurgitation took place.  Granted, at many state colleges there is a lot of teaching to the test, and I can’t disagree that this is unfortunate.  My advice if you are at such an institution is to find professors who by reputation do inspire learning, one way or another.  Just bear in mind that some professors who use textbooks, lecture, and examinations do manage to produce excellently-prepared students who can do much more than just “regurgitate” undigested information.  Things would be different if your peers were better students who could be expected to attend class and do the reading and understand it; then, professors would be able to do more with them.  Anyway, is this enough to justify quitting college?  Not at all.  After all, whether one really learns the subject in a lecture-text-examination scheme really is up to the student.  If you really want to learn, you will.

Premise 4: of course college requires more “theory” than “application”–but maybe this isn’t a very clear proposition.  Anyway, college is about the deep reasons for things, or the theory.  Community colleges, technical colleges, and professional programs are about how to do specialized vocational tasks such as managing a business, writing code, and designing.  College, by contrast, is about expanding the mind and training the understanding.  The idea that college is better if it is “applied” is just wrong, because, quite frankly, there is no substitute for careful reading and analytical writing, for working through difficult calculations, and so forth, if you want to train the mind.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is simply anti-intellectual, or, in other words, simply doesn’t care about training the mind.  If like Sir Ken Robinson they are already educated, then no doubt they take such training for granted, probably having forgotten the sorts of things they had to do–which some students find very tedious–in order to get the sort of intellectual training they use daily.  If they are not well educated, they probably have no idea of what they’re missing out on.  In some cases, this attitude is just a matter of sour grapes from students who couldn’t make the grade.

Premise 5: does college reduce “creativity, innovation and curiosity”?  Surely not.  I mean, the stuff about ideological indoctrination aside, college instructors labor hard to wake minds up to possibilities that they cannot see and, in many cases, actively resist.  The ability to see possibilities is a crucial component of creativity.  As to curiosity, mine was certainly heightened by my college education, but then, I went to Reed, and Reed is different.  Still, if you arrive at college intellectually curious, there are challenging programs even at state colleges which cater to your curiosity more than the usual lecture-text-exam courses will.  But I suspect that Stephens, like many, is complaining that college already has a body of knowledge to teach, and  instead of letting him think whatever he likes, he would have to learn what they have to teach.  Well, yes.  Critical and scholarly thinking is in some tension with creative thinking.  You might get very enthusiastic about some half-baked idea of your own, which is creative, innovative, and inspires your curiosity–only to be confronted, unpleasantly, by your professor saying, “Have you noticed that you’re actually contradicting yourself?” or “You need to cash out your central concepts, and when you do, you’ll find that your basic claim is trivial,” or “That’s a plausible hypothesis, but a whole body of research done back in the 1970s actually showed it to be a blind alley.”  Now, if you’re the sort of person–say, an insufferable egotist, or passionately dogmatic–who hates to be told that his cherished ideas are wrong, then being swatted down casually by your professors is going to sting quite a bit.  But then, until you lose your ego and dogmatism a little, you’re probably incapable of being educated.  It might be a good idea to get out into the real world for a few years–where your egotism and dogmatism will probably be beaten out of you anyway.  Then you might be ready for college.  This happens quite a lot.

Premise 6: failure is punished instead of being treated as a learning opportunity?  This is just a fallacy: failure is both. The fear of failure is, of course, the only thing that motivates most students to study.  Besides, if you do fail (to get the right answer, or to pass a whole exam or a course), then usually you have the “opportunity” to do better.  Who is stopping you?  Only yourself and your wounded ego.  Finally, failure in the real world can have a lot harsher consequences.  Whether you take these consequences as a “learning opportunity” is up to you.  What is certain is that there is no effective system for getting an education that does not feature copious identification and correction of mistakes, a.k.a. failure and learning therefrom.

Premise 7: yeah, college is very expensive, much more than it should be.  Can’t argue there.  But did you know that if you love homeschooling, you can do the same thing at the college level and then get degrees by examination, e.g., from Excelsior College?  Anyway, the reason college is expensive is that the market values it.  When the market stops valuing it so much, expect the cost of college education to drop.  (This is something a college student learns in ECON 101.)

Premise 8: are there productive alternatives to college?  Well, of course.  Degrees by examination are one example.  Or simply go to work instead of college, and, one hopes, you will be productive.  I concede Stephens’ more full-bodied point here, that it is possible to have a meaningful career without college.  Whoever denied that?  But if you are 20 years old, you are not making a decision under certainty (a concept you’d pick up in Intro to Logic).  You don’t know, if you drop out of college, what the likelihood is that you will remain in uninspiring jobs or an uneducated person.  But you do know this: if you stay in college, then the chances of your getting the best opportunities are better than if you drop out.  It is, of course, a fallacy to assume that you’ll be another Steve Jobs (who dropped out of Reed).

Premise 9: social networks will replace college degrees as credentialing services?  Of course they won’t, and Stephens does not even begin to mount a defense of this radical claim.  Employers, like it or not, see college degrees as evidence that candidates probably have some baseline amount of training in reading, writing, critical thinking, and basic knowledge.  For most jobs that require much thinking and articulate communication, a college degree is still necessary because employers still need some rough guarantee of the mastery of these skills.  In this way, sadly, a college degree has come to replace what was formerly supposed to be guaranteed by a high school diploma.   The busy professionals who do the hiring for both large and small concerns need ways to cut down the amount of work they do.  Trust me, my young padawans, they do not have time to peruse your blog for evidence of basic skills attainment, they know that LinkedIn profiles and online resumes are easily padded, and they know that number of “friends” means nothing (except maybe time spent online collecting friends).  Maybe the Internet will find a new credentialing method (I argued for a new sort of educational scheme myself a few years back–essay is now offline), but you’ll have to confront an institution and do the sort of things you do in college if you want to get the credential, of that I’m pretty certain.

My main objection to Stephens’ essay, and another reason that he gets a C from me, is that he mainly misunderstands the purpose of education, which means he didn’t take the time to acquaint himself with the main opposition to his point of view.  College education in the sense of liberal education, which is what is normally meant by a “college education,” is not vocational training at all, but training of the mind.  This is not something trivial like being able to play chess, or just another skill like being able to swim.  We are our minds, by and large.  A good liberal arts education changes our minds and in so doing changes our personalities, our ability to understand what’s going on around us, our ability to react appropriately, and how we feel about life and the world.  When in college himself, Peter Thiel no doubt read this in J. S. Mill’s Utilitarianism:

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

Stephens’ argument seems to rest mainly on the assumption that the reason we should go to college is so that we can succeed in the work world.  I know that is why many people do go to college; but it is not, so to speak, the reason they should. College’s purpose, and the reason that it is not “a waste of time,” is that it improves us in a way that simply going into the work world, even the work world 2.0, will not.  In saying this I don’t mean to defend every aspect of the institution of college education, because of course I don’t.  And I might well recommend that my little boys get their degrees by examination when they are old enough (of course, it will be up to them).  But generally, college education is recommendable because it improves the mind.

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