At TED talks, the most viewed video — now surpassing 14 million hits — is “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” by England’s Sir Ken Robinson. Not long into the 18-minute lecture, Robinson answers his query. Yes, schools do kill creativity. “I believe this passionately: that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or, rather, we get educated out if it.” And, says the consultant, who helps European and American educators reform their entrenched systems (in 2003 he was knighted for his “service to the arts”), such a tendency “is profoundly mistaken” these days, with “the whole world engulfed in a [digital] revolution.” Robinson’s advocacy has sparked debate over the purpose and applicability of education, ever the same bored kids and boring teachers.
You would think America’s schools would cave under all the criticism they receive. What’s distressing is that the critique is withering from both ends. Take job and career prep. Robinson tells his audience: “You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid — things you liked — on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. ‘Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician.’” At least, not a money-making one. The reality is, however, there’s hardly any way into the arts that doesn’t involve waiting tables. What’s more, not everyone is artistic. Kids need training, especially the talentless. Where else will they get it but in school?
Damned either way: teach job skills, and the school squanders the young’s creativity; teach creativity, and graduates, sassy and fulfilled, have few marketable skills.
Yet, Robinson’s talk, like that of dogged independents in the home-schooling movement, reminds us of the unteachable traits, like ambition, imagination, persistence, turns of character that may not mean a steady paycheck but are necessary to a society’s growth. Where would our culture be without those unschooled self-starters like Thomas Edison and Bill Gates? How do we think about the “education” of other rarities, all high-school dropouts, like Count Basie, Marlon Brando, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosa Parks, Charlie Chaplin, Horace Greeley, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller?
The young read (or, these days, probably hear) of these bootstrap pioneers, filled with purpose, and say, “Why not me? Why do I have to go to college to be someone? Isn’t there another way?”
There is. UnCollege, a year-long process of self-directed education, as one university dropout and entrepreneur has trademarked it, hoping to direct the faction.
The idea is that your education is your responsibility. You can use your latent talents and abiding passions to get where you want to go. Just remember, you must first steer clear of the path, often de rigueur in the annals of American success, that maintains that a four-year degree is worth mountainous debt, useless knowledge, and entombed creativity.
Nico D’Amico-Barbour is unsure about a lot of things, but one thing he’s not unsure of is that college offers nothing that he needs to live now. At 22, tousled-haired, with a preternaturally wise face, he is gainfully employed, a dedicated autodidact, and a fair-weather college student. Five years ago, D’Amico-Barbour, then enrolled at High Tech High, dropped out “for personal reasons.” He tells me this over a vegan cookie and hot tea at Filter in Hillcrest. All his High Tech friends graduated and went on to college. Not him. Eventually, he passed his GED, took five classes at Mesa College, got bored, quit, and found a job running a coffee shop for $8 an hour.
High-Tech High did ground him in one thing: “That place taught me how to learn.” But other than a few good history classes, with project-based group learning, “I never really got any real knowledge there.” Such knowledge is, for him, narrowly defined — it’s applied. Only life, D’Amico-Barbour says, gives knowledge.
He admits that “friends and family struggle to understand” his position. They may not recognize how well informed he is. He listens to NPR podcasts and updates himself with news blogs daily. (At times, his conversation drifts into current politics.) His passion, though, has been to work, “not to sit and listen.” He values starting his own business, studying on his own, and steering clear of homework and what he calls the “deferred gratification” of university life.
D’Amico-Barbour boils down his counterintuitive path to a stronger longing, a desire to “experience hardships,” defined as the daily vicissitudes of work, paying one’s way, riding the bus, and so on. He says he grew up with well-off parents, partly in Europe, where he studied Italian. With such a tended life, he seldom faced the difficulties he relishes while living on his own.
Nico discusses college
Nibbling on a cookie, he admits that “My parents would, today, step in and help me” go to college “if that’s what I wanted to do. It’s unfortunate that I have a free education waiting for me, and millions of Americans don’t. Most Americans look forward only to crippling college debt or not being able to afford much of anything. That’s an example of what’s wrong with our system.” In a sense, he feels his advantages “nagging at him. I sometimes joke that I have to pay off my birth.” College would exercise that birthright, perhaps another reason to say no.
D’Amico-Barbour calls college “a fabricated environment. It’s fake. We set up buildings, an environment with dorm rooms, for 18-year-olds. You always hear two aspects about college: the parties and the pranks; and the flipside, the learning opportunities, pulling all-nighters to learn an esoteric concept. It’s completely fabricated. It will never be experienced again.”
Worse, college is a “platform for enforcing the status quo.” The American class system has not changed in 250 years, D’Amico-Barbour says. It’s bent on rewarding the same bluebloods with opportunities and money. The undiscussed goal, which college “perpetuates,” is privilege. Even affirmative action “just indoctrinates people of a lower class into the upper class.” College is no longer the democratically open and financially accessible institution it used to be, in the halcyon 1960s, when it was often free.
He continues: “How many people can honestly say that they’ve had an incredible, amazing, inspiring, novel-worthy life? I would argue that that most” individual accomplishments “come from adversity, from taking risks, and not from going through the steps everyone else takes. They come from selling all your possessions and moving to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language — as an example.
“I’ve grown more character, humility, and understanding for the pain most people in this world have to go through than I ever could have experienced in high school or by going through college.”
It’s not so much what college provides that bothers him, but what it forestalls. As such, there’s a greater incentive for him not to go. Maybe he’ll want university later on, in his mid- to late-20s. But not now, not when in three years he’s risen to office manager at Canvass for a Cause, a gay-rights nonprofit, with 50 people working under him, “all younger than me.” He earns more than most his age. And he’s keeping his options open. He’s toying with the idea of applying to billionaire Elon Musk’s project of colonizing Mars.
D’Amico-Barbour realizes that his motivations are conflicted. On his own, he loves learning about “esoteric things,” but were he to enter university he hopes his teachers would focus on job skills, the relevant, the practical. Recently, he says, “I went back again, took a few classes, and I succeeded for a second. But then it just slowly faded away,” and he quit.
Instead, at Canvass, he’s acquired a satchelful of skills. Mostly self taught, he’s learned “Excel algorithms, data collection, office management, organizational development, payroll, and leadership.” His eagerness to succeed has been rewarded with six promotions.
College, he says, offers subject mastery in things neither he nor anyone needs in life: say, a course in algebra or the history of the Beatles. Such erudition, he believes, is a waste of time.
“There is nothing I learned in my job that I did not need to learn for my job,” he says.
According to economist Stephen Rose, the “BA wage premium” is 74 percent more than a high-school graduate will earn in his/her lifetime (roughly $1 million). What’s more, college graduates have an unemployment rate half that of those without a degree. Sounds like a good investment.
Yet the demand for educated workers keeps falling, replaced by a projected growth in unskilled and semi-skilled labor, which — surprise — runs against constant calls for an educated workforce. While it’s true that jobs for workers with master’s degrees in bioengineering and education continue to climb, the biggest growth in coming employment opportunities will be for those with a high school diploma or less.
“More than two-thirds of all job openings,” the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites for the decade 2010–2020, “are expected to be in occupations that typically do not need postsecondary education for entry.” Two-thirds. These vocations provide “on-the-job training,” no prior experience needed: personal care; home health aides, including medical secretaries; carpenters, plumbers, ironworkers, laborers; and so on. More openings are slated for pet handlers, sports trainers, massage therapists, housecleaners, and dental assistants, each of which requires about a year of training beyond high school. There will be growth in veterinary medicine, medical diagnostics, and occupational therapy, some of these jobs needing a two-year associate’s degree.
These positions are low-wage, non-union, benefits-lacking contract labor — and, if the population remains the same for immigration and birth, each slot will become increasingly competitive. By contrast, how many university grads have I run into lately who are enduring unpaid internships, nowadays one of the few ways into professions bulging with applicants?
The message: If it’s a basic job that pays a basic wage, why go to college, indeed?
The notion that four years of college is universally desired (President Obama often uses the phrase, “send your kids to college”) exists as one of the more dubious inducements foisted on the young and the restless. How and where to go is implanted — and worried over — when kids are high-school juniors and sometimes much earlier. So says Mary Jo McCarey, head counselor at Clairemont High School.
In a phone interview, McCarey tells me that her school provides ample materials to help kids decide on possible life paths. Among them is career and personality assessment software: find your aptitude, gauge your interests, see what’s available. “We tell them,” she says, “that it’s important to figure [out] what kind of career you want and understand how to get there — because nearly every job requires a skill, and after high school, you’ll need to go another two years.
“A lot dream — ‘I want to be a doctor, a pediatrician, a CSI, or crime-scene investigator’: whatever they see on TV.” But it’s the star they want to be, she says, not the professional played.
Do they know how to get there?
“They have no clue.”
Do their parents?
McCarey pauses, sighs wearily. Her voice has that landscape of frustration in it that arises after decades of explaining what few seem to grok.
“Maybe 15 percent of our kids have role models at home who support them to further their education.” For the rest of them, their parents may be “just as lost. [Some] don’t even talk to their kids.” McCarey believes that low-income families are primarily concerned with their kids’ earning money as of that bright June day when they graduate high school. These parents seldom “think of education as an investment, that [their kids] would make more money.”
One of the strangest problems McCarey has witnessed is how uneducated and college-averse parents — who do want their children to graduate high school — suddenly don’t want them to go to college. “It [a college degree] is a slap in the face. Their attitude is, ‘What I do — if it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.’” There’s no need for university if one’s sights are set on lawn maintenance or the night shift at Burger King.
Debt may dissuade some from attending college, although high-school students by and large don’t understand that a college loan is just that. “They don’t realize they have to pay it back,” McCarey says. She’s known more than a few who’ve dropped out of college after two years because it hits them — and their parents — that the money is not gratis. “I don’t think they get it until they get the bill.”
She says that the ones who’ll succeed in college are those in advanced-placement classes who have study skills and keep their GPA between 3.5 and 4.0. “The kids between 2.5 and 3.0, in the regular classes, they’re probably not going to make it.” McCarey is frank, some might say punishingly realistic, with her charges. “I tell them, ‘You might get into college, but the chances of you staying in college are slim to none. You don’t have the study skills. You’re barely getting by.’”
I ask McCarey if scholarship, fine art, self-enrichment, and the love of study appeals to any of her high schoolers. Out of the 1200 at Clairemont, she says, “maybe 5 fit that profile.” Job, job, job is the mantra — neither a degreed profession, nor love of learning, nor a beautiful mind is the goal. It’s odd, too, that with longer life expectancy and second acts encouraged in our culture, Americans equate higher education so thoroughly with employment — except perhaps in the case of a liberal-arts degree. A generation ago, such degrees were a common aspiration.
College avoidance may be cultural. McCarey notes that 53 percent of Clairemont high’s population is Hispanic, and for most, college is doable only if the campus is local (a situation that contributes to the proliferation of online classes). Hispanic kids, she says, often “do not go away to college. Their families don’t want their kids to leave, period. If they go [to college], they live at home and commute. It’s the only way, especially with the girls.”
Why the tether?
McCarey has a story. When she counseled at Hoover High School, a Hispanic staff member told her that parents in her culture didn’t want their kids to roam. That means working and not moving on to, or away, for higher education. It’s a “form of insurance. Many families don’t have insurance — they have children. Their children are their insurance.”
Moving out, and especially going off to college, suggests that the kids “may never come back, [that] in essence [they] may not be there to take care of the parents when they get sick and old.” Many families don’t want their children marrying their professions, thereby divorcing either their families or their communities.
In 2010, student debt in America reached the $1 trillion mark. The explosion of such debt is among the harshest types of economic indenture, afflicting the poor and the middle class, for whom college is an added — not a planned- or saved-for — expense. In the past three decades, while inflation has risen threefold and healthcare sixfold, college costs have shot up tenfold. Some bubble-wary economists believe that college-loan debt — the average in 2012 for a graduate was $26,600; 60 percent of those attending college borrowed; 37 million people owe, about one in ten — is a looming financial crisis on par with the mortgage crisis five years ago. Why? Student debt is now greater than the country’s credit-card debt.
Unpaid bills are just one of many bugaboos that beset Tyler Wayne Davis, who has myriad doubts about the worth of a college degree. He meets me one January afternoon at Lestat’s on Park Boulevard to talk about his blowing off college, something he’s been good at for the 12 years since finishing high school.
An Ocean Beach resident, Davis at 30 is open-faced and warmly relational, less jaded than I feared. He wears a green hoodie and a green hat. Above the hat’s bill is a button — a capital “A” with a circle around it, the insignia of the anarchist. He’s an unabashed champion of social justice who recently married his longtime girlfriend and is vexed that he’s educationally stuck.
Any debt, he says, “really weighs on me.” He and his wife just bought a car, financing $18,000. This was the first real debt for either of them. Their avoidance was “partly out of fear, partly out of principle,” Davis says. “It’s scary. Hell, I can barely pay back friends who loan me $20, let alone pay back a credit-card company that has no remorse.”
We talk about the idea that one of the major problems with college debt — which he has so far evaded — is that it almost guarantees you’ll have to work at a job you won’t like to get rid of that debt. And yet, without a degree and the crushing college bill, you’d probably be working at a job you won’t like anyway.
Davis is not averse to hard work. For years, he’s found jobs, paid and unpaid, working with at-risk kids in summer camps and detention; he’s also worked with disabled adults. These days, he has two jobs: helping home-bound adults on public assistance and managing a group of merchandise kiosks at Belmont Park.
Tyler discusses college
How many times, he moans, has he, when applying for a job, faced the box on the form indicating “college education,” put down his handful of community-college classes, and then been told the cold fact that, learning-wise, he’s underqualified?
Davis tells me a story, one that’s “played over and over in my mind a million times.” While he and the woman who became his wife were living in Lawrence, Kansas, a friend from Austin, Texas, called and said he had the perfect job for him, one in which Davis would set up “social experiments with high-school kids” and create diversity-training programs to defuse bullying. He’s had ample experience in all these things, mostly with Anytown, a program for disadvantaged youth aged 14–18 that is sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice.
His friend said, “I’ve convinced them you’re great for this job. All you have to do is fill out the résumé, come down here, and meet them, and send a copy of your diploma — ”
“Dude,” Davis said in a remorse-laden tone. “I don’t have a bachelor’s.”
“Oh, no,” his friend said.
The bachelor’s could be in anything. Still, Davis had no degree.
And that was that.
It haunts him that when he turns in his résumé to “at least get a foot in the door,” the person with the degree and not the experience receives a callback before he does.
While in high school, neither his parents, teachers, nor counselors saw him as college material. They did see many of his friends that way, testing and prepping them with advanced courses. Davis’s parents were also college dropouts. “They ended up doing basically what I’ve done.”
Another reason college hasn’t happened is a phrase he says several times: “Life got in the way.” You name it: an aversion to college algebra, full-time jobs working nights, friendship and relationship problems, growing up in a family that was “fiscally irresponsible,” his mother’s remarriage to an alcoholic, and more.
Throughout high school and beyond, “I was really just going through the day,” never thinking, “‘What am I going to be doing in five years?’”
Davis impresses me on one count. He says that early on he was interested in religious studies, “not because I’m religious, but just because I’m interested.” But the last thing he wanted, he realized, was to attend university for eight years, get his PhD, and “end up teaching it. That’s not practical.”
Every next year, he says, “is the year. This year is crazy,” he laughs, “but next year — I’ll figure out my finances and it’ll be better.” So, college looms as a prospect, a salvation, even a goal. “But then,” the pragmatist in him notes, “next year comes, and you’re living life and it isn’t better. Next year is sometimes worse.”
Three years after graduating high school, Davis came close to an associate’s degree at a community college in Kansas, but then two good friends, a male-female couple, were murdered. Under the emotional strain, and after three weeks of missed classes, his teachers said he was too far behind, and he dropped out.
His tenure with social-justice groups —organizing and working with youth — has never paid. He laughs again, a tad dishearteningly. “If anything, that was my biggest financial drain. My money went to paying rent, keeping a crappy car running, utilities, food, paying rent on our office space.”
Devotion to a social ideology like anarchism has not “translated into getting me a job. In fact,” he says, things like publishing a radical newsletter for prisoners, staging hunger strikes, and organizing anti-military recruitment offensives “doesn’t look very good on anyone’s résumé.”
He’s close to a crossroads. He’s not bitter, by any means — “I definitely benefit” in this society “from male privilege, white privilege, and because I’m married, straight privilege.” But even with these pluses, “and working 60 hours a week, I still can’t get ahead. There’s got to be something wrong about that.”
The pressure to “decide” his future, not just live it, is ever present, harsh sunshine for one who is squinty-eyed. He may inch back to college. “I’ve said that so many times that I wonder, is the claim real?” Davis believes he’s mature enough now to get his credits together, find a math tutor, and defer doing for being a student.
What’s difficult for him is that he still doesn’t know what he wants to do over the long haul. He worries that his current jobs won’t allow him the time necessary for an educational program. Still, he works as much as he can to make his and his wife’s move from Kansas to Ocean Beach viable and to support his wife’s one-year certification program in dental hygiene.
Davis remembers that when he lived in Lawrence he hung out with lots of kids in college or those who’d just graduated. Many worked in the same field as he did, social justice, for which he has no postsecondary qualifications.
One day, he and a woman got in a hot chat about time-travel and physics. “I explained what I had just read, and this girl said, ‘I’m minoring in physics,’ and then explained, with all the right buzz words, exactly what I’d just said — literally, to the T.” He was dumbfounded.
Davis thought, Oh, I see. You’re minoring in physics, so it matters more what you have to say than what I have to say. Got it.
Such attitudes — putdowns, really — from university know-it-alls, added to the difficulties of a life spent paying back tens of thousands of dollars to become one of them? These are things Davis can live without.
Yes — higher earning potential justifies the investment
No — better to just enter the workforce straightaway
Depends on the degree earned
146 total votes.