For reasons not entirely clear to me, I regularly receive “Fast Company” magazine, and for reasons even more obscure, I really enjoy reading it. This is not to say the magazine isn’t great, but it’s about business, particularly the intersection of business and technology, neither of which are subjects dear to my heart. Often, there are articles concerning the out-of-the-box successes of innovators in the tech universe, and these interest me because my son seems to be headed in the (erratic) direction of Unguided Missile/Genius of Geekery. This is not the result of any parental direction, although I am personally thrilled to have someone on-site who can open a zip file and create a website from scratch. It’s just, honestly, what he loves best. (He told me only yesterday that his greatest ambition is to be a member of The Geek Squad).
Recently, “Fast Company’s” editor explored whether gifted techno-geeks like his son (and mine) needed a “regular” college education, or whether they could really just be recruited and molded by employers right out of high school, the same as NBA players. The author acknowledged that most, if not all employers still want to see at least a Bachelor’s degree; he concluded that for the time being, his family’s plan was to keep looking at colleges and to proceed with a standard education. The notion that it might not be necessary for Sam to get a standard four-year degree intrigues and bedevils me. What is the value of formal post-secondary education, particularly the kind I received at a liberal arts college, for a person with clear passion, talent and direction that might better be developed in a vocational school or professional setting rather than in a series of academic classrooms?
This is not a novel issue; when I was in college 27 years ago, a friend majoring in Biochemistry at a large state university complained bitterly and incessantly about the fact that he was forced to take humanities and something called “American Thought and Language” in order to graduate. He is now a patent attorney and earns an astronomical amount of money. Two years ago, a young neighbor graduated from the same university with a 4.0 GPA in Computer Engineering, explained to his mother that he didn’t really need a Master’s degree to be financially secure, and immediately secured a job in Chicago earning more than my entire household. Both of these men are admirably well-rounded in terms of appreciating art, music and literature, but in neither case did they need to be taught about it in order to succeed in their chosen work; they were required to take arts and letters classes which they hated, and loved the arts in spite of, not because of taking mandated humanities and writing classes.
I myself started out at a Conservatory of Music, which was, quite honestly, single-focus vocational training for young musicians with almost no traditional academic offerings. I missed the diversity of a less specialized program and made a change, but for many “real” musicians that I know, four years of good lessons, exposure to orchestral repertoire, and some music theory and history prepared them to be what they are and always planned to be: good musicians. If you plan to be a musician, a chef, or a film maker, there are schools where you can train with a sharp focus on your chosen field, and graduate with a valuable credential recognized by orchestras, restaurants and studios. If you are really talented, you often require no schooling at all to be hired; if you can win the audition or dazzle an executive chef or director, you’re in. No one would argue, I think, that such talent would be improved by four years of general education in Biology 101 and World Civilisations. Better rounding, yes. More ability, absolutely not.
So if four years of standard college curriculum doesn’t result in greater earnings or increased talent for the average person-with-a-gift, why am I so disturbed by the idea of my own kid skipping college altogether or attending some institution focused on Advanced Practical Geekery? It may be my own background; I am the product of liberally educated types and have an English degree of my own, and was taught by word and deed from the time I was in elementary school that people should learn things, and know things, and not only the things in which they were naturally interested. I graduated from college knowing all kinds of stuff, not only from my own studies, but based on conversations and arguments with other students about everything from natural selection to Kant. I got interested in something, I looked it up in the library, and I learned. Knowing all of those things was fabulous, and I wouldn’t change it if I could, but I had not one actual job-related skill on graduation day.
For me, it was the right choice. I had explored a world of thought and possibility, learned how to find things out, and eventually, after some mistakes (like law school) figured out where my talents met someone’s willingness to pay for them. But what if I had always known where I was headed. Well, more to the point: is it even possible to “always know where you are headed?” Is it possible to know when you’re eighteen? If you think you know, should you be challenged, broadened and made to consider other options? Should it matter whether your passion is practical (like cooking or troubleshooting networks) or impractical (like writing blank verse or making collages using recycled cloth)? Does everyone need a degree to “fall back on,” even if that degree comes with massive debt and no actual skills? Should a parent like me with a liberal arts bias put pressure on a clearly other-directed child to keep his educational focus general, at least through college, “for his own good?” I can make it happen that way, because we’ll be paying for most of it, but is that a good enough reason to override a young adult’s natural inclinations?
If you are waiting for the answers, you should definitely make yourself comfortable; it may be six years before I can even scratch the surface on this one. If I knew that there was a post-secondary program devoted to the perfection of moving wires and motherboards, and Sam still barely tolerated the reading of novels and the study of People in Groups, I might just think it was okay to let him go, and hope that at some point in his life he would gravitate naturally towards books and the other cultural frippery that makes my heart beat faster. This decision would be even easier if his interests held steady, and I knew that he had fully explored the humanities during his high school education so that he had some base of knowledge other than technology. If he was offered the opportunity to go to work right out of high school at Google or Apple, I would probably still think that he should have a sheepskin in his back pocket for just-in-case, even if it was old-fashioned and probably unnecessary. Maybe he’ll decide on his own that he wants all that a general education can offer him; that is, of course, my most cherished hope.
The world is changing fast, and it is possibly a sad, vestigial notion that a bright kid whose parents can afford to pay for college should automatically take that path, but do I want my bright kid to be disarmed unilaterally in a field of MIT and Harvard grads? Right now, today, I do not.