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Do Geeks Need College?

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.

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About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

13 responses »

  1. Of the many issues with bailing out of college (no matter how smart the kid almost) the most consequential is perhaps the loss of opportunities to formally develop critical thinking–the use of reason, evidence, and discourse to arrive at conclusions and understandings. This is part of a good course in almost any traditional college subject. The importance of this development generally cannot be appreciated by someone pre-college. Further, there are many counter-examples of poorly executed courses and shallow curricula, and these can be used as arguments-by-example in favor of bailing on a subject. The goal and the general efficacy of college toward critical thinking, on average, over four years, remain nonetheless essential to the development of a fully functioning person no matter their vocation.

    Reply
    • You’re absolutely right; that’s a big part of what was missing from my discussion of what I learned in college and would not want Sam to miss…how to think better. It’s stood me in good stead for 24 years.

      Reply
  2. I believe the most valuable thing a college education provides — apart from that pre-stamped ticket into some human resources office — is diversity of ideas. Unless a young person has been fortunate enough to be in an honors program with gifted teachers, its highly unlikely that she will ever be exposed to the pool of diversity and commentary that a good undergraduate education provides.

    That’s one of the things I find so tragic about highly constrained institutions like (since it’s in the news, sort of) Oral Roberts University — as an extreme example. People come out of those mills inculcated with one point of view, either because they didn’t want to be exposed to anything else, or because their ability to think critically was squashed by faculty and peer pressure.

    By the same token, however, I don’t hold with forcing kids to go to college if they don’t want to. Maybe there’s a middle ground: a freshman year — surely not wasted — and then technical school if the campus life doesn’t take.

    Reply
    • You’re right, and I guess I have always had religiously-affiliated institutions like ORU in a special category of horror but not really thought about why. One of the best things about college was confronting ideas I hated, ideas that were difficult for me…ideas that were not the same as those I had always had and that my parents had.

      Sam will have to go to college in some fashion, but I’m thinking that in 6 years it may be an entirely different ball game…..

      Reply
  3. Having a gift or a particular talent does not mean it has to be applied towards a related career. Whether this is the path one follows ultimately ends up being the decision of the possessor of the gift. Some highly talented kids know exactly what they want to do at an early age. For these kids focusing on their area of expertise is probably the right decision. However, this does not mean abandoning being well rounded. Kids of all talent levels should be exposed to new ideas and experiences not only to help them be better rounded individuals but, more importantly, to continually open up doors of opportunity for them. You, and they, never know when a new path might come into view that will take them to where they need/want to be.

    As a former musical prodigy who ended up madly in love with linguistics and philosophy, I speak from firsthand experience. But I never would of experienced, let alone entertained this passion if my mother would not of been a proponent of being well rounded.

    Reply
    • That’s very insightful – I had two passions, music and writing, and focused on the “wrong” one (music) for many years, only to find that the real one developed and became dominant over time. I rejected many possibilities because I had “already decided.” (Incorrectly). I would never want that for my son; that’s why we surround his geekery with exposure to books and ideas and theater and music and sports…sometimes he bites and sometimes he doesn’t, but he will know that there is a world of paths out there. I hope we can do as good a job as your mother did.

      Reply
  4. Ann,

    All this discussion about being well rounded. I missed the notice in high school that there was something expected of me afterward. Still ended up the most critical round person I know……..
    Then, the daughter heads off in an abstract direction at college and graduates to accept a first position earning exactly the same amount as I do after 34 years in my career. Its the golfcart garage door on their new house that irks me I think.
    Just wait till you see what Sam thinks up for you and Rob.

    Reply
    • You are magnificently well rounded from where I’m sitting. Anyone who can write beautifully, think critically and smoke mullet roe is well rounded.

      I don’t know whether we are headed for the golf cart garage door or the regular raising of bail, at this point. Stay tuned…..

      Reply
  5. Ann,

    The world is changing so fast, much faster than it did when we graduated H.S. People are “specializing” in faraway countries to compete with the USA. Although I’m happy for my liberal arts degree from MSU, I do wonder what my life would have been if I had pursued my passion for languages and threw my all into that specialized field.

    Reply
    • Well, as you know, I made two HUGE blunders in selecting an area of focus, both times because I was terrified to compete in the area I really loved most (writing). I have a strong bias against trying to steer people away from their passions and into “practical” disciplines (packaging comes to mind) but that doesn’t mean that a person with a passion shouldn’t be exposed to other things and have every opportunity to choose wisely. Life is long.

      Reply
  6. enrealida yo estaba buscando la imagen de harvard dicen muchos que es la mejor escuela del mundo y con las imagenes que vi es verdad

    Reply
  7. es sierto mi mayor deseo es entrar a esa escuela

    Reply
  8. yo creo que es estupenda quisiera saber en donde se encuentra esa escuela harvard

    Reply

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