I had lunch on Monday with a small group of Island entrepreneurs. At some point in the conversation we realized that none of us had completed a university degree — we had each started university, but left early to do something else (for me it was “wander around for a while, and eventually start a business” and for each of them it was “ramp up the business”).
We compared notes on the flack from our parents brought on by our “early school leaving” decision. While it varied in intensity and duration, each of us experienced some variation of the “you’re ruining your life” treatment. Let’s just say that our decisions to drop out weren’t warmly embraced by our parents.
It has been 17 years since I left university, 4 or 5 since they did. We agreed that none of us have regretted the decision, and that, perhaps because we’ve achieved some business success, our parents have eventually come around.
I’ve obviously had some time to think about my decision, and our conversation crystallized some of that thinking.
Here’s the thing: for us, sons of upper middle-class professional parents each with a university degree of their own, the great roles that university played for our parents — establishing their credentials, outfitting them with professional skills, and, most importantly, bootstrapping them up a social class or two (or three), with all the self-confidence that such a change brings — are no longer of any relevance to us.
My father, for example, was born to working class parents. My grandmother worked in restaurants, grocery stores, and tractor and blanket factories. She used to tell stories about working during the depression for 25 cents a day. My grandfather, whose immigration records list him as a “farm labourer,” worked in the gold mines of Northern Ontario, and later for Massey-Ferguson.
For my father, university was, in no small way, his ticket out of a working class life: he became a professional, a scientist, and as a result lived a life completely different from that of his parents.
There’s no way that university could affect such a profound social transformation on me because I was already among the “university educated” class, and had been treated that way all my life. Combine that sense of entitlement with the work ethic that my parents inherited from their parents, and I inherited from them, and suddenly university becomes mostly about, well, learning. And if you’re sick of learning, at least in the “listening to tweed-suited people expound” way, the motivation to stick around isn’t great.
Add to that the world of technology offering exposure to interesting people, projects, and ideas, exposure previously unavailable to people like me without education or experience, and university never stood a chance.
For the longest time after leaving university I was convinced that there was something inherently wrong with formal education; looking back, I realize that sort of thinking was necessary to make leaving possible, especially because I was leaving, against some resistance, something concrete to enter something of a void. And I needed a reason besides “well, that was boring wasn’t it.”
From the more rational perch of later life, I realize the short-sightedness of that point of view. I don’t regret my own decision to leave, and would do so again if I could go back in time, but I realize both that there are people who actually enjoy structured learning, or at least require the skills and approaches it offers to be able to follow their dreams, and also that university continues to afford people the same socially transformative opportunities if offered my father.
What I’ve really come to understand, and I would hazard a guess the same would apply to my luncheon colleagues as well, is that my opportunity to thrive without a university degree is something I was able to do almost entirely because of the determination of my grandparents and parents. It was only through their efforts that I gained the self-confidence, the understanding of the pleasures of hard work, and the ability to learn on my own that I was able to do what I did. In a sense, the echoes of their university educations were powerful enough to let me ride on their crest.