On University, Not

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.


Alan's picture
Alan on July 24, 2003 - 12:10 Permalink

Good points. While I have wallowed in university years, I have done so based on the advice of my older brothers: don’t go to classes. There was always a distinction between the opportunity and the resources on one hand and the formality. The last three generations had taken the family — collectively — from the dockyards to the desk and each stage was key. The most important into university in 1981 was likely my grandfather’s move from riviter to shipyard sales and marrying a socialist activist and politician who brought the first series of penguin books into the house in the 1930’s. What is important is the opportunity each era or day presents.

Ken's picture
Ken on July 24, 2003 - 15:57 Permalink

Today, more than ever, the value of a university degree is down just because they are so much more common. What is valuable is the passion to learn about something, which with the internet, Amazon Books, and a credit card has no limit.

Among my friends many years ago we realized that those employed in their field of study had the name of the job in the degree — law, education, nursing, engineering. Those who had degree’s in psychology, geography, and history all worked in other areas.

So, if you want a job from your degree, make sure it has the job title in the degree!

nathan's picture
nathan on July 24, 2003 - 17:36 Permalink

I agree, good points Peter. Good to see you’re not falling into the false logic of “I left university and I was successful, therefore university is a waste.” People that succeed in anything, school or business, do so because their smart and motivated.

In response to Ken: There’s more to a university degree than getting a job. There’s also alot more knowledge in this world than what’s available on the Internet.

Cynthia's picture
Cynthia on July 24, 2003 - 18:14 Permalink

It took me a couple of decades to realize that my parents were and still are responsible for much of my successes. I feel fortunate that they planted the ‘creativity is a good thing’ seed in my head.
I don’t regret attending university for 3.5 years, and I also don’t regret not finishing. Actually, it makes me feel a bit rebellious knowing that all I’d have to do is go back for a semester and finish it. But the bottom line with me is, I love learning, but I hate school.
And besides, finishing the degree at this point in my life, would not make any difference in my happiness level or income level.

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on July 24, 2003 - 18:38 Permalink

I don’t have anything to add, except that like other’s I think you’ve expressed a real insight or two there, Peter, which was interesting to read. What with the nature-nuture ambiguity and my ignorance about your childhood, it’s impossible for me to say, but my hunch is you give away a tad too much credit to your parent’s for your success.

Hans's picture
Hans on July 24, 2003 - 18:56 Permalink

I learned this at university: One assumption that the purveyor’s of formal education make is that there is only one learning style. In “olden times” (i.e. before the electronic age), people who tended to learn by doing tended to veer toward professions or trades where hands-on activities were involved whereas people who tended to learn by reading or listening tended to veer towards more cerebral professions. Nowadays, it is being more recognized (or should be) that learning styles don’t necessarily connect to certain kinds of professions. If one is an entrepreneur, there are could be a number of learning paths that led one to know about being a businessperson. A Harvard MBA is as good as the School of Hard Knocks. I agree that the key element is hard work and/or enjoying the work one does.

Lou Quillio's picture
Lou Quillio on July 24, 2003 - 19:51 Permalink

When I dropped out of college in 1981 it was with a clear understanding that I couldn’t announce the decision to my family without in the next breath announcing an alternative. So I went straight from liberal ivy to the U.S. Air Force. Rather a contrast.

The USAF quickly had me piloting a desk in the Contracting field, which I learned inside and out. My four-year enlistment ended in the middle of the Reagan defense build-up, and I had my choice of corporate defense contractors eager for an insider’s knowledge: the revolving door. Defense collapsed in 1990, my suits stopped going to the cleaners and frequent flier miles began compounding at 1/100 their prior rate.

By now it doesn’t matter that I’m not degreed, except perhaps in slow economic times like these when a few more options would be nice. Still, alea iacta est; going back to school would be an exercise in unalloyed credentialing &#8212 not knowledge acquisition &#8212 which strikes me as expensive and wrong. And dull.

This is not the path I’d recommend to my daughters, however, though if they chose it I’d be hard pressed to object very strenuously. All things equal it’s probably better to hold the paper and then disregard it, or at least never let your badges inform your identity.

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on July 24, 2003 - 20:06 Permalink

Universities do make concessions to people who are “learning disabled.” I wonder if this isn’t an implicit concession to learning styles. You’d think universities wouldn’t cater to these people at all if they regarded them simply as incompetent. Of course, they may need to add seven or eight categories of learning disability to stop failing out or driving away all the students they continue to regard as incompetent. In training to be an experimental scientist, there can be an opportunity for people who don’t learn well from tweedy lectures to excell in graduate school, where there’s a lot of hands-on work, curiosity-driven self-teaching and learning through discussion. Even if the tweedy lecture mode of education consigns a lot of smart people to the dust bin or to their own initiative, it may be that most work demands the skills it takes to endure and succeed in this mode. I’m not sure.

Rob Paterson's picture
Rob Paterson on July 28, 2003 - 13:45 Permalink

30 years ago, an undergraduate degree was still somewhat special. Now it has the same impact as a high school diploma had then. One of the differences is that a high school diploma cost nothing then and that most undergrads leave today with a devalued BA and $30,000 debt! The business courses alo are about 20 yeras behind where the new big issues are such as culture in the workplace — what is behind the eBay Amazon model and so on. So they fail in 2 key areas — they are not relevant in practical terms and they are teaching the worng model in strategic terms.

A BBA from UPEI (where I teach) has almost no content that you can use if say you joined silverorange. You do not have as Dan’s posts have shown any of the down dirty skills that a small business needs.

The Community Collegs are not much better. If you take a MM course at Holland College — $10,0000 and a year — you will know how to set up a conventional website and know nothing about xml or any of the new tools.

I think that most schools that focus on the 18-23 set are way behind what is going on in the world of business and technology. The pace and the extent of change is so great that their curriculum development cannot keep up. They use of course the Ford “make and sell model” which is too slow.

On the other hand if you want to learn about literature — it’s a great place. Don’t get me wrong, I think that this is the roile for universities not teaching kids the so called practical stuff — they are way too slow for that.