Monday, August 2, 2010

Why College?

I've done a lot of thinking on college but haven't published much of it. This post from Ben Casnocha reviewing Cal Newport's latest book (who is a super-smart guy and whose blog is worth checking out even if you don't have any reason to be near a blog on school) prompted me to collect some of those thoughts and put them into writing.

The thing that bugs me most is the fact that so few people really consider the question in the title of this post. The overwhelming majority of people default to "why shouldn't I go to college?" 

While I do advocate asking the "why not?" variant of a question when considering an experience with a low cost of failure, college has anything but a low cost of failure.

Jeff Rybak, in his excellent book, What's Wrong With University, articulates my frustration much better than I could hope to:
Nothing aggravates me more than talking about university with people who don't even know why they are there. It isn't the students who annoy me, it's the entire idea that anyone could go through high school, talk with guidance counsellors, teachers, friends, and family, could apply for government loans and sign into debt, and still not have an answer as to why it happened. It isn't the students who have failed, it's the entire system. It seems incredible to think that anyone could invest years of time, and tens of thousands of dollars, with no clear purpose to justify all that effort and expense, but it happens all the time. Some students will claim they've gone to university to "be successful." That isn't an answer. Success means lots of different things to different kinds of people and in many cases it doesn't require university at all. If you want to study something because you are really interested in it, then say that. If you are looking for a specific kind of job, then say that instead. But acting as though university is the one and only ticket to success in life is both simplistic and flawed. It's another way of saying you went to university because you were scared not to, and you're not quite sure why you are there, but you know the alternatives aren't attractive. That's an answer too, though a problematic and potentially dangerous one. It's never too late or too early to ask the important questions, so let's start with this one. Why go to university?


  1. My mother and I are having this argument right now. I have an office job with a lot of responsibility, I like my life, but I don't have a degree yet. She says that I need one. I agree that I will probably want to go back to school one day, but not until I know why I'm going. She thinks I should just get any degree, just so I have one. So we are kind of at a stalemate.

  2. Exactly. I've heard about and had that conversation a whole lot.

  3. Good stuff, Brett. I had major struggles making a grad school decision (see here: I am now firm on not going not for any particular reason but for a myriad of little reasons.