Don't Go Back to School... Or Do

The empty classroom.

As the chorus crescendoes: “Don’t go back to school,” I’m fairly happy to sing along.

I mean, I didn’t finish high school in the US (was sent to school in the UK instead), dropped out of college (then got pregnant), finished my Bachelors with my baby (then toddler) in my arms, went to grad school (LOL), and proceeded to drop out of a PhD program, two chapters into my dissertation. I owe a fair amount of money in student loans, and now I’m a freelance writer.

So really, I get it. Don’t go. Skip college. Ditch grad school. The debt. The depression. The dismal job market.

Despite the dominant cultural narrative that “everyone should go to college” and the attitude among many employers that “everyone should have a degree,” I’m still happy to counsel against it. Because it’s true: school (in the US at least) is incredibly expensive. School might not be the best place for you to learn. School might not be the best place for you to network. School might not be your best bet for credentialing.

But then again… it might be.

That’s the problem with a lot of the “don’t go back to school” arguments. They’ve done some back-of-the-envelope math that demonstrates college is not a good investment. How much you pay in tuition. How much you’ll have to borrow. How much you’ll earn when you graduate. No doubt, these are calculations anyone looking at pursuing higher education — whether an undergraduate or graduate degree — should make.

But these figures are frequently predicated on a particular socio-economic status as the starting point and value a particular socio-economic status as the outcome. They’re really just one way to run the numbers — assessing higher education in terms of income, expenditure, and debt — and as such, just one way to determine if school is “worth it.”

They make for a pretty compelling calculation, don’t get me wrong. But often the advice — “don’t go!” — simply stops there. Or it is accompanied with a fair amount of mocking of those who do, not to mention a fair amount of wand-waving at what’s supposed to happen to those who don’t.

And this is where the “don’t go to school” chorus can be quite tone-deaf. A veritable cottage industry has sprung up to pen the “don’t go back to school” books, blog posts, articles, and op-eds. But the advice — “don’t go!” — frequently comes with some trite recommendations of what to do in lieu of formal education: “Need a job? Invent it.” Or “Want to learn anything? Write a personal learning plan.” Or “budget $150 a month” to take smart and interesting people out for coffee. Or “open up 20 or so tabs in your Web browser.” “You can learn anything you want on the Internet!” — except, let’s be honest, you can’t. And even if you could, so what?

The exception to the decidedly unhelpful or unrealistic "don't go!" guides and diatribes might be Kio Stark's recently published Don't Go Back to School, unique not because it offers a diagnosis of what's wrong with formal institutions of learning (there's lots of that out there) or because it offers a solid list of resources of where to go to learn "independently" (her list is a particularly good one though. It includes this blog). What makes Stark's book different are her interviews with 20-some-odd successful professionals — "people who rejected school early on as well as those who loved school and then graduated into passionate learning without it. They'll tell you how they do it and what drives them to learn." The book contains the personal experience narratives of journalists, artists, scientists, technologists, and entrepreneurs — their own learning experiences written in their own words. And these stories highlight how varied, how messy, how complicated, how lucky, and — to invoke a cliche — how "lifelong" the process of learning-without-school can be.

Pursuing a four-year degree, in other words, might be a lot simpler.

Indeed I’ve watched my 19-year-old son struggle since high school graduation. He opted to not go to college, and despite the promise of saving tens of thousands of dollars and debt, the decision has hardly made things easy. “Take a MOOC!” “Learn to code!” “Start a business!” These aren’t necessarily helpful or applicable alternatives to college, and when you’ve just got a high school diploma, “find a job!” can be an extraordinarily difficult challenge.

My son doesn’t really see himself as an “autodidact” — although I’d argue that when he’s learning about something he’s passionate about, he is. Indeed, we all are. But the “don’t go to school” narrative doesn’t do much to help people get from here to there, particularly when “do what you’re passionate about” doesn’t pay the bills. Nor does the increasing hype about online learning opportunities help people realize, as Stark points out in her book, that "independent learners are interdependent learners."

But it isn't simply about "learning" to "learn together," either. The “don’t go to school” narrative is often quick to brush aside the ways in which gender, race, class, and ability afford privilege and complicate alternatives. Stark does address this in Don't Go Back to School, noting that doing things "by the book" — that is, getting a college degree — may be necessary for those who are "already at a disadvantage in the race for jobs." No doubt, most of us do not live the lives of the “don’t go to school” poster-boys (and yes, they are boys) — Gates, Zuckerberg, and the like. In touting the “age of the Internet” as “age of the autodidact,” we’re quick to overlook the networks (and let's be frank, the K-12 education) that many of these so-called “self-taught” and “self-made” men were already privy to.

These networks are powerful — they can be political, professional, regional, and yes, school-affiliated. They are, I would contend, more powerful than the informal learning networks fostered by the Internet. Perhaps that will change. Perhaps justice and social mobility can be leveraged through them. But as we sing the "don't go to school" song, I wonder how we do best to ensure that there are opportunities for everyone — not just the exceptional or the elite — to learn and grow and live meaningful, productive, and sustainable lives. Because even with all the ills of higher education, just telling folks "don't go to school" hardly feels like a sufficient or responsible response.

Photo credits: Terrapin Flyer, the Noun Project