"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." - Albert Einstein
Tuesday, December 26, 2017
Education Versus College Education
This video says succinctly what I have been trying to get across in several postings.
A reader sends me a link to the above video on YouTube. The fellow who makes these videos is funny and he tends to make good points concisely, although some of the videos could be about half their length and still get the point across. But then again, I tend to run on, too. He makes the same point I have been trying to make - something has changed about college, and it may no longer be the bargain it once was. This does not mean all college educations are worthless, however. Just more and more of them are less worthwhile - and cost a lot more.
Another reader chastises me for valuing education - saying one can never "get rich" merely by going to school. But then again, I never said that. A good education - regardless of where you get it - is going to advance you in life to a better station than where you were previously, unless of course, it is a junk education from some touchy-feely college which has courses in self-esteem and queer studies.
If I hadn't finished my Engineering and Law degrees, I would probably still be working as a technician at Carrier or some other manufacturing company (likely, as they closed the plant) and struggling to get by in a blue-collar job. Not only that, law school taught me more than just the law - it taught me how to think. And classes like tax law convinced me that getting into real estate at that time, was a good deal - and that getting out later on was an even better one.
I learned how to solder plumbing and wire a house at Carrier. I learned how to buy and sell houses in law school. And having a law degree and a practice meant the banker knew me by my first name and loaned me money. A good education helps.
But as the above video notes, there are a lot of people who dropped out of college (myself included) who went on to become successful. And it is not that college offered them nothing, only that they reached a point in their lives where their career was taking off, and finishing that last year of the degree seemed a lot less important than making the next million dollars. Indeed, college (and high school) really seem less and less relevant, the further your career goes along. Dropping out to go live in Mom's basement and play video games, on the other hand, isn't the same thing.
A neighbor of mine is an Engineer, but never went to college. He did take a State certification exam to be a licensed Engineer - designing and installing huge HVAC systems, building systems, pumping stations, and the like. He ended up owning his own company. He never went to college, and I think it is something of a sore spot with him, as some folks look down on someone who doesn't have an advanced education, and I think he also wonders what he missed. But the people looking down on him are often not as smart and talented as he is, and quite frankly, I doubt he missed much by not going to college.
College was the best 14 years of my life - literally. Since I was co-oping and going part-time and at night, it took me ten years to get my Engineering degree and four years to get my law degree (instead of the usual three). In the interim, I was actually working in these fields and learning more by doing than from textbooks per se. By the time I got my degrees, it was a mere formality - I already had the job in question, and just needed the credential to keep it (employers are funny that way). I never had to worry about "finding a job" after graduation, as I already had it.
The point is, you can obtain an education just about anywhere, and college doesn't have to have a 100% monopoly on this. But again, employers are weird about this - often requiring the credential to hire you or keep you on. I found that by working in fields where demand was high, people would pay me to go to college - General Motors, United Technologies, the Patent &Trademark Office, and the first law firm I worked at, all kicked in dough toward tuition. And people say college is unafforable. Pfft!
But getting back to my second reader's point - the point of this blog isn't how to "get rich" because, quite frankly, if I knew how to do that, I certainly wouldn't tell you about it, would I? In fact, no one would. So whenever you see a get-rich-quick scheme, you can bank on the fact it is a fraud, as no one in their right mind would give away such secrets.
Rather, the point of this blog was how to better myself and my situation. If you get something out of that, fine. If not, go off to the Bitcoin discussion group or some self-help seminar and see what you get out of that nonsense.
A good education, no matter how you get it, will advance you in life (a bad education is, by definition, not an education at all). And by education, I mean often very simple things. For example, knowing how to read and write and speak. For example, a reader ages ago accused me of faking this blog - that I had an army of writers at my beck and call, typing up all these entries. Who could possibly write 3,000+ entries on utter bullshit - sometimes two or three times a day? Well, I can type 110 wpm, bitches, so go stuff that in your pipe and smoke it. I can type faster than I can dictate using voice recognition. And yea, all the letters are long-ago worn off my keyboard. That was a skill that has served me well over the years. So many people I meet today are doing hunt-and-peck well into their 50's!
Learning to write - and to type - took a long, long time. Decades, in fact. And it is something you learn by doing. And when I got my first law firm job, I realized what a shitty writer I was. It was depressing - as I related before - that first letter I wrote for a partner that came back covered in red ink with the notation, "don't send me anymore DRAFTS!" I was ready to quit, but I sat down, re-read the letter and realized it was shit.
Technical writing and typing were probably two of the most useful courses I took in high school and college. Oh, sure, the Engineering stuff was OK, too. But frankly, the only use I ever found for differential equations was to calculate the voltage curve of a capacitor, and that's just one equation you could look up in a book. Many other courses, like elecromagnetics, just taught me how much I didn't know, and to have respect for the subject matter. Still others, like basic circuits courses, I actually used in designing electrical circuits (briefly). But the bulk of college courses don't have "real world" applications - but teach you how to think, instead.
As I noted in a recent posting, understanding mathematics on a visceral level is important if you are to understand money. Neither are taught well in our nation's schools. But if you take enough math courses, eventually some of it sinks in. And what sinks in can be useful. Casinos, for example, are a form of poverty tax for people who never took a course in probability.
Speaking well - intelligently and without a horrible regional or socioeconomic accent - is also important if you want to get ahead in the world. So many "poor" people of all colors, races, regions, and whatever mark themselves apart from society by the use of thick accents and local slang. There are people in Georgia, west of I-95 who talk in a thick southern drawl so thick, it is like molasses. They are nice folks, but will always be relegated to the margins of life just because they can barely make it through a job interview.
The problem today - as pointed out in the video above - is that "getting an education" is looked upon as being limited to the monopoly of colleges and universities, which are run like businesses, even the non-profit ones, where the heads of these organizations take home millions. And this was not always the case. As I noted before, my friend was able to become a licensed engineer without going to college, and there are still a few States where you can Read the Law and take the bar exam and become a lawyer without ever going to law school.
Shhhhh! Don't tell anyone!
You got that right, you can be a lawyer and not go to law school. But few do it, in modern times. It is not impossible to do - or even hard. You go to work for a lawyer as an underpaid apprentice and you learn the law by working in the field (much as I did). If you take the bar review class, odds are, you can pass the bar exam the first time (as I did). It wasn't that hard, quite frankly. But it was stressful. A lot of what I learned about the law didn't coalesce in my brain until I took the BAR/BRI bar exam review course. It was only then I realized I could have saved four years and $40,000 and a lot of hassle. Law school is founded on the principle of hide the main idea. They teach you everything but the law, which is what is on the test - and on the bar exam. Oh, it's also what you end up practicing.
Of course, traditionally, colleges and universities served other functions than just mere education. They were also institutions of socialization and a means of keeping young people out of the workforce for four years. Today, they are a means of enslaving young people with staggering debts early in life, for life, as well. But social connections, historically, were one reason the upper classes sent their kids to college.
Take Harvard and Yale. Many famous people went to those schools, and they made social contacts there that served them well later in life. It was a private rich-kids club, and often the social organizations and "clubs" such as Skull-and-Bones and the Porcellian club - the latter of which would not admit even Franklin D. Roosevelt - were more important than the classes and lectures. In fact, back in the day, attending class and trying to get good grades was seen as something only the poorer mercantile students did. The rich kids partied and made connections.
A lot of that has changed - at least a bit. But today, education still is one of the best ways to advance your personal situation. But not all educations are equal. And as the video above points out, once everyone has a college degree, having a college degree no longer sets you apart.
My friend from England has a degree in Physics from a prestigious University there. I asked him why he didn't go into some science-related field (indeed, he could have been a Patent Examiner or Attorney) and he replied, "Oh, I only got an ordinary degree". It seems they have a system there where if you actually get good grades, you get a "first" or at worst, a "second" degree. But if you just show up and drink beer and party, you get an "ordinary degree" which is useless for getting a job, but was a good way to keep young people busy for four years. And for young people from monied backgrounds, back in the day, an "ordinary" degree was all they needed. Today, it is sort of outdated, but since college over there is far less expensive than here, young people can afford to waste four years of their life stacking empty pint glasses into pyramids at the local pub.
In America, not so much. College is so freaking expensive and useless degrees are really not worth getting. Sure, getting straight "C's" at Harvard still might work out for you with the social connections you'll make and the aura of the institution. Lesser schools, less so. And lesser degrees - in courses specializing in bullshit - are utterly worthless. At the bottom of the pile are the for-profit and online schools. You might get something out of these, but you'll have to work at it, and they are often the most expensive to attend. Plus the prestige of the institution isn't there on your resume.
And it is possible to become over-educated as well - although this happens to few people. I know a few folks who get serially addicted to obtaining college degrees - delaying entry into "the real world" for one more chance to go back and add a few more initials after their last name. By the way, PLEASE do not put "esquire" after my name, I hate that shit! If you want to know if you are dealing with an asshole attorney, check to see if they put "esq." after their name. If they insist you put it after their name, you've definitely are dealing with an asshole attorney. But I digress.
So what is the solution to this conundrum? We've turned college into High School 2.0 and exhorted everyone to go on the premise that everyone will make more money if they go to any college and get any degree, which clearly is not possible to do. You can't make everyone a king, just by sending everyone to college. Some of us end up on top, most of us end up in the middle, but someone has to be the plebe at the bottom. You can't have an organization that is all Vice-Presidents, although American industry is certainly giving it their best shot!
I wish I knew the answer. Making High School better is one answer - kids today are graduating with hardly even basic skills. Most of the day is spend in study hall, lunch, and gym - socializing taking precedence over education. It is warehousing of teenagers, basically. Training them to get up in the morning and worry about what other people think of them and put in their hours in a cubicle. And College has turned into just four more years of this.
Maybe college should teach skills as well as academics, so that young people have marketable skills upon graduation. Or maybe there should be more college alternatives that are less expensive and more skill oriented. Because let's face it, we are graduating a lot of kids who can barely read and write and think - as evidenced by the fact they didn't read their student loan documents or think very much about them when they signed them. Hell, half the people graduating from college today can't even drive a car - not very well, anyway.
All of these things might help, but they are just externalization. Again, pining for the world to change to suit you isn't going to accomplish much, as the world ain't likely to change - that much. No, a better approach is to sit down and figure out what your options are, and make better choices. Get an education, yes. By what means, I don't know. What worked for me likely won't work for you - my education is over 30 years old now.
But I think learning some basic skills will always serve you well in life. Learn to read, write, and articulate. And whether the smart phone will take over or not, those who can write will always have a place in the world and be in demand. When you read about any Hollywood story, the bottom line always comes back to the writers - without a good script, even the best directors and actors and producers make crappy movies. Even the best of ideas and inventions go nowhere, if you can't communicate them to others.
I don't know if the above quote is real or not, but it reminds me of a similar quote, something along the lines of "If you can't explain a complicated concept to a simple person, then you don't really understand it yourself". In other words, an idea that cannot be communicated to other people is really not an idea at all. Basic communication is one of the key aspects of any good education.
But beyond that, I have no idea. Never take career advice from people over 30, as I have noted before. What works for young people today might be different than what worked for me. But as my unorthodox 14-year journey through industry and academia illustrates, an education can be what you make of it, and there is a surprising amount of flexibility involved - if you put your mind to it.