Feed Me Your Human Children
The lure of traditional education and comfy jobs
When I was seventeen, I only cared about devouring 1950s science fiction books, strumming an old, out-of-tune guitar, and tinkering with computers. I hadn’t envisioned my great plan for life yet. Three decades later, I still haven’t. Life isn’t that simple.
Like most youngsters, I didn’t know better and just went with the flow, so I applied to a university (this was in Peru, where there’s no distinction between colleges and universities) to pursue a traditional education.
You may have gone through the same, or are about to, and in most cases it’s your safest bet: When you go to college, a university, or a trade school you expect to be told what to do and how to do it. If you care to ask, they might even explain why.
Institutions are supposed to give you structure and a set of rules to follow; provide you with the knowledge and skills to become a productive member of society (whatever that means); and hand you a diploma to demonstrate that you are equipped for the wild world.
That’s exactly what I was hoping for in the early days of September, 1990. Go ahead, you can chuckle now.
Welcome to the machine
According to a 2016 press release by the U.S. Department of Education, adults with a bachelor’s degree are less likely to be unemployed and earn 66 percent more than those who only finished high school. “A high-quality postsecondary education is one of the most important investments a student can make,” declares the department.
If you suspect high quality is just another way of saying outrageously expensive, you may be right, especially if you study in the United States, where education costs more than in almost any other country.
The diplomas you can obtain—should I say buy?—from some of these places are akin to catnip for company folks, both masters and minions. I’ve heard people going into high-pitched voices in fancy offices of New York, from old-style museums to trendy startups, while reading résumés. “Oh, she’s got a Columbia MBA!” they utter, not caring much about actual skills or experience.
It’s a machine that presses society to be fed and works so well that 65 percent of all jobs in the United States will require postsecondary education or training by 2020 , pushing those who aim at a better future to pay for ever-costlier colleges and universities. This is a machine supported by governments, educational institutions, businesses, and—in a twist that won’t surprise anybody—even your mom and dad.
Oh, yeah, they all play the machine’s game.
Show me what you’ve got
We’ve all met them. People with impressive-sounding titles and degrees who jump from meeting to meeting, boss around all day, and ask obvious questions to smarter subordinates while earning praise from their superiors. They move through life and work interacting with peers in never-ending back-patting. “That was an amazing presentation, Taylor. I loved the dancing koala!” Sure, congratulations, hotshot, you powerpoint.
They are not only the most refined product of the machine but also proof that there’s no clear relationship between what you spend in education and what you get in exchange.
Said bluntly, those with the money to purchase access to the highest places aren’t necessarily the smartest or the most skilled. What’s worse, many lack empathy and just contribute to dehumanizing an already brutal world.
Don’t tell me you haven’t met somebody like this without wondering what the heck is so special about them.
But it’s not just the honchos, the machine extends its arms at all levels. I had this client, a nonprofit, that hired a software developer with great credentials—or so they told me. Let’s call him Hutch. Hutch had the precious degree and had worked for a well-known Internet company. He seemed like a nice, young fellow, and I couldn’t wait to hear about the crazy stuff he had created. “What did you build over there?” I asked him. “Oh, they told me what to do and I did it every day, for about a year. Was kinda boring.”
Bored Hutch had followed the standard path, spent the time and paid for it, but he hadn’t been in the trenches solving problems on his own. Left alone, without supervision, he was always in trouble. He couldn’t even write two sentences of good English.
Not being able to write well in your own language, if that’s not a sign of a broken system I don’t know what it is.
It’s very easy to recognize those who can’t stand on their own. Just listen to how they phrase their achievements; there’s either a plural noun or pronoun (“My team ran the operations,” “We developed an application”), or a vague verb (“I coordinated the launch,” “I oversaw the construction”). They just were around when things happened; they didn’t cause those things to happen.
Cut the crap—tell us what you know, tell us what you do, tell us what you learned.
I hope you fail
How can you learn, how can you evolve, without the freedom to make mistakes and solve problems in solitude?
Sure, there are experiences you can’t gain alone, like testing that weather-changing device at a bond-esque corporation, but still, you must become self-reliant—life is full of obstacles and you can’t expect others to help you every time you stumble.
A traditional education may give you some tools to start the journey, and working for the big boys may offer you a sense of purpose, of belonging, a safety net, but your real life starts when you go solo, fail, and try again, picking up chops along the way.
This is a machine that won’t prepare you for a life as an individual, but it will collect its fee anyway.
Those who have the means to get it will be handsomely rewarded by their education—many with cushy jobs. Everybody else will be punished, widening the gap between the rich and the poor. This is absurdly evident in America, where you can’t go for a stroll in Fifth Avenue without encountering ladies with Louis Vuitton bags yakking and walking by the homeless. Once again, the United States win in a category where being first isn’t good.
Community, identity, stability? No, thank you
But my quarrel with the machine stems from something else: It promotes a world where every person learns the same way and is after the same goals. It conditions you to be an Alpha or an Epsilon even if you are just Bernard.
I refuse to embrace a world that only welcomes those who know how to smile, chitchat, and follow orders; a world where obtaining riches and being content are considered having a good life. Life is much more—sometimes, even the bad parts are worth it—and can’t be dumbed down to money and laughs.
Back in 1993, I was a lazy, undecided, and insecure kid—I’m still all of these things, except a kid—and I couldn’t afford a university anymore. Had a good time, made a couple of friends, and learned some guitar tricks, but that’s it. I didn’t get a degree and I never showed the machine I was its worthy son. Soon after, I stopped caring and moved on.
The knowledge and the skills that helped me carry on with my journey, those, I got them somewhere else, but that’s a story for another day.