Planning for College? Or Not?

“If children have interest, then education happens.” – Arthur C. Clarke

For Emily, it is a long way off. I’m a tad more obsessed with getting her to read right now than I am in thinking about college.

However, a book ran across my desk the other day. Okay, well it didn’t actually run, but it occupied a space on top of my desk and it got me to reading, and questioning, the necessity of college.

It all started with me reading Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree. Actually, I read most of it. Enough to recommend it to my eldest who blasted through it in record time. She had been struggling with her schooling for some time. Several career choices were pursued over the years – everything from Art History to Environmental Science – and in the end, nothing felt like quite the right fit. Boy, can I relate to that!

On a recent trip out here, she expressed her frustration and fears, and said that she didn’t want to go back to college in the fall. “Then don’t,” I responded, “figure out what you want to do and go towards that.”

Now before everyone freaks out, let me insert this little codicil. I’m not suggesting that college is irrelevant or unnecessary – just that it isn’t the be all, end all. We tend to treat college as the default option to failure.

College education = Success

No college = Failure

And for many, that is as far as they are willing to see. The problem arises when we perpetuate this myth.

Now, if I were to go and see a doctor – I would expect them to not only have a college education, but extensive internships as well as years of experience. I’m fine with supervised doctors learning the ropes as well, but I doubt I would trust someone who had spent a year or two in a nursing program with making sure any major illness was treated effectively. When it comes to life and death, you better know what you are doing. And that knowledge is best provided by a educational institution.

But just as doctors serve internships – so too can young (and older) adults learn by doing, without college, in the real world. Instead of just learning theory they can put that theory to the test. And that is where learning without college comes in.

As I read through the book, I encountered a section where it listed the following advice:

  1. Give yourself assignments
  2. Travel the world
  3. Learn a foreign language
  4. Find a vocation
  5. Become a public intellectual –
  6. Teach a course
  7. Create a small enterprise
  8. Explore the world of ideas
  9. Create and share value

And I realized that, in the past handful of years, I have done every one of these things except for #1 & #3 (although I have started learning Spanish).

Better than that – I have already noticed that my eldest is tackling #1, #4, #5 and #7 – and probably more. Like me, she hopes to be a writer. I’ve mentioned her blog An Accidental Parent before, and she is writing fiction as well. She is also running her own online bookselling business Bookworm Reads at Abe Books.

I’ve seen it in myself, and my eldest, as well as scores of others – this confused wandering through college courses and majors – a maze of choices, none of them particularly appealing or relevant to the individual’s hopes and aspirations. The choices never seem to be a good fit, or the career an inspiring one.

Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs would argue that finding that perfect job has absolutely nothing to do with following your dreams and passions (I highly recommend listening to his TED talk about Learning From Dirty Jobs).

However, I truly believe that a successful career comes from marrying two important aspects – love and ability. And I have to wonder – if we help our children to discover these two aspects – what they love and what they have talent and ability in – where can they go with this and who will they become?

Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree talks about SDL 1.0 and SDL 2.0. SDL 1.0 (Self-Directed Learning) is the love of learning with which everyone is born. SDL 2.0 bends self-directed learning toward the needs of others. It begins with your personal interests – such as learning chess, reading novels, or dissecting insects – and then asks, “How can I make this useful to someone else? How can I create value for others?”

SDL 2.0 links in with those two aspects – love and ability – taking it to the next level and very possibly allowing a young adult, or any age for that matter, to take their interests and talents to a new height, one in which they provide value, and earn a living, doing what they do best and enjoy.

With those thoughts running through my head I am left with the question, How can I encourage my child’s interests, empower her to increase her skills and talents, and give her the support needed in order for her to choose the future that works best for her?

It has become less a question of “to go to college or not” and instead it has become a quest to give her the best skills and tools she needs to make that decision on her own.

“Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights.
But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge.
You would know in words that which you have always known in thought.
You would touch with your fingers the naked body of your dreams.
And it is well you should.
The hidden well-spring of your soul must needs rise and run murmuring to the sea;
And the treasure of your infinite depths would be revealed to your eyes.
But let there be no scales to weigh your unknown treasure;
And seek not the depths of your knowledge with staff or sounding line.
For self is a sea boundless and measureless.
Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”
Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”
For the soul walks upon all paths.
The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed.
The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.” – Kahlil Gibran


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