College? No Thanks.
College? No Thanks.
By Thomas Larson /

At TED talks, the most viewed video — now surpassing 14 million hits — is “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” by England’s Sir Ken Robinson.

Not long into the 18-minute lecture, Robinson answers his query. Yes, schools do kill creativity. “I believe this passionately: that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or, rather, we get educated out if it.” And, says the consultant, who helps European and American educators reform their entrenched systems (in 2003 he was knighted for his “service to the arts”), such a tendency “is profoundly mistaken” these days, with “the whole world engulfed in a [digital] revolution.” Robinson’s advocacy has sparked debate over the purpose and applicability of education, ever the same bored kids and boring teachers.

You would think America’s schools would cave under all the criticism they receive. What’s distressing is that the critique is withering from both ends. Take job and career prep. Robinson tells his audience: “You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid — things you liked — on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. ‘Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician.’” At least, not a money-making one. The reality is, however, there’s hardly any way into the arts that doesn’t involve waiting tables. What’s more, not everyone is artistic. Kids need training, especially the talentless. Where else will they get it but in school?

Damned either way: teach job skills, and the school squanders the young’s creativity; teach creativity, and graduates, sassy and fulfilled, have few marketable skills.

Yet, Robinson’s talk, like that of dogged independents in the home-schooling movement, reminds us of the unteachable traits, like ambition, imagination, persistence, turns of character that may not mean a steady paycheck but are necessary to a society’s growth. Where would our culture be without those unschooled self-starters like Thomas Edison and Bill Gates? How do we think about the “education” of other rarities, all high-school dropouts, like Count Basie, Marlon Brando, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosa Parks, Charlie Chaplin, Horace Greeley, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller?

The young read (or, these days, probably hear) of these bootstrap pioneers, filled with purpose, and say, “Why not me? Why do I have to go to college to be someone?

Isn’t there another way?”

There is. UnCollege, a year-long process of self-directed education, as one university dropout and entrepreneur has trademarked it, hoping to direct the faction.

The idea is that your education is your responsibility. You can use your latent talents and abiding passions to get where you want to go. Just remember, you must first steer clear of the path, often de rigueur in the annals of American success, that maintains that a four-year degree is worth mountainous debt, useless knowledge, and entombed creativity.

Nico D’Amico-Barbour is unsure about a lot of things, but one thing he’s not unsure of is that college offers nothing that he needs to live now. At 22, tousled-haired, with a preternaturally wise face, he is gainfully employed, a dedicated autodidact, and a fair-weather college student. Five years ago, D’Amico-Barbour, then enrolled at High Tech High, dropped out “for personal reasons.” He tells me this over a vegan cookie and hot tea at Filter in Hillcrest. All his High Tech friends graduated and went on to college. Not him. Eventually, he passed his GED, took five classes at Mesa College, got bored, quit, and found a job running a coffee shop for $8 an hour.


Nico D’Amico-Barbour admits that “friends and family struggle to understand” his decision to avoid college.

High-Tech High did ground him in one thing: “That place taught me how to learn.” But other than a few good history classes, with project-based group learning, “I never really got any real knowledge there.” Such knowledge is, for him, narrowly defined — it’s applied. Only life, D’Amico-Barbour says, gives knowledge.

He admits that “friends and family struggle to understand” his position. They may not recognize how well informed he is. He listens to NPR podcasts and updates himself with news blogs daily. (At times, his conversation drifts into current politics.) His passion, though, has been to work, “not to sit and listen.” He values starting his own business, studying on his own, and steering clear of homework and what he calls the “deferred gratification” of university life.

D’Amico-Barbour boils down his counterintuitive path to a stronger longing, a desire to “experience hardships,” defined as the daily vicissitudes of work, paying one’s way, riding the bus, and so on. He says he grew up with well-off parents, partly in Europe, where he studied Italian. With such a tended life, he seldom faced the difficulties he relishes while living on his own.

Nico discusses college

Nibbling on a cookie, he admits that “My parents would, today, step in and help me” go to college “if that’s what I wanted to do. It’s unfortunate that I have a free education waiting for me, and millions of Americans don’t. Most Americans look forward only to crippling college debt or not being able to afford much of anything. That’s an example of what’s wrong with our system.” In a sense, he feels his advantages “nagging at him. I sometimes joke that I have to pay off my birth.” College would exercise that birthright, perhaps another reason to say no.

D’Amico-Barbour calls college “a fabricated environment. It’s fake. We set up buildings, an environment with dorm rooms, for 18-year-olds. You always hear two aspects about college: the parties and the pranks; and the flipside, the learning opportunities, pulling all-nighters to learn an esoteric concept. It’s completely fabricated. It will never be experienced again.”

Worse, college is a “platform for enforcing the status quo.” The American class system has not changed in 250 years, D’Amico-Barbour says. It’s bent on rewarding the same bluebloods with opportunities and money. The undiscussed goal, which college “perpetuates,” is privilege. Even affirmative action “just indoctrinates people of a lower class into the upper class.” College is no longer the democratically open and financially accessible institution it used to be, in the halcyon 1960s, when it was often free.

He continues: “How many people can honestly say that they’ve had an incredible, amazing, inspiring, novel-worthy life? I would argue that that most” individual accomplishments “come from adversity, from taking risks, and not from going through the steps everyone else takes. They come from selling all your possessions and moving to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language — as an example.

“I’ve grown more character, humility, and understanding for the pain most people in this world have to go through than I ever could have experienced in high school or by going through college.”

It’s not so much what college provides that bothers him, but what it forestalls. As such, there’s a greater incentive for him not to go. Maybe he’ll want university later on, in his mid- to late-20s. But not now, not when in three years he’s risen to office manager at Canvass for a Cause, a gay-rights nonprofit, with 50 people working under him, “all younger than me.” He earns more than most his age. And he’s keeping his options open. He’s toying with the idea of applying to billionaire Elon Musk’s project of colonizing Mars.

D’Amico-Barbour realizes that his motivations are conflicted. On his own, he loves learning about “esoteric things,” but were he to enter university he hopes his teachers would focus on job skills, the relevant, the practical. Recently, he says, “I went back again, took a few classes, and I succeeded for a second. But then it just slowly faded away,” and he quit.

Instead, at Canvass, he’s acquired a satchelful of skills. Mostly self taught, he’s learned “Excel algorithms, data collection, office management, organizational development, payroll, and leadership.” His eagerness to succeed has been rewarded with six promotions.

College, he says, offers subject mastery in things neither he nor anyone needs in life: say, a course in algebra or the history of the Beatles. Such erudition, he believes, is a waste of time.

“There is nothing I learned in my job that I did not need to learn for my job,” he says.

According to economist Stephen Rose, the “BA wage premium” is 74 percent more than a high-school graduate will earn in his/her lifetime (roughly $1 million). What’s more, college graduates have an unemployment rate half that of those without a degree. Sounds like a good investment.

Yet the demand for educated workers keeps falling, replaced by a projected growth in unskilled and semi-skilled labor, which — surprise — runs against constant calls for an educated workforce. While it’s true that jobs for workers with master’s degrees in bioengineering and education continue to climb, the biggest growth in coming employment opportunities will be for those with a high school diploma or less.

“More than two-thirds of all job openings,” the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites for the decade 2010–2020, “are expected to be in occupations that typically do not need postsecondary education for entry.” Two-thirds. These vocations provide “on-the-job training,” no prior experience needed: personal care; home health aides, including medical secretaries; carpenters, plumbers, ironworkers, laborers; and so on. More openings are slated for pet handlers, sports trainers, massage therapists, housecleaners, and dental assistants, each of which requires about a year of training beyond high school. There will be growth in veterinary medicine, medical diagnostics, and occupational therapy, some of these jobs needing a two-year associate’s degree.

These positions are low-wage, non-union, benefits-lacking contract labor — and, if the population remains the same for immigration and birth, each slot will become increasingly competitive. By contrast, how many university grads have I run into lately who are enduring unpaid internships, nowadays one of the few ways into professions bulging with applicants?

The message: If it’s a basic job that pays a basic wage, why go to college, indeed?

The notion that four years of college is universally desired (President Obama often uses the phrase, “send your kids to college”) exists as one of the more dubious inducements foisted on the young and the restless. How and where to go is implanted — and worried over — when kids are high-school juniors and sometimes much earlier. So says Mary Jo McCarey, head counselor at Clairemont High School.


“Maybe 15 percent of our kids have role models at home who support them to further their education,” says Clairemont High School counselor Mary Jo McCarey.

In a phone interview, McCarey tells me that her school provides ample materials to help kids decide on possible life paths. Among them is career and personality assessment software: find your aptitude, gauge your interests, see what’s available. “We tell them,” she says, “that it’s important to figure [out] what kind of career you want and understand how to get there — because nearly every job requires a skill, and after high school, you’ll need to go another two years.

“A lot dream — ‘I want to be a doctor, a pediatrician, a CSI, or crime-scene investigator’: whatever they see on TV.” But it’s the star they want to be, she says, not the professional played.

Do they know how to get there?

“They have no clue.”

Do their parents?

McCarey pauses, sighs wearily. Her voice has that landscape of frustration in it that arises after decades of explaining what few seem to grok.

“Maybe 15 percent of our kids have role models at home who support them to further their education.” For the rest of them, their parents may be “just as lost. [Some] don’t even talk to their kids.” McCarey believes that low-income families are primarily concerned with their kids’ earning money as of that bright June day when they graduate high school. These parents seldom “think of education as an investment, that [their kids] would make more money.”

One of the strangest problems McCarey has witnessed is how uneducated and college-averse parents — who do want their children to graduate high school — suddenly don’t want them to go to college. “It [a college degree] is a slap in the face. Their attitude is, ‘What I do — if it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.’” There’s no need for university if one’s sights are set on lawn maintenance or the night shift at Burger King.

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College? No Thanks.