Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 3:28 PM on Wednesday, July 20, 2011

'UnCollege' movement misses why college matters

A 19-year-old college dropout has started a movement called UnCollege that advocates rethinking the need for college. Dale Stephens said in his freshman year at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., he grew frustrated. He dropped out and started his own college, UnCollege.

On its website, uncollege.org, UnCollege describes its three principles:

"1. Introspection is essential. It is vitally important that you know yourself before you pursue higher education.

"2. Passionate action outweighs school. Real-world success proves more than homework.

"3. Self-motivation is requisite for success. Taking initiative is more valuable than completing assignments."

Stephens has a point. Not everyone should go to college. If a person doesn't understand why college matters, he's right in saying you shouldn't go to college, particularly when graduation means trying to join the work force with huge debt.

Before I started working at the Homer News, I taught 15 years as an adjunct instructor with the University of Alaska Anchorage, mostly teaching English 111, Methods of Written Communication, the first-year English class required of all University of Alaska students. I could usually tell the students who would drop out. They were the ones slouching in the back row, glaring at me with a look that said, "Go ahead. I dare you. Teach me." I wanted to tell those students, "Look, you don't belong here. Go see the world. Save your parents' money."

The ones who did understand college and did value education almost always were students with full-time jobs and families. My best student ever was a woman with half a hand who'd survived cancer, had a husband overseas in graduate school and took care of a blind daughter with cerebral palsy.

Yup, it's a good idea to come into college knowing yourself and knowing what you want. Here's the thing, though. At 18 I didn't know myself. At 55 I still don't know myself. Every time I think I know myself, I discover something about myself I didn't know before — huh, I can play marimba music? — and then I have to re-know myself again. Repeat as necessary.

I count myself lucky to have parents who wanted me to go to college and paid most of my way. I'm lucky that I went to New College of Florida in Sarasota, a school that values independent thought and a liberal arts education. New College's core educational principle is "Each student is responsible in the last analysis for his or her education." Huh — that's Stephens' third principle.

New College expects students to be self-motivated — it's what admissions selects for.

Taking initiative matters more than completing assignments, but that's how you learn to finish tasks. If you need a stern boss standing over you to do anything, you will measure out your life in burgers flipped.

My first week at New College in the fall of 1974, I met my advisor, Arthur MacArthur Miller, and we figured out my college plan. Mac understood I wanted to be a writer, and suggested I take as many courses possible in as many disciplines possible. I took a lot of English classes, but I also took art history, philosophy, environmental studies, biology, math and computer programming. I immersed myself in a great soup of knowledge. Nine terms, four independent study projects and one senior thesis later, I emerged with a bachelor of arts in humanities.

Passionate action? My entire tenure at New College bubbled with passionate action. I found myself surrounded with brilliant people who valued education, an entire community of scholars. That's the root of the word: "collegium," a community, a society. I spent three glorious years living with, eating with, falling in love with and thinking with other like minds. College didn't start and end with classes, didn't start and end with writing papers. It continued throughout the days and nights I went to New College. Heck, it continues beyond in the friendships I've formed with other dedicated learners.

The habits I learned in college made real-world success happen. The discipline of finishing assignments and showing up for class laid a foundation that serves me every day in my work.

Maybe Stephens reacts to our modern perceptions of a college education, the idea that you need a specific degree to get a specific skill to get a specific job to get ahead. A college education that seems to have no bearing on what we actually do in life might seem worthless. Maybe it's better to go to a trade school.

Except ... Except what if that trade you learned becomes obsolete? What if the world you knew as a teenager becomes dramatically different from the world you know as an adult? As if that ever happened.

That's where Stephens misunderstands the value of a liberal arts education. College doesn't teach someone how to learn. It doesn't teach someone how to think. College teaches us to learn better and think better. More important, it puts in context our education. It creates a backbone of learning, an appreciation for millennia of great minds contemplating the wonders of the universe. When you graduate, you join that grand sisterhood and brotherhood of learning — that collegium.

After I graduated from New College in 1977, I applied for a job operating computers at EMR Telemetry in Sarasota. When I interviewed, my soon-to-be boss looked at my transcript and saw that I had taken a half-semester of Basic programming. That was enough to get me the job. I now realize that my boss saw something else in my education I hadn't understood. He knew I had taken philosophy and learned critical thinking. He knew I had learned initiative and discipline. He knew that the skills needed to operate a computer — when to load programs, when to input data and how to manage the night's run of data crunching — could be learned by me.

Not everyone needs college to succeed. A degree doesn't always matter. For some people, college can stifle creativity and entrepreneurship. If you don't know why college matters, go forth into the world and experience it. Do some back breaking work. Serve your country. Catch fish. Bang nails.

If you go to college and complete a degree, you will know this: hidden in your brain, lurking among your memories and experience, lies information, knowledge and the ability to bring it all together. That is why college matters and that is why college for the sake of college is worth even great debt.

In the long run of life, college can make all the difference.

For me, it has.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com.