Dale Stephens, author of Hacking Your Education and founder of Uncollege, takes the vision of unschooling and applies it to higher education. He points out that learning and getting an education is much more than attending classes at a University. For many high school students, they are given a few options. You can go college, join the military, or get a job. Stephens helps young people discover a fourth option, one that embraces a commitment to learning that is just as rigorous as many college experiences, but that also allows them to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities at the same time. He challenges the idea that college is the only choice that leads to success, but he also challenges the idea that college is the only path that leads to deep, substantive, transformational learning. Like many who embrace the spirit of unschooling, Stephens shares a compelling case for a life of learning beyond school. We learn through play, building new and meaningful relationships, experimentation, exploration, work, reading, travel, community engagement, finding others to mentor us, leveraging the vast pool of resources in the digital world, and participating in a variety of communities and groups with shared interests.
One does not need to abandon the pursuit of a college education to learn from this message. I’m a University administrator, professor, and a lifelong student (with a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, a doctorate, and coursework at 20+ Universities), and I have no problem endorsing Stephens’s message. Many University faculty and administrators promote the value of a solid liberal arts college education, noting that it equips people with the capacity the think well, live well, write well, and communicate well. And yet, it is in some of those liberal arts classes that students learn about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Faulkner, Ansel Adams, Jack London, William Blake, Robert Frost, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford. They never earned a college degree. We can extend that list by hundreds with highly successful people in multiple industries and parts of the world today. We can add thousands more by touring the history books. One may respond by arguing that these are exceptional people, that they are exceptions and not the rule. My point is not that avoiding college will make a person successful. It is that the proposed outcomes of a solid liberal arts education are possible beyond the walls of the University. I know many who attended liberal arts colleges and left with little respect for the great books, little interest in reading something that isn’t required for a class or job, and a fear of public speaking. I know others who never attended college and they have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a love of the classics, and they live as a contemporary renaissance man or woman. Steve jobs never finished college, but in a 1995 interview, he specifically noted that the vision and innovation behind Apple comes partly from their commitment to the liberal arts. The University does not own the liberal arts.
Despite all of this, a solid college education is a good and valuable investment. It is a learning community that is rich with opportunities, but not if you are simply talking about taking a series of classes and earning a bachelor’s degree. That will not adequately prepare someone for life beyond college. I do not recommend that students allow their college years to be dominated by some sort of cloistered college experience. “College and…” is my suggestion. There is value in college and…travel, road trips, work, community engagement, entrepreneurial efforts, personal exploration and experimentation beyond the classroom walls and the campus boundaries, using the digital world to build a broad and substantive personal learning network, and participating in diverse groups and communities beyond the college. Many colleges recognize the importance of this as they offer more travel study options, are deeply engaged with community activities and social causes, give students opportunities to work on cutting edge research and innovation, provide resources to help students with internships, provide entrepreneurial centers to help students start their own businesses, emphasize things like service learning, and help pair students with mentors beyond the University. Going to college and not exploring these learning experiences leaves one with an incomplete education. The true spirit of the liberal arts cannot be contained within a classroom or school. It is about cultivating refinement, but is even more about liberation, exploration and transformation that extends for a lifetime and well beyond the school walls.
While I appreciate many things from the unschooling movement, the reality is that certain vocational paths will continue to require a college education. For those aspiring to be doctors, lawyers, and P-20 teachers; for example, skipping college isn’t typically an option. However, if one wants to be ready for life beyond college, then it requires getting deeply involved with life beyond college…it requires “college and…”