Why We Need More Successful College Dropouts in College (From a College Dropout With Four Degrees)

We live in an era where some celebrate the idea of the successful college dropout. We looks to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, Michael Dell, Matt Mullenweg, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, and sometimes even Frank Lloyd Wright. These are people who stepped away from the pursuit of a college degree to do something else, and that something else just happened to work out for them. Then there is the Thiel Fellowship that offers people $100,000 if they want to drop out of college and build or create something impressive. I am not aware of any other time in American history when we gave so much respect to dropping out. The “successful dropout” is a new American archetype.

Even as some of these successful dropouts like Bill Gates discourage people from following their example, there is something inspiring about what they did. In some cases, these people dropped out because college didn’t seem to fit them, so they left to find something that fit better. Others got lost in a great idea or project, it started to gain traction, and they left college to see it through.

We don’t celebrate every dropout, only those who achieve some measure of what enough people define as success. After all, depending upon what source you check, anywhere from a third to almost half of those who pursue a 4-year degree do not get it. In other words, there are lots of college dropouts in this world, and many of them leave with an unpleasant reminder in the form of debt. We don’t tend to celebrate the unemployed thirty year old who dropped out of college her senior year to care for her sick mother. The twenty-five year old guy who partied his way out of school and all the way back to his parent’s basement is not usually the one who makes the magazine covers (although that does happen). In other words, it isn’t the dropout that we celebrate. It is the successful dropout, and by success, we are usually referring to financial success or a significant social impact. As admirable as it might be to sacrifice one’s college studies for family or others, we do not read about those dropouts, even as there is a compelling case for the nobility of such a path.

As a University administrator and professor, I admire the successful college dropout as much as anyone else (especially if we expand our definition of success). No, I admire the successful dropout more than most people. The American archetype of the successful college dropout is likely a modern derivation of the longstanding archetype of the self-made person. It is the one who chose the road less traveled. It is the pioneer spirit. It is the vision of going boldly where no one has gone before. It is noble sacrifice of self for the sake of another. As with each of these examples, there is a risk involved, but taking that risk and then succeeding is what resonates with many of us.

The first online dictionary that I checked, offered these definitions for a dropout.

a :  one who drops out of school

b :  one who drops out of conventional society

c :  one who abandons an attempt, activity, or chosen path a corporate dropout

These definitions don’t capture the spirit of the dropout that intrigues many of us. It isn’t just that someone dropped out. It is what they did instead of persisting toward a degree. They pursued a dream. They created something. They helped someone. They explored, experimented, and discovered. They didn’t abandon learning. They just abandoned formal schooling and the preset curriculum determined by others. This is what I respect and value because many, even most (maybe all) of these successful dropouts demonstrated an impressive capacity for and commitment to self-directed learning. It was not about passing tests, showing up for class, writing papers, reading assigned texts, or doing a combination of these and more until you walk across the stage to receive that magical piece of paper that symbolizes (but does not equal) success. Compare the difference in meaning between a dropout and a college student on graduation day when each says “I did it!” That is no small difference.

In fact, I’m a self-declared college dropout who just happened to persist and get the degrees, and who works in a higher education institution. I’m a persistent advocate for the spirit of the successful college dropout even for those who, in the more literal sense, do not dropout. These are the people who take ownership for their learning. They ask questions. They push themselves instead of waiting for some professor or other person to keep them going. They devise their own methods and heuristics while being quick to learn from anyone and everyone who can help them along the way. They pursue their goals, and they turn the college experience into a massive resource for achieving those goals. Goals might range from learning to think and read deeply to learning how to start the next Microsoft. Either way, it isn’t a passive, submissive, and compliant mindset. It is the mindset of someone who is engaged, takes ownership, and gets lost in things that matter to that person.

From this perspective, the spirit of the successful college dropout is part of what gives flavor to life in our out of college. I’ll confess to thinking about joining the actual college dropouts. I think about it multiple times a year. At the same time, what I most value is the spirit of the successful dropout, and I’m convinced that this is needed in higher education.

A New School Year Gift for Educational Innovators and Difference-Makers

Dear educators, administrators, parents, teachers, and other educational innovators and difference-makers:

Recently I started to think about the beginning of a new school year. In celebration of another year, what could I offer as a gift to teachers, administrators, policy-makers, educational entrepreneurs, parents, students, and others who want to make a difference in education? My first thought related to writing a series of articles that include tips for teachers and others who are starting a new school year. I may still do that this year or the next, but the more that I thought about it, I realized that I already wrote something for teachers. In fact, in addition to my 1000+ online articles, I’ve written five books in the last two years, four of which are written for those in education. So, why not give away one of my books as a new school year gift?

I sent a quick message to the publisher of my first book, Missional Moonshots: Insight and Inspiration in Educational Innovation, suggesting a crazy idea. As you might expect, publishers depend upon the money that they make from published books, so my idea was a radical one. My suggestion was simple.

“I want to give away unlimited free PDF versions of the Missional Moonshots book. What do you think?” To my delight, I received a literal thumbs up.

So, without further ado, here is my new school year gift to anyone who wants to be an innovator and difference-maker this school year. Simply click on the link below to download a free and complete PDF version of my book, a collection a short chapters, each of which offers you tips for how to effect positive change in a learning organization. This is drawn from hundreds of interviews and observations of innovative schools and leaders, over two decades of personal experience, and a good decade of focused research and reading on the subject. I hope and pray that you find this useful.

CLICK HERE to download a free and complete copy of Missional Moonshots: Insight and Inspiration in Educatioanl Innovation by Dr. Bernard Bull 

What Do I ask in return?

This is a gift, so there are no strings attached. Just enjoy. However, if you like what you read, here are two things that you can do.

  1. Share this gift with anyone and everyone who might be interested or can benefit from it.You can send them back to this page to download it so that I can track how many people are interested. All copyright is still in place for this book, so printing, distributing, or selling it to others is not allowed, but there is nothing keeping you from directing people to this article to download it.
  2. Tell me about what you learned, liked, or used. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed hearing from readers of the paper version so far, and I would love to here from you as well.

Other Options for the Book?

If you really want a paper copy or a Kindle version, the book is still for sale on Amazon and other booksellers.

One Last Comment

I hope that you find this gift useful in this new school year. Thank you to the many educators, administrators, parents, students, and others who strive to create rich and rewarding learning experiences and learning communities, and for those with the courage and conviction to challenge the status quo in education, inspired by a clear vision and a compelling “why.”

I hope to get started with a semi-frequent Etale newsletter, occasional new articles on this blog, and new episodes for the MoonshotEdu Show in the near future. Stay tuned for news about that. Of course, I welcome your help spreading the word.

A fellow co-learner,

Bernard Bull

Technological and Human Metaphors and Their Impact on Education

Recently, I woke up thinking about language, how it can reflect and shape our beliefs and values. When we use contemporary metaphors about technology, for example, to describe the human brain, some can look at that as what a missionary might call contextualization. We are using the language of the day to communicate an important truth. However, modern metaphors are not neutral. They don’t just help us explain. They also change how we understand something. As such, there are important considerations when we start to describe the human experience using technological metaphors, and when we begin to describe the technological using human metaphors or language associated with the human experience.

Cell phones do not die. Computers do not have memory. I’m sorry Descartes, but the human body is not a machine. I am not suggesting that it is wrong to use such metaphors, but they are also not without influence on our individual and collective understanding of self and the world. Such language might even contribute to our treating people more like machines, treating machines more like humans or living creatures, or finding ourselves increasingly content with technological substitutes for the fundamental truth about human needs implicit in the words, “It is not good for man to be alone.” We are relational beings. Without creating some new set of man-made laws or moral boundaries, I suspect that we are wise to become more intentional about the use of language that draws us toward what it means to be human.

The same thing is true for our education organizations. To critique the contemporary education context on the basis of its roots in industrialization is so commonplace that many call it cliché, but this is a way of talking about education that continues to help people struggle with the challenges and opportunities in education. Whether you agree with claims that our contemporary education system emerged from a desire to produce a complacent and compliant workforce for the industrial age, it is hard to deny the ways in which the industrial age continues to influence our choice of metaphors in education. These industrial and technological metaphors influence our beliefs and values about education. Notice my use of the word “produce.” Consider how people speak about “delivering instruction.” Think about our great debates about standardization. Even when we begin to talk about differentiation, personalization, or individualization; it is often within the production metaphor, leading some to be champions for “mass customization.”

Technological metaphors technologize the way that we think about education, and metaphors associated with life and humanity offer us another opportunity to humanize education. This is true even as we explore the benefits of learning analytics and big data, metric-driven learning, competency-based education, computer-assisted education, blended and online learning, or a dozen other developments.

Like so many others, I began learning about the extent to which metaphor shapes our view of the world by sitting at the feet (metaphorically speaking) of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson when they published Metaphors We Live By. As the authors write, metaphor is “explaining one kind of thing in terms of another” (p. 5). This only makes sense that we use metaphor given what we think to be true about human learning. An ancient truth that continues to be supported by current and emerging research is that we use what we already know, what is familiar to us, to understand and make sense of that which is new to us. We learn a new math concept by comparing it to something that we already know and building upon that. We do the same thing across content areas and learning contexts. Metaphors are important to our religious expressions and how we think and talk about our thoughts and actions. We are creatures of comparison.

Coming back to education, there is the chance that using technological and industrial metaphors as the dominant means of discourse about the what, why, and how of education will push us toward technological and industrial values. Some aspire to put these technological and industrial systems to work for humans. After all, the Russian origin of the contemporary word for “robot” is the word “slave.” We enslave technologies to serve us. Given the incredibly emotional baggage of the word “slave”, I mention it with caution, but it is important, because it reminds us about the past hopes and dreams of about the role of technology, but this is something that certainly continues today. We think of technology as existing to serve us.

One problem is that this underlying metaphor for the technological, when applied to education as a whole, can just as easily draw us away from visions of a “liberal” education, an education that helps people grow in independence, agency, and ownership. Learners can become part of the technological system of education, which has the risk of leading us to think of them less as a group of individuals, each person with worth, gifts, abilities, and rights.

Again, I’m not trying to create some new set of moral boundaries, but metaphor matters when we speak and think about education. How can we deepen our understanding of metaphor so that it can be of better service to our aims of freedom, humanity, truth, goodness, and beauty? These are not popular subjects today, but they will influence what type of education ecosystem will flourish in the future.

Do I crave student praise and affirmation more than I crave student growth and development?

Young people are not the only ones who want to be recognized, praised, and celebrated. We can seek that as teachers as well. We want students and parents to value us, to talk about the difference that we are making. This likely comes from a place of wanting to know that we are investing ourselves in something important, something that makes a difference. Yet, if we are honest, is this really the difference that we want to make? Or, is the real difference, transformation, and growth in the young people? Having a good and positive relationship is important, but the most rewarding moments in teaching come from students losing sight of us as teachers, getting adsorbed in what they are studying, reading, learning, and creating. They gain confidence. They become more capable of doing things on their own. They need us less, and we can stand back, proud of their accomplishment and excited for what comes next for them. It is not about us.

When my daughter was twelve, she started to write fan fiction. I had not read her writing for several months. When she shared the beginnings of what she hoped to eventually become an book-length manuscript, I almost cried. It was not perfect, but it was good. Instead of writing that the girl’s hair was wet, she wrote about the girl sitting on the bench, her hair sticking to her jeans in the rain. Immediately, it conjured this image of a girl leaning over, trying to protect herself from the rain. I did not help her. My wife did not help her. She did this herself, and I could not be happier. My daughter does not attribute her growing writing ability to a teacher or parents. It is not that she is ungrateful, but none of this is about praise of some great writing teacher. It is about her growth and development. She wants to tell stories the inspire people, that gives them joy, the stirs their imagination. She is ready for the sometimes harsh feedback of the fan faction community, because she wants to improve the story, and she understands that this community, also interested in writing, is able to help her do that.

When I first imagined being a teacher, I had this dream of being some sort of sage-like figure that students admired. Students loved to gather around as I shared proverbs, stories, and offered life-changing illustrations. Yet, very little of these early musings had much to do with what students learned. It was all about me. When I started teaching, I measured the success of the day by how affirmed I felt, not by how much the students were learning, their engagement, or any other sort of student-centered subject.

I still get caught up in that at times, but I now believe that what happens inside of students is the more important part. That is why I appreciate the idea of a teacher as “guide.” Imagine a tour guide who made the entire tour about himself. He wowed and entertained people, but they never really experienced that which they were touring. The guide became a distraction more than one who pointed people to the good stuff. I contend that the same thing can and does happen in classrooms all over the world.

There is nothing wrong with people respecting or admiring a teacher, but I’m more convinced than ever that teachers motivated primarily by praise and affirmation will rarely have the impact of teachers who have the self-confidence to make student learning the true focus.