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Redefining Success: Is There Only One Way To An Education?

The question of whether or not a college education pays has been rumbling on the sidelines of reform discussions for some years. It got a renewed kick in the rear this week when PayPal co-founder, Facebook investor and billionaire Peter Thiel offered 20 promising young people a $100,000 not to go to college and instead pursue their entrepreneurial talents. The challenge, however, is not an issue of college vs. no-college, rather it is a question of how we are defining success and are we encouraging people to create it in a way that works.

Like so many societal institutions that have run amok, higher education has become a bureaucratic, monolithic system driven by profits, ranking and reputation rather than by openness, creativity and a sincere desire to educate the next generation of citizens—and we are all responsible for the monster that has been created. Education has always been the holy grail of advancement—with greater knowledge came the ability to create wealth, standing and perhaps an impact on the community. Yet somewhere along the way the desire for knowledge became separated from the cultivation of wisdom—knowledge was something to pursue and own for the purpose of achieving worldly success, while understanding how to best use it in service to others became a quaint relic of a bygone era.

So what did we do—we told everyone that the only way to a successful future was to go to school and become the ultimate achiever—academic excellence, excelling in sports and extra-curricular activities all with the aim of getting into the “best” college and to start the process over again to then to get into graduate school and repeat. Viewed from a distance, would any reasonable person find this to be an effective way for anyone, let alone a young person, to develop their unique talents and skills? And with the almighty dollar sign shining in their eyes, universities have spent millions of dollars reinforcing the notion that their degrees are the only key to future success and happiness.

So what is the outcome of all this focus on degrees and resumes? As a professor for sixteen years at a major university, I can tell you first-hand that a majority of students in the classroom are minimally focused on the value of the education for the knowledge and wisdom and are simply walking through the requirements to get a degree. University administrators are more focused on profits than supporting effective learning, continually shifting resources away from day-to-day classroom activities to the point where another professor remarked to me, “there is absolutely no economic incentive to teach in the classroom any longer.” Given all these factors, should we be surprised that more and more students are racking up enormous student loan debt only to find that after jumping through the all the “right” hoops that they can’t find rewarding work?

Redefining success is the first step in rectifying our skewed and abused education system. Simply going through the motions to achieve a goal needs to end and recognizing that each person has something unique to contribute to the world as the basis for their success is essential. If we start from this premise, each student can create a path for lifelong learning that suits his or her talents, skills and passion. Yes, there are basics that everyone needs to know to function in society and we can do a better job of allowing individuals to acquire this information in a variety of ways—and direct experience, as Peter Thiel is focusing on, is a critical part of the learning process.

Perhaps instead of starting with an external objective of a degree, a piece of paper that is supposed to tell people how smart and qualified we are, we begin by asking students to define who they are based on themselves and then to cultivate the talents and skills that will allow them to effectively put the best of themselves out in the world. Fueled by their passion, students would naturally gravitate to the courses, classrooms and experiences that would enhance their skills and they would readily participate and assimilate the knowledge rather than simply shove it in their heads until they are asked to regurgitate it again.

Individuals would then become perennial learners growing, discovering, evolving and (yes!) teaching others as they traveled the path that best suits them and allows them to be happiest. Then external accomplishments of money and status would be the outgrowth of sincere interests and efforts and not the hollow victory after years of suffering through others’ expectations. Pollyannaish, perhaps, and yet, I ask anyone to argue that what we are doing now in education is working.

The idea that education is not a clear-cut way to happiness and success is frightening. I believe that knowledge is vitally important to our society and even more important is the wisdom to use it well. Wisdom is not acquired on cue; it is cultivated in an atmosphere where open minds and hearts meet to exchange ideas and to help one another along the way. The time has come for us to shift our educational expectations and experiences—and I bet there are lots of young people out there who would love the opportunity to do just that.

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Stephanie Slade

I think you have to be careful not to fall into the trap of assuming education is valuable only because society believes it to be valuable. Actually, there are distinct benefits of a college education — like being exposed to new ideas and cultures and fields that you may never have stumbled across if you were left to seek knowledge on your own. You say we should encourage young people “to define who they are based on themselves and then to cultivate the talents and skills that will allow them to effectively put the best of themselves out in the world.” Do you really think the same kids who “walk through” your class on the way to a degree are capable at eighteen years old of determining by themselves not only what they’re meant to do with their lives but also how best to get there?

When I started college, I knew I was interested in government, so I thought I’d major in political science. But the intro-level econ classes I had to take made me realize that no poli sci education could be complete without studying economics as well. And so I did. I got to grad school and discovered a love for communications and came to understand that the ability to convey information persuasively is the foundation of our public life. So I studied that, too. The gen ed classes I took didn’t contribute to what I want to do with my life directly, right? So maybe I would have been better off instead working a job in my chosen field? Except that philosophy taught me to reason logically, biology taught me how our actions affect our planet, history taught me… statistics taught me… English lit taught me…

Certainly there are some people who are so talented right out of high school that they’re going to be wildly successful no matter what, and they don’t need to go to college to help them get there. But you have to agree that that’s the exception to the rule. More often, higher education leads to greater productivity and a higher standard of living. That’s the rule.

Alicia Mazzara

It’s appealing to keep pursing school because it puts you on a clearly defined, structured path and allows one to avoid asking the really difficult, uncomfortable questions, such as: What do I really want to do? What am I passionate about? Where do my talents lie? What do I want to get out of my education? Most people don’t know and that kind of uncertainty is scary.

I remember thinking the idea of a quarter-life crisis was preposterous until everyone I knew started having one. Having attended a small liberal arts college, I can attest that there are still some academic environments where the focus is on learning for the sake of it, rather than just to get to end of four years. Still, you graduate and then think, “Now what?” With the economy and the cost of education the way it is, I do think there’s a pressure on young people to take the safe route. But I think your point that education isn’t a clear-cut way to happiness and success is really spot-on. Peter Thiel has generated a lot of controversy, and his approach isn’t right for everyone. But I think it’s getting really hard for young people to break off the traditional track, and some people would do better if they did. I’m really curious to see what comes out of his challenge.

Kathleen Schafer

Alicia–I agree it is difficult and uncomfortable to ask questions about who you are and what you really want to create with your life AND if we don’t make the effort to answer them we can end up at the top of the ladder only to discover it is against the wrong wall–and too many people do just that.

As for Stephanie, you are correct . . . there are few people who are capable of understanding everything about themselves by themselves–which is why I would love to see more adults asking young people these important questions–and to be willing to accept the answers. I agree that college is a place to explore and be exposed to new ideas–and if you had started the process understanding that you enjoy working big picture issues vs. enjoying the process making something happen (very basic example) you likely would have been able to understand what you enjoyed and didn’t in different areas. The process that I often use with students is to first focus on their talents and skills then what they love and finally what kind of career would fit that. So yes, my students were able to answer these questions because we walked through the process and years later I consistently hear from them how valuable these discussions have been to their lives.

There is no one “right” path, that is the challenge and the opportunity for each of us to discover what is best for us at any given time. My work with clients is to help them figure out the answer to these important questions so that as the proceed in life, mistakes, mishaps and all, they at least know they are on the right path and on how to find if they get a little lost . . .

Carol Davison

I had the “advantage: of no money for college, so I enlisteded in the Air Force and went to night school for 7.5 years to get my degree. For the most part I studied with “40 year olds” who really wanted to learn. I took the last few classes on campus where I met youth who only wanted to know how many true and false were on the test and the professor didn’t care when I pointed out people cheeting on the test. My REAL educaiton came from my desire to get to know people and ideas different from me. College added value to this process and refined my writing/thinking skills. I loved being intellectually challenged and validated in my intelligence. Before pursing an advanced degree please ensure thatyou are going to college for valid reasons, and not just avoiding taking a true inventory of your strengths and weaknesses. I believe that our emotional intelligence and not our intellect defines our happiness and how high we rise in the world.

Kevin Dubs

I couldn’t agree more. I think the same goes for professional certifications. We need to focus more on how we can get value out of the courses and implement them into our daily lives rather than getting those letters next to our name so that we can look better on paper or LinkedIn.

Also – Peter Thiel’s 24 under 20 is a great business experiment and I’m excited to see how it pans out for those selected. My guess is they’ll have a little more experience than a bachelor’s degree by age 22.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Kathleen – provocative post but I don’t believe you can solely place the blame on higher education. What about the regimented K-12 educational system where students are told to stay at their desks, learn by rote, and their only measure of success is how well they do on standardized tests? After twelve years of that kind of conditioning it is the rare student who hasn’t had the spark of intellectual curiosity snuffed out long before they came to college.

And I sincerely feel that any K-12 teacher who tells a student that they are not creative, not artistic, or gives them a similar type of negative label should be taken out to the playground and horsewhipped. Numerous times I have had to help students discover and nurture a talent that they were told they didn’t have by a “teacher” who never took the time to really understand the student.