Back in the ‘60’s, an interviewer asked the “King of Folk Music”, Bob Dylan what his goal in life was. Bob answered something to the effect of,
“I want to make enough money to go to college, so one day I can be somebody.”
Bob had a good sense of irony. And certainly, he was always more inclined to think outside the box than to follow the well-trodden path. That was part of what made him so interesting and part of what made him so successful. A similar sentiment was expressed in a song by his peer, Paul Simon:
“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”
In those days, just like today, the customary idea of success was that you attended university for a number of years, you received a degree, then you would be given a job where you could wear a necktie and receive a salary that had an extra zero behind it.
Then, as now, that’s quite true for anyone who seeks a career in engineering, medicine, law, etc., but less so for virtually everyone else. Those who pursue a degree in Gender Studies or 18th Century French Literature are likely to find that, after they graduate, they’ve learned little or nothing that translates into potential income.
Of course, universities value such courses highly and professors love to teach them. After all, they never really left school themselves. They went straight from being students to being teachers and never had to learn to be productive in the larger world. As such, they are the very worst advisors to students wondering what courses to take in order to one day seek employment.
This is not to say that such subjects are uninteresting; it’s just that employers don’t hire people because they were interested in their courses. They hire them, based upon whether they’ve acquired knowledge that’s applicable to their businesses.
There will always be a need for engineers, doctors and lawyers, but the pursuit of studies that stand little chance of producing a return may be a waste of a significant chunk (or all) of your parents savings, or may result in years of indebtedness in the form of a college loan. In addition, you could be wasting several prime years, at a time when your energy and imagination are at a peak.
Recently I was asked my opinion on a young woman who was considering university. She’s not only bright, but sensible and organised beyond her years. My suggestion was that she enter a university in another country (away from her parents), and take some basic courses in business management, accounting, economics, etc. After a year, she should plan to drop out and travel the world for a year with a backpack. Her parents should give her enough money so that she’d be all right if she runs into unforeseen problems, but, aside from that, she should try to work her way around the world doing a variety of jobs. In doing so, she should follow her own choices and her own timetable.
Were she to do this, I believe she’d return home after the two years, with the self-confidence, self-reliance and adaptability to take on virtually anything. Her “education” from that time would stay with her the rest of her life. As Albert Einstein stated,
“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”
Today, especially in the US, there’s a push toward the concept of everyone going to university, with some leaders and would-be leaders suggesting that university education should be available to all, for free. They don’t mention how it might be possible for the already-imposed-upon taxpayer to pay for this enormous additional cost, other than to “tax the rich some more”. (This is not exactly what makes up a viable business plan.)
Nor do they offer an opinion on what happens when the great majority of people have university degrees, but the great majority of jobs don’t require them. (Could it be that they’re imagining a society where no one accepts the job of collecting the garbage; where no one pursues a career as a fireman, a mechanic, or a carpenter?)
In my own country, I’ve often heard parents chide their children, “You need to study more – do you want to end up in construction?” (Children here are generally encouraged to pursue careers in law or the financial industry.)
A good rule of thumb regarding education is to follow what you seem to be best at. Most of us are best at the things that we find interesting. If we’re endowed with an excellent memory and love to study books, we might be good candidates for a degree in medicine or law. If not, even if we eventually manage to obtain a degree, it’s unlikely that we’ll excel in one of those fields.
And there’s another concern that’s very rarely discussed in the ivy halls – the future.
We’re entering what I believe will be a period of the most dramatic economic change that any of us will see in our lifetimes. There are many job titles that are attracting many students today that may diminish or even virtually disappear in a few short years.
We’re presently facing an economic crisis much like the one in 1929, but far more devastating, since the conditions leading up to it are so much worse. After a crash, bankers, brokers and other financial industry professionals will be out of work. Many of those jobs will not return in the foreseeable future. New graduates, hopeful of entering the industry will find that they have no chance of obtaining even an entry-level position.
Following the immediate loss of those jobs, an economic wind-down will take place that will trim away jobs in most other fields as well.
In such an economic climate, some new jobs may appear as a result of the changed economic landscape. Auto dealerships may close, whilst mechanic shops remain busy. Large supermarkets may struggle, whilst new low-overhead roadside stands fare better.
However, in general, a country that’s mired in depression is likely to be a difficult place to make a living, especially for those who have just exited university.
One great advantage that graduates have is that they typically are unmarried, have no mortgage and are free to travel – on a shoestring if necessary. And, whenever there’s a depression in some countries, there are other countries that are largely unaffected by the depression or are actually benefitting from it.
In such countries, there’s invariably a demand for expansion of goods and services and the provision of new goods and services. Few of those with a degree in sociology or fashion design are likely to find a wealth of opportunity in such a situation. And, similarly, employment will be difficult to find for those who pursued calculus and analytic geometry. (Confession: I took these courses and have never benefitted from them.)
But for those who have taken some basic business and economics courses, what was learned can be adapted to virtually any future endeavour. Those who observe a growing economy objectively are likely to spot any number of entrepreneurial possibilities.
And this is where we turn again to our friend Al, in the photo above. Those who have used their educations to broaden their ability to think will be those who find themselves at the forefront of an expanding economy. In such an economic environment, success is more likely than in a collapsing one, which makes it more forgiving when you make mistakes. And when you don’t make mistakes, you’re rewarded many times over.
As has always been true, education can be the key to open up the future. Whether it does will depend, in large part, on what definition of education you pursue.