Dale J. Stephens thinks that I should drop out of college. A little over a year ago, I found the UnCollege website, which Stephens started after he dropped out of college after his first semester. Stephens has been unschooled since he was in sixth grade, and he believes that it’s far more effective to educate oneself than it is to go to school, whether it be elementary school, or university.
I’ve been looking forward to Hacking Your Education for a while, and I read it pretty quickly. It starts out by discussing the expectation that young people will go to college – older adults often ask Stephens where he goes to school and what he’s studying. He also discusses the path that so many people seem to follow in life: Do well in school, ace the SAT so that you can get into a good college, and do well in college so that you can have a successful career/life. Stephens has opted out of that. His reasoning is, if the best learning happens outside of the classroom, why would anyone pay $40k/year to spend time inside of a classroom?
Many students go to college without a clear idea of why they are there. Stephens writes that college makes perfect sense for people who want to enter licensed professions, like nursing, architecture, or law, but for someone who wants to go into either a new, or old profession, there isn’t a need for college. New professions are things that didn’t exist twenty years ago, like social media experts, and old professions are things that have been around for a thousand years, like artists and writers. If young people are interested in something new or very old, then they might benefit from not graduating college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Stephens points out that recent college graduates are often unemployed or underemployed, which somewhat discredits the idea that going to college will get you a good job in your field.
Stephens guides readers through the process of making a to-learn list, which is an exercise that could benefit anyone, whether or not they’re college-aged. You start out by writing a list of everything you want to learn more about. This takes a surprisingly long time to come up with, because it’s not a question that people ask themselves very often.
Here’s my list: design, writing, public speaking, how to make websites, French, Spanish
The next step is to further define what each of those items means. I have to ask myself if I want to become fluent in French, or if I just want to be able to ask where the bathroom is. It might help to consider how you can learn different things, and where they’re applicable.
Here’s what that brings to my list: Become skilled in graphic design and lettering by doing a 365-style graphic project, learn more about fiction writing by writing one short story every month, give a talk in front of 50+ people, learn how to make a WordPress template and move the blog to WordPress, become fluent in French, gain a basic knowledge of Spanish.
Now that I’ve made each item more specific, each thing seems more actionable and achievable. I’m also aware that it would be incredibly difficult to do everything at once. However, it wouldn’t be much of a time commitment to learn two French words every day, and it wouldn’t take too long to write a short story every month. If I started those two things right now, in a year I would have learned 730 words in French and written 12 short stories. That’s not a bad return on four hours of work every week, given that I spend at least four hours every week on Tumblr.
Stephens discusses the idea of collaborative learning groups, which can give unschoolers some of the benefits that college gives. In a collaborative learning group, people who are interested in a certain topic gather on a regular basis to teach things to each other and discuss the things that they’re learning. For instance, if I was to start a collaborative learning group around literature, I would find people who are interested in joining the group, then we would choose books to read and then meet to discuss them. This is something I’d be interested in implementing in my own learning – it seems like it has all the benefits of taking a class, but without the students who are unmotivated and uninterested in learning.
Next, Stephens goes over the different ways that people learn. I’m surprised that he spent the time to explain this idea in his book, because I thought it was well-known concept. I know that I learn best by reading and writing – in middle school and high school history classes, I would write down my notes, then rewrite them with a different wording and with more information than what we learned in class. I would think that other people have found out how they learn best too.
Throughout the book, Stephens is biased against going to college, which he seems to be aware of. I think that there’s a benefit to college, when students are motivated and take their learning into their own hands, but Stephens assumes that if someone chooses a traditional university, they expect to spend four years being spoon-fed information. Stephens has been unschooled for years, and he seems to believe that it comes naturally to everyone. I believe that there would be a noticeable adjustment period where students would learn to seek out knowledge and build their own structure for learning. I also wonder about privilege – Stephens is a white man, who probably has some class privilege. Is is possible for someone who doesn’t benefit from those privileges to succeed in the same way that Stephens has? Is there some danger in spreading the UnCollege idea to people who aren’t very motivated about college? I know someone who’s in high school now, and uninterested in the idea of college. It seems like they’re uninterested because they don’t want to do any sort of work, not because they are motivated toward other things. If they read this book, would they take it as a reason to skip college and play video games all day? Maybe they would. They’re not the target audience, but they might hear the message anyway, and take it the wrong way.
This book gave me the little extra push to do a few things that aren’t a hundred percent about self-education. I’ve been thinking about doing a week without sugar for a while, but when Stephens mentioned it in his book, I was motivated to actually try. I’ve read that getting up at six can do wonders for productivity, and when Stephens wrote about it, that made me try to get up at six today. I didn’t quite make it, I got up at 7:15, but that’s an awful lot better than getting up after noon, like I did yesterday.
Every college student should be doing something on their own. You could start a blog, get an internship, start a nonprofit, write a book, learn a language, or just learn something that you want to. If you’re in college, and you expect a degree to be the only thing that you need to get a job when you’re done with school, than you are sadly mistaken.
I enjoyed Hacking Your Education, and I think I’ve learned quite a bit from it. I’m not planning on dropping out of college right now, but I could see myself taking a semester to go to school part-time and work on my own projects more. I think I’m also placing less value on the degree – I realize that it doesn’t matter all that much if I finish school or not, as long as I can end up doing what I want to do. This book has given me some reassurance in the benefits of self-education and the value of starting your own thing. I would recommend it to anyone nearing the end of high school or who is in college who isn’t quite sure that they need to go to college.
tl;dr: Hacking Your Education was good and you should try to learn stuff.
Also, if you’re in Grand Rapids and you’re interested in a collaborative learning group about literature, then you should email me. I want to start something.