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Better Than College not practical for most 18-year-olds? A conversation with Bill Deresiewicz

Late in the process of independently publishing Better Than College, I wrote to the authors listed in the back of the book to ask for blurbs and/or feedback. Bill Deresiewicz, the author of many excellent essays critiquing higher education, responded to me this month with some quality criticisms of my arguments. Below is his original letter (published with his permission) and my response.

Dear Blake,

I finally had a chance to read your book. I found it clear and accessible, and I thought it said some valuable things about the purpose of education and the possibility of self-education. But I do have one big criticism. I don’t think its prescriptions are practical for most 18-year-olds–not just because they lack the self-direction, though many of them do, but because they are not yet in a position to create value for other people. You seem to underestimate, often vastly underestimate, the amount of training or self-training it takes to be able to do something well enough to make it worth other people’s time, let alone money. There’s a reason people talk about those proverbial 10,000 hours.

I was struck in particular by two passages, both of which have to do with things I’ve done. One is the one where you talk about teaching a course. You say you just need to be better than your students. I don’t think that’s true at all. You need to be a lot better, and you need to have a firm grasp of your subject. I think about my first time as a teacher of freshman composition, when I was a third-year graduate student. I was barely capable of doing it even then. When I apply your suggestion and ask myself what it would’ve been like to teach that course immediately after having taken it myself (when I was, by definition, better than the kids who hadn’t taken it yet), I have to laugh. I wasn’t remotely qualified to do so at the time, and it would have amounted to malpractice to have attempted it.

Then there is your guide to becoming a public intellectual. Here, instead of laughing, I have to cry. That is a label I hesitate to apply to myself, because I don’t think I’ve earned it yet. To think you can spend a little time cramming about an issue and then start pronouncing about it in public is–well, it reflects a lot of what’s wrong with our public discourse today. I’m a critic of expertise myself, in certain respects, but I still believe in it. Your suggestions will produce not public intellectuals but chatterers, bloggers, pontificators. I think you do a serious disservice to young people by allowing them to think they can legitimately enter public discourse so easily.

I’m sorry for sounding harsh. I really do think you have valuable things to say to young people. But I also think you forget the difference between being 29, as I think you are, and being 18. For much of your book I kept thinking, yes, this is great advice if you’ve already gone to college or at least if you’re already well into your 20s. I know you know a lot of unschooled kids, and maybe they’re different, but you seem to discount and take for granted all the intangible things your own college education (elite college education) gave you. I’m highly skeptical that all but a very few 18-year-olds can conduct the kind of self-education and life-creation you outline. I actually do believe in college, which is why I want to try to make it better.

All the best, Bill

Dear Bill,

Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my book—that’s a huge compliment. And thanks especially for providing the critical feedback that I really want to hear but so many are hesitant to dish out. (While I appreciate all my 5-star reviews on Amazon, I’d love to get some valid criticism in there too.)

I agree that my prescriptions are not practical for many 18-year-olds. Most of young adults I profiled were indeed unschoolers with exceptional backgrounds and lots of practice in self-directed learning. The book is not practical for most high school graduates. But as I’m sure you noticed, my audience was not just 18-year-olds, but also current college students, those taking a gap year, and recent graduates. The bulk of my readers are indeed in the 20+ age range. I could have done a better job expressing that my book is also for this older age range, as I’m aware I often “spoke” to a 18-year-old audience.

Your idea that most 18-year-olds “are not yet in a position to create value for other people” may be true in terms of professional-level teaching or writing (and you sell yourself short when you say you’re not a public intellectual—you’re an excellent one!), but I don’t think it’s true in many other arenas. I know many 18-year-olds both schooled and unschooled who are excellent interns, volunteers, artists, and entrepreneurs, each creating significant value for others. They’re not getting paid significantly, but they are creating value. And more importantly, they are experiencing the process and mindset of creating value for others at a significantly younger age then their peers. Yes, it’s a lot of learning through struggle and failure and shitty-value-production (cue the blogging pontificators). But as you’ve surely seen in your work, there are pernicious effects from insulating young people from this kind of struggle and failure and entrepreneurship until well into their twenties.

you seem to discount and take for granted all the intangible things your own college education (elite college education) gave you

I do think about this, and I wonder how many intangible skills my time at Berkeley gave me. It was certainly beneficial socially, but I credit that much more to the student co-ops in which I lived all four years. It did expand my thoughts, challenge me to think critically, and ultimately introduce me to the field of alternative education in which I’ve stayed for 10 years. But causation is a tricky thing to parse out, as well as forsaken alternatives. I admit that comprehensive alternatives to college are hard to find. I’m trying to build a few myself. I just felt like someone had to ring the bell for the alternative path to college (especially in light of the increasing prices) even if most young people can’t or won’t take that path right now. I too believe in colleges and want to make them better; I just don’t think they deserve a monopoly privilege in our minds where “success” is concerned.


  • I was about to write “Brilliant banter”, and then I looked up the official definition of banter and it didn’t quite hit the mark I was looking for…but I’ll use it anyway :)

    • rabbitchaser87

      Shawna, perhaps the mark you were looking for is hit by ‘repartee’?

  • A couple thoughts on “they are not yet in a position to create value for other people”. Creating value is a continuum and is based on complexity of task in a competitive labor market . For example, someone who is a carpenter apprentice creates value in smaller then progressively larger amounts. Hence, I don’t know that it needs to be valued at any high rate to be useful. In addition, if 12 years of K-12 schooling were not so pathetically lacking in value, people would be more prepared at 18 to create value, perhaps even have existing value, and be ready to create more on their own.

    As to the 10,000 hour rule, it is precisely the intrinsically motivated who are willing to put in the proverbial 10,000 hours. That type of self motivation and direction is fostered most by unschooling, encouraging self direction, and Mr. Boles’ book. Children given responsibility and self direction learn to be good at responsibility and self direction. Come to think of it, the same could be said for humans of all ages. :-)