All posts in News & Banter

The Answer Is Jazz, Not Schooling

You don’t have to always agree with John Taylor Gatto to appreciate his passionate, unique, and well-researched views—all of which are relevant to ZTC. This excerpt from his 2006 article The Richest Man in the World Has Some Advice for Us about College…(P.S. He didn’t take it himself):

North American economies dazzled the world for centuries because they encouraged resourcefulness, individuality and risk-taking to dominate the marketplace, and these qualities were encouraged in everyone, not just in the elites.

Three North American commercial juggernauts are currently blowing away competition all over China: computer hardware and programming, fast food franchising and commercial entertainment (singing, dancing, story-telling, games and all the rest).

Each of these businesses is almost exclusively the work of dropouts, from college, high school and elementary school. They are erected from imagination. Our fast food franchises don’t really sell “food” at all, but two intense tastes – salty and sweet – surrounded by clean, well-lighted places and spotless toilets and primary colors. They sell a return to early childhood and its simplicities.

Our computer world is built upon imagination inscribed on silicon chips on grains of sand. It’s magical. And our entertainment industry, which dominates China and every place else? Assembled from the raw material of people pretending to be who they aren’t and singing their hearts out about emotions some writer made up.

We need to realize what all this means. We need to follow the path opened by our unparalleled jazz domination of the planet.

Over in China, at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music (the oldest continuous music school on earth) they have a hard time believing that jazz can even exist, that with imagination and courage you can hear a piece of music once and ring dazzling changes on it forever.

Jazz writ large has always been the key to North American genius. As David Richardo, the great philosopher of capitalism often said: The road to wealth comes from understanding what it is that you do best, then doing it. It’s time we abandoned the cowardly path of imitating what China and India will do best in the future, realizing that our own security can only be preserved by encouraging imagination.

Don’t miss Gatto’s 2009 book Weapons of Mass Instruction and 2003 magnum opus Underground History of American Education.

Unschoolers as Illegal Immigrants

Travel and unschooling are natural bedfellows. When you travel—road-tripping across the country with friends, for example—you throw yourself into a situation with few rules, little support, and an essential need for self-directed learning. This is more true if you’re traveling in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language: road-tripping across China, perhaps. And it’s even more true if you’re not a native speaker of the world’s dominant economic language, namely English. When a native English speaker travels to Buenos Aires, she’ll find waiters, shopkeepers, and hotel owners speaking her language; when a native Hindi speaker travels to Buenos Aires, she must try much harder.

If travel promotes self-directed learning, then immigrants are honorary unschoolers. They are foreign travelers in their own country.

But what about illegal immigrants? Here the analogy becomes more interesting.

Unschoolers often feel wronged or shunned by the political system. They pay into property taxes but don’t use the public schools. Local and state authorities give unschooling families varying amounts of grief for the simple right to home-educate. Without a high school diploma or student ID card, unschoolers face difficulty getting a job, applying to college, or simply getting a student-rate movie theater ticket.

Reading My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant in the June 22nd New York Times Magazine helped me realize that illegal immigrants face similar challenges to unschoolers—multiplied many times over. (The article is long but worth your time.)

Jose Vargas, a 30-year-old Filipino journalist who came to the US illegally at age 12, tells his story of self-directed learning unsupported by the political system. After learning to speak English, Mr. Vargas embarked on a journalism career with forged documents and unpaid internships. Rising from his high school newspaper to the San Francisco Chronicle to the Washington Post, he moved closer to his dream but always feared discovery by the authorities. Tired of running, Mr. Vargas courageously came forward and admitted his history of deception and still-illegal status in the article.

My aim in this post is not to advocate for a specific immigration policy; I’m not well versed on the options. I think that most readers would agree with me that working immigrants like Mr. Vargas should be eagerly welcomed with full citizenship, as we’re a country founded on such immigration. But the idea of open-door immigration combined with heavy state services disconcerts many. I believe that the positive benefits of immigration outweighs the perceived fears of freeloading, but again, I’m not versed on the realities of immigration policy.

My aim instead is to show unschoolers to they’re not alone in battling state regulations, unfair taxation, and certification challenges—and in fact, their struggle is relatively easy. Undocumented immigrants face constant fear of deportation; they pay into social security with little hope of getting the money back later; and getting a job or going to college is a documentation nightmare. Both unschoolers and immigrants rely on self-directed learning and family support to navigate an unfriendly system. And both feel like foreign travelers in their own lands.

For those who reply “yes, but we’re legal Americans, and they’re not,” I ask you: If you were born as your same, freedom-in-education-seeking self—but you were born just a few miles over the US-Mexican border, or into a country where homeschooling is illegal, or a country too poor to provide meaningful work options—would you try to get into the United States? If your visa was denied, would you try anyway? If your parents smuggled you in, would you stay?

Such answers only come from experience. If you haven’t visited in a foreign country yet, get out and do it. Travel somewhere with less freedom (both economic and personal) than the United States. Take a friend, go with a group, or do it alone. If you don’t have a passport, apply now.Whatever you do, don’t assume that only unschoolers practice self-directed learning. We’re part of something much larger.

11 Great Reasons to Skip College

Why in the world would you purposefully skip college? Isn’t the value of higher education the one that we can all agree upon, regardless of politics, race, class, gender, shoe size, or whatever? How could everyone be wrong?

College today sells itself on a large number of myths and assumptions. Let’s hold these to the light of reality and see how many evaporate faster than a puddle in the sunlight.

Here are the big reasons to consider jumping ship from sinking hull of college in America.

1) Higher education is important. College is optional.

In our oft-heralded “modern age”—with its global competition and ever-shifting technological landscape—higher education is unquestionably important. It gives you the perspective and tools to deal with rapid change. But assuming that higher education only comes from college is like assuming that all delicious meals only come from restaurants.

College is a convenient package deal. It offers dorms, classes, counselors, professors, and a ready-made social life, all bundled together—for a steep price. Restaurants also offer a convenient package deal: when you go out to dinner, someone else does the shopping, prepares the food, refills the water, wipes the table, and washes the dishes. All you have to do is chew the food, enjoy yourself, and foot the bill.

But no one assumes that all delicious meals come from a restaurant. With preparation, dedication, mentorship, and a few good recipes, most people could cook a well-balanced meal.

In the same vein, the real ingredients of a higher education—competency, exposure, critical reading ability, independence, interpersonal skills, and more—are available to the curious seeker through hundreds of non-college challenges and adventures. With preparation, persistence, a few good suggestions, and solid mentorship, you can craft your own higher education.

(If you want to enter a licensed profession, some amount of traditional college will be necessary; but don’t confuse certification with higher education.)

2) College is incredibly expensive and becoming more so.

The average college family pays $15,000 to $30,000 per year in tuition and living expenses—after potential grants, scholarships, and family gifts are added into the equation. That’s a ton of money. But let’s not forget about the debt!

Today the average student graduates with $20,000 to $30,000 in debt. That’s a big burden to shoulder as a 23-year-old when the world is supposed to be your oyster. (Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s take.) And unlike a home mortgage, you can’t run away from student loans. Those loan officers will track you and your family down, dock future wages, and do anything else in their power to get back what’s rightfully theirs.

If you think that there’s no way these crazy prices can continue, you must recognize that this isn’t a short-term trend. Since the 1980s college tuition has risen faster than inflation. Elite college won’t drop their prices in fear of seeming less elite. Formerly low-cost public universities are increasingly unaffordable due to recession-inspired budget cuts.

Unless you can score a big scholarship or find your way into one of the Ivy League’s full-ride programs for low-income families, the incredible cost of college is a strong reason to jump ship.

3) College degree holders earn more money over their lifetime…if they’re engineers.

Perhaps you’ve heard the stories of master’s graduates competing for barista jobs; recent B.A.’s scrambling for unpaid internships; and countless 22- to 28-year-olds moving back in with their parents thanks to student debt. These stories reveal the frailty of the assumption that a college degree is a sure-fire ticket to financial security. But let’s forget about anecdotes for a moment and talk cold hard cash.

When you hear that “college graduates make more money,” $800,000 is the figure usually touted. This is the College Board’s widely circulated “lifetime earnings gap” between high school graduates and college graduates. But this number is highly suspect and, based on more recent data, may be closer to $280,000.

The lifetime earnings gap also doesn’t express the huge variations in average income based on the major and college that you choose.

If you’re a Petroleum or Chemical Engineering major, for example, you have a good chance of earning $100,000-150,000 mid-way through your career. But as a Child and Family Studies or Social Work major, it’s more like $39,000-45,000. (Here’s the full list.)  Additionally, the top earners overwhelmingly come from the Ivy Leagues and engineering colleges. An MIT graduate earns roughly $120,000 in mid-career salary; a Portland State University graduate earns  $71,000. (Here’s that list.)

What does this mean for you? Firstly, if your goal is make a ton of money, then don’t assume that any old college degree will do it. The lifetime earning gap is highly skewed by all those Ivy League engineers and financiers. Secondly, don’t be so quick to believe statistics; no one wants to think that they’re on the wrong side of the average. Thirdly, consider some of the highest earners today—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg—and ask yourself whether their (aborted) college educations were more important than their entrepreneurship and passionate dedication to the up-and-coming tech industry. There are a million ways to make a buck in this world; college is not the only path to financial stability.

4) College is a bubble.

After decades of promoting the political panacea of “college for all” and providing easy college loans to anyone who wants one, we’re finally wising up.

Replace the words “college” in the previous sentence with the phrase “home ownership”—and then ask yourself about the root causes of the 2008-2009 recession. The parallels are obvious and alarming (though not all believe so).

5) A hardcore academic experience is increasingly difficult to find.

As documented by a flurry of recent books (with such titles as Academically Adrift, The Five-Year Party, Crisis on Campus, and No Sucker Left Behind) your chances of finding an intensive academic experience are dwindling.

We tell ourselves about college is that it’s a place where ideas are taken seriously, where knowledge is revered for its own sake, and where people come together to learn. But the reality for many students is starkly different. Excessive partying, grade inflation, and the army of online “degree mills” each herald a departure from our classic vision of the rigorous college experience.

6) You can find great mentorship without college.

Without college, where will a young adult find the guidance necessary to make smart life decisions? How will they design an alternative to college with so little experience? How will they take the right steps toward the career of their dreams?

These are important questions, but the answers aren’t only found in college. In fact, the life guidance that a college provides is often self-perpetuating. (Want to get ahead? Get a Master’s!) And while colleges are filled with smart professors and other potential mentors, few students make the proactive decisions to ask for their guidance.

Young people who purposefully skip college have the chance get involved in business teams, internships, apprenticeships, and innovative projects where mentors with real-world experience are a stone’s throw away. They can also purposefully seek out mentors to help guide their non-traditional education. Zero Tuition College offers a directory of MAGEs (Mentors, Advisors, Guides, and Experts) geared specifically for the challenge of skipping college.

Finding great mentorship is not a choice between college life or gang life; it’s a choice between purposefully seeking out a variety of experienced mentors or taking what life gives you.

7) Few colleges offer lessons in entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship is one obvious choice for college graduates facing a tough job market. Young people always have the option of starting their own small businesses, non-profits, creative gigs, or becoming freelancers. But few do, settling for low-paid employment instead. Why? Because you’re unlikely to get lessons in entrepreneurship from college.

The word “entrepreneur” was coined by the 18th-century Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon who divided society into two general classes: those with a “fixed income” (wage-earners) and those with a “non-fixed income”. This second group—the entrepreneurs—earned uncertain incomes due to an unknown demand for their product.

Today, we still talk about workers as Cantillon did 250 years ago. We imagine that employees make a “fixed income” while business owners, artists, freelancers, and other entrepreneurs make an uncertain “non-fixed income.”

But anyone who had their eyes open in the 2008-9 recession must ask: Where are the people with so-called “fixed incomes?” Does it help the laid-off construction worker or office manager with a halved 401k fund to say, “Don’t worry, you’re a wage-earner, so your income is reliable?” Of course not.

We must admit the economic truth of our globalized age: that everyone, employed or not, has a non-fixed, unreliable income. Everyone is an entrepreneur. No one—tenured professors, well-schooled professionals, and government employees included—can escape this fate.

Most colleges don’t—and largely can’t—teach entrepreneurism. (Stanford is a notable exception.) This is because entrepreneurs must create a product of real value to real people, and they must have real possibility of failure.

College assignments, of course, don’t involve actual risks (get an F in sociology and dinner will still be on the table). They don’t require you to create value for other people (how many people will read that sociology paper, anyways?). And the final product—the paper or presentation or homework assignment—typically goes straight into the waste bin.

To teach entrepreneurism, a college would need to support students in crafting big, real-life ventures, taking actual risks, and highlighting their success (and failures too). But most of the time, you have to craft such opportunities for yourself.

8) The internet offers a huge (and ever-increasing) number of free, college-level learning resources.

Wikipedia. TED talks. Academic Earth. Peer2Peer University. YouTube. Blogs. Open-source articles, journalism, books, and research papers. The list goes on and on.

Between these resources and everything else on the Web, you can give yourself an introduction to virtually any subject on earth. You can find free courses by top professors and local geniuses. You can access the same cutting-edge data that college students uses. And you can collaborate with learners across the world.

The trend toward ever-widening access to college-level learning resources is only moving in one direction: up.

9) Social networking makes it easier to find friends without college.

The “social experience” is an important part of the “college experience” that few want to miss. But you don’t need to enroll in college just to meet other people. Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist, and other social networking technologies open the doors to peer community when college isn’t in the picture.

Here’s one way to use these technologies if you’re hungry for the college social experience: Relocate to a neat-looking college town, find an off-campus rental with other college students (using Craigslist), and then cruise the campus (taking advantage of ubiquitous Facebook and Twitter links) to find out about parties, events, and activity groups. There, now you’ve got a Zero Tuition Social Life.

Of course, social websites are only a means to an end. The best way to make friends is a friendly smile, a warm handshake, and willingness to strike up conversations.  This method works everywhere in life.

Also, as a college-skipper, the internships, jobs, projects, and groups that you’ll get involved with provide dozens of new social opportunities. And once you get dialed into a group of dynamic individuals, more opportunities quickly flower.

10) There are excellent ways to document and certify your accomplishments in lieu of a college degree.

There are good minds working on this problem. But you don’t need wait for some official “alternative credential” to prove yourself as a non-college-graduate. Here’s the basic recipe for replacing the college degree:

  1. Do hard stuff
  2. Create evidence of the stuff that you’ve done (such as blog posts, photographs, videos, short essays, websites, prototypes, etc.)
  3. Publish that evidence in an online portfolio.
  4. Network and market the hell out of yourself.

That’s the entrepreneur’s path to finding—or creating—good work.

11) DIY is exciting and meaningful.

The DIY (do-it-yourself) path to higher education is more fun, challenging, and exciting than traditional college.

Today, many students graduate with the sinking feeling that they’ve jumped through many hoops—but accomplished little. They wonder how a string of homework sessions, classroom lectures, and keg-stands turned into $20,000 of debt. And they begin to realize, often with bitterness, how unprepared for the actual world of work they are.

Traditional college might be “fun,” but it often fails to give students what they’re secretly looking for: a challenging peak experience that builds real community, real self-knowledge, and and real skills.

When thoughtfully pursued, the DIY college path has a better chance of delivering such a peak experience—at a much lower price. And such an exciting and meaningful adventure won’t quickly be forgotten.

So what can you do instead of college?

Here are a few ideas, and here are a few more. You can also take inspiration from the rest of the world’s college skippers & drop-outs.

Figuring out what to do instead of college need not be complicated. I like to start with a piece of advice that John Taylor Gatto gave to a group of graduating homeschoolers:

The only thing serious you face at the moment, regardless of what you’ve been told, is deciding what quests you will choose for yourself.

Choose your quests. Figure out your biggest dreams. And then pursue them doggedly, with an eye toward building economic self-sufficiency. There’s a recipe for skipping college.

But going it alone is tough. It helps to have friends, accomplices, and great mentors. That’s why I’m launching Zero Tuition College. ZTC is a place where college-level self-directed learners can meet, connect, get inspired, and get support for their DIY higher education. The price to join our “free college for self-directed learners” is, of course, zero.

Whether you skip college or not, we’re all searching for the same thing: a high-quality higher education at a reasonable price. I wish you the best of luck in this journey.

Top photo: pamhule