Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Answering: “what should I go to school for?”

These days one can easily find out how people get to one’s website. My outrage column is often found via the question "what should I go to school for?" This question drives the answer seeker to my column on “why little girls shouldn’t go to school,” which is certainly not what they were looking for. (Of course, I don’t think little boys should go to school either, in case you were wondering.)

So, I thought I would attempt to answer their question since people keep asking it. The problem is that the question is ambiguous. They could be asking why go to school at all and they could be asking what should I study in school? As I have no idea which meaning predominates, I will take a shot at answering both questions. I will make the assumption that the people asking these questions are in high school and perhaps thinking about going to college

Why go to school at all?

In a society other than the one in which we live, this is a very good question. I think school, as it exists today, is a very bad idea. Still, I would be remiss in answering this question by saying drop out. Drop outs are viewed badly in our society. School is stupid, but dropping out is stupider. Why? Because, as one travels through life one accumulates a set of accomplishments. Quitting, no matter what you quit, is never a great accomplishment. Unless, of course, you quit for something better. If have a good plan that will net you something better and enable you to say I quit to start Microsoft or the equivalent, by all means quit. One learns very little of value in high school. Still the credential entitles you to a minimal amount of respect that you may need at some point. So stick it out if you can.

Now to the more important question. What should you study in high school, or more importantly, because there are more choices, in college? Let’s start with what you shouldn’t study. Study no academic subject. Do not study English, History, Math, Physics, Biology, or any of the other standard subjects that one always starts with in high school. Whoa! Did I really say that? Heresy. So, why not then?

It is important to realize that there are many myths in our society and that these myths are usually offered by people who stand to gain if people believe in them. The you must drink 8 glasses of water a day myth, for example, is offered up by companies that sell bottled water. In school the significance of studying literature, or mathematics, or history, or science, is offered up by those who teach those subjects, those who make a living testing those subjects, and more importantly by book publishers and others who have serious vested interests in selling things related to those subjects. In addition, the educated elite, having been educated in those subjects, can pooh pooh anyone who doesn’t know them and keep the high ground for themselves. If you don’t know what they know you can’t be much. This attitude has always been with us, in every society, but the subjects change. Sometimes the subject is religion, sometimes astrology, sometimes some secret knowledge that only the village elders have. These days it is literature, which certainly won’t last, mathematics, which makes hardly any sense at all in the age of computers, and history, which never made any sense since history is written by those who come out bets in the telling . Science seems to be making a big move these days. When I was young science was for geeks and those who knew it were looked down upon by the people who knew important stuff. Things change.

There is, not surprisingly, a serious lack of employment possibilities in those areas of study. So many people have been pushed to study those subjects that there is a serious oversupply of job seekers who were English majors, for example. It should not be possible to be an English major, but tell that to English professors.

So what should you go to school for? This is really an easy question to answer. First ask yourself what you really like to do in life, what you think about on a regular basis, whom you admire, and whom you wish to be? Only you can answer those questions. When you come up with answers, ask if there are jobs in that area. Be creative. Make up a job if you don’t think one exists. Ask what you need to learn to do in order to become a person who thinks about or does all day whatever it is you like to think about and do all day. Extrapolate up. If you like working on your car, maybe you would like working on airplanes or ships for example. If you like hanging out and talking, ask yourself who gets paid to do that (salesmen?). Find out where those who do what seems to be fun learned to do it. Often the answer is “on the job.” If that is the answer ask yourself how you can get a low level job in that area and work your way up. People learn by doing. Ask how you can start doing.

If you do need training to start doing what you want, find a community college that offers that kind of training. Most of all do not go to school if you have no inkling at all about what you think you would like to learn to do. Work for a while and start finding out more about the world, then ask the above questions again.

In the U.S. most people go to college immediately after high school. My experience as a professor was that those students who did something else, who went into the army, the Peace Corps, traveled around, worked for a while and such, made much better students in college. They knew why they were there. Do not go to school if the only reason you are there is to get a degree. Wrong reason. Know yourself first, then learn what you need to know that will make you become a person who you would respect.

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