Thoughts on a Popular Myth


Before I started teaching elementary school, people told me something over and over: “We need more male role models in the schools.” The implication, sometimes not at all subtle, was that so many kids come from homes where a father is absentee, either emotionally or physically. So I talked myself into believing that was going to be the norm, and that I would assume a rightful position as, essentially, a father to so many children.

Of course, there have been kids in my career who have had absentee fathers. However, there have also been kids with absentee mothers. My point? I allowed myself to buy into a popular myth that was only slightly rooted in the real world.

Watching NBC’s Education Nation today, I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of another one of those popular myths with only some basis in reality: In order to be considered a success, you must attend college.

The implications for this kind of talk are rather significant. As the talk continued, I tweeted this:

The simple fact is not everyone is destined for college. There are too many factors – social, academic, financial – that need to align for someone to go to college. Does  not thinking everyone needs to go to college mean that we shouldn’t still have high expectations for everyone? Certainly not. Who are we to say that everyone MUST attend? We need to be realistic. Not everyone can meet the demands of a college education, the same way not everyone is equipped to become an engineer or scientist.

Now, does that mean that people who don’t go to college are destined to become drains on society? No, because people who don’t go to college will still find meaningful, vital roles in society. I certainly hope people don’t equate going to college with becoming productive members of society. College is not the only way to measure someone’s success. It depends on your value system.

That brings me to the second part of my tweet, the part about “disrespect for others’ values.” Not every culture, nor every family in the stereotypical pro-education cultures, values college as the sole route to prosperity. Who are these billionaires and politicians to promote college, then, as the only way to greatness?

Shortly after my first tweet, I tweeted this:

Do you really need a college education to make a positive impact? If you don’t go to college and still become something wonderful, does that make your contributions to the world less significant? Ask yourself that while you ponder this partial list of influential people who skipped college on their paths to prominence:

Hans Christian Andersen, Carl Bernstein, Winston Churchill, Walt Disney, George Eastman (founded Kodak), Henry Ford, Bill Gates, William Randolph Hearst, Steve Jobs, Ray Kroc (founded McDonald’s), Abraham Lincoln, Charles Lindbergh, Claude Monet, George Orwell, Larry Page (founded Google), John D. Rockefeller, Jr., William Shakespeare, Ted Turner, Wilbur Wright, Mark Zuckerberg.

My sister and I were always expected to go to college and get professional jobs. Does that make our family better than the families where these aren’t the expectations? Does that make our family more noble?

I’d venture that there are very few families in this country where children aren’t expected to do their best in life. But if that means going from high school to working in a garage, is that a bad thing? If it means going to work at a restaurant, is that a bad thing?

Not everyone has to go to college. Not everyone will go to college. Let’s stop believing that the voices of one cohort – those with money and access to opportunities – are the only voices that matter. College is not for everyone, and our country won’t fall apart if not everyone gets a college degree.

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12 responses to “Thoughts on a Popular Myth

  1. I worry about the anti-college sentiment spreading throughout the country. I understand your point of view and agree that there are many avenues to success. I also realize that education is changing dramatically and we will see the birth of many innovative paths to mastering knowledge, skill and concept. I wonder about the roots of anti-college rhetoric. During the last presidential campaign, there was a lot of finger pointing and negative speak about higher level education–could those same persons be at the root of anti-college speak? An educated, skilled populous will lead to us greater peace and innovation as well as life-long learning, meaningful work and happiness. Colleges and universities that promote deep and meaningful learning with students as their focus will help to bring our country forward. For profit institutions where profit trumps ethics or service to students will contribute to demise. The opportunity to study and learn in a stellar university or college is a gift for most students, one I will continue to promote as a positive goal.

    • First of all, I’ll clarify that I am not anti-college. I was extremely excited to go to college and grad school and have enjoyed taking classes even after acquiring my masters. That was the path I chose for myself in order to get me where I want to be today.

      Let me tell you what I’m worried about. I worry that people receive a message that college is the only way to attain success. What does this tell the mechanic, the waiter, the janitor? That they are less than our societal standards of importance, greatness, and intelligence? Is that for us to judge as a nation or is it for individuals to decide for themselves where they see themselves?

      I went to high school with a kid who was an absolute genius, only not in the traditional sense. He knew every single bus and subway line in New York, with every stop along the way. His goal in life was to become a bus driver. Who am I to say that he should have channeled his efforts into becoming a scientist, engineer, doctor, lawyer, or teacher? There are so many jobs that need to be done well that don’t require the benefit of a college degree. I will choose not to look down on people who forgo college and/or the jobs that we put on a pedestal in pursuit of other dreams that will never be glorified but will always be necessary.

  2. Totally agree with you. Matt. You should read Tom Friedman’s new book “That Used to be Us”. Lots of good thoughts about education (although the book has a much broader premise). He is in favor of a mix of college and vocational training for the kinds of good paying jobs that will be needed in this country (many of which are going unfilled now).

  3. I find that the only people who say things like, “college isn’t for everyone” are people who have one, or more, college degrees….which means that lack of a college degree will never impede them in the future (as it could someone without).

    I do think that we have over-privileged those with a degree at the expense of those without and you’re right…having a college degree does not make you “more” than those without.

  4. I certainly see your point, Matt, but I must agree with the above comment. Imagine the reaction to a wealthy person trying to convince a group of poor, starving people that money is overrated. I know this was not your intention but …

    • This speaks to the larger issue of poverty and that in itself is an extraordinary issue to consider. But as you say I didn’t intend for this to be about money. Those who push college as the only alternative do so under the premise that college will prepare everyone in America to become an innovator that will propel the country forward. No doubt it will do that for some, but how can anyone deny that there are some people who will not be able to meet those demands? It’s another example of painting everyone with the same broad brush, even though everyone has varying levels of ability, motivation, etc. This is not to say we shouldn’t all have high aspirations, but the definition of “high” is different for everyone!

  5. I think Matt hits on a large point here and that is that we shouldn’t make assumptions about people’s paths. Some people will thrive going to college, some will not, some will carve a different path in life and that can be just fine as well. I don’t think the intention here was to be anti-college but merely to remind us of what we assume as a nation both within our school and within our communities. College degrees can certainly make your life better, but they don’t guarantee success either.

  6. I understand all comments but now have to chime in with mine. I think choice is a critical issue here. If someone wants to go to college, I believe he/she should be able to go. But the decision should be theirs to make.

    Attending and graduating from college does not work for everyone and that’s the way it is. Someone’s success in life can not be measured solely by a college degree.

  7. Hi Matt, Thanks for commenting on my comment. I agree with you that we have to respect all Americans no matter what their path, choice or job–just like the anti-college sentiment I notice, I also notice a growing disrespect for the wide variety of workers and individuals in our society. There are many paths to success and living a good life, and I believe it’s essential that no matter what path you choose, as long as it’s positive, you deserve respect.

    You are a very positive and idea-oriented educator. I always draw inspiration from your posts. I am a huge fan of the college experience as it provides many with the opportunity to grow intellectually in a vibrant community of learners. I also agree though, that the traditional college experience is not for all, and not all colleges provide a stimulating, student-centered experience.

    The best posts are those that draw many comments and passion–you wrote a great post. Thanks.

  8. I don’t see Matt’s comments as anti-college, and generally agree with his point of view. By all means, everyone who has a desire and/or goal to attain higher education should be given the opportunity and the tools necessary to make that happen. To be perfectly clear on this point, I do not believe the curriculum should be dumbed down or that standards should be lowered or that expectations should not be the same for those who do not want to go to college. All students can and do learn and all should be expected to meet standards as all are capable of doing so.

    What I am saying, and what I believe Matt is saying, is that some students, for whatever reasons, do not desire to go to college and/or don’t see the need for college in their lives as they have laid out for themselves, and that should be perfectly OK. In some cases college is in their future, just not the immediate future. In the interest of full disclosure, I started college full time at age 27 after having served in the military and knocking around in the work-a-day world for awhile. The military benefits, by the way, made college possible for me, and I was certainly not ready for college at 17 when I graduated high school, not because I wasn’t academically prepared but because I didn’t really have a life plan yet and didn’t know what I wanted to do.

    Let me use the example of my daughter and two of her friends. My daughter graduated from high school three years ago and is now a senior in college. She was fourth in her high school class, her best friend was fifth. The first two years she and her best friend attended the same college and were room mates. Initially her friend had chosen a major which she decided she didn’t like, and despite taking the career exploration classes offered at their college was unable to choose a new major. After two years she dropped out of college and works at a local call center. She does intend to return to college, but not until she figures out what she wants to do with her life. her other friend was somewhere in the middle of the class and went to another college for one year before dropping out. her parents have the means to pay for her college and they have more than encouraged her to go to college, but not only does she not have a career choice in mind, she simply like partying with her friends and actually failed classes before dropping out (not because she isn’t capable, but because she partied all the time).

    I honestly didn’t expect these two to be in the situation they are in, but they are adults and are making adult choices. There are other students who graduated with my daughter who also either never went to college or dropped out. None of them are a drain on society – even the party girl has her own apartment and works two jobs to support her lifestyle. That’s the whole point I think Matt is making. The idea that everyone needs college to be successful or else become a burden on society is a myth perpetrated by the education as an industry crowd.

    To illustrate the point that not everyone who doesn’t go to college is unsuccessful or a drain on society, consider these occupations that do not require a college degree: able seaman (we need these guys to make international trade actually happen); account collectors (not glorious work, but you can get a job if you can do it); administrative assistants (some training required, but not necessarily college); bartenders (is there honestly anything wrong with being a career bartender if one is good at it and desires to do it?); truck drivers (how do you think that food gets to your supermarket?). I’ll stop there because I could list hundreds of careers that are productive, pay a living wage, and are not a drain on society. By the way, I gleaned the information about these jobs from here: http://www.bls.gov/oco/.

    In conclusion, I will re-emphasize that I do believe schools should give students the basic tools they need to be successful in college and in the working world, and I believe that every student who does desire to go to college should be afforded the opportunity. But not everyone NEEDS to go to college and not everyone WANTS to go to college. Schools need to educate those students, too. Honestly, when was the last time you did trig, pondered the impact of the Bantu migrations, or figured out what color your kittens were going to be based on the genetics of the parents? What schools really need to do is teach students to think.

  9. There are many people doing well without college… there are also others who felt compelled to go to college, graduated and now years later work in a field totally unrelated to their degree and they might not have needed the degree to get the job. When I was in college I knew alot of students who were almost forced by their parents to attend college and get a business degree which even at that time was becoming a dime a dozen. A degree with no underlying will to work in that field or skill to work in the real world only puts money in the pockets of the SAT people and the colleges. The student will have to pay off a student loan for a degree they don’t use.
    This push towards pure academics has actually hurt us because vocational skills have been marginalized. You can graduate HS with an academic-only degree, excelling in mathamatics but it’s the kid who can fix cars or run wiring or fix a sink that will get a better paying job. Over the years, vocational learning has been phased out of schools to make room for college-prep classes. We need to bring vocational classes back and require students graduate with a real-world skill that they can take with them anywhere.

  10. Let me take a minute to be slightly controversial and people can feel free to disagree. For whatever reason, high school education seems to have been watered down such that college is now required to teach to the standards that high school used to. At least that was my experience in the public high school in rural Maryland. I hated high school and never found it all that stimulating. I don’t know if this had to do with bad policies, lack of financial resources, or culture or what . I refuse to blame it on bad teachers because I had some great ones in high school. It could be that our culture that requires everyone to go to college may have in fact become a self-fulfilling prophesy and watered down high school education. This is a chicken and the egg discussion the way I am framing it. The point is, it seems increased demand for higher education has correlated to watered down education in general. In 50 years, will our society demand the same thing from students but this time at the Ph.D level? The developing world has certainly seen this where in sub-Saharan Africa and other places you see people with Master’s degrees driving taxis because there isn’t a big enough infrastructure to provide jobs in those economies for people with higher degrees. That all said, I totally agree with Matt that whatever the societal forces that cause the sentiment he’s describing, and whatever the consequences of that, our society levees a ridiculous burden on students to go to college, which in turn debts a lot of them to SallieMae. This is a problem.

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