The futility of higher education

One of the more painful consequences of imbibing regular doses of Cold Hard Truth is that you find yourself actively questioning everything you were taught when growing up by those you love the most. As you get older and (hopefully) wiser, and as you continue down that endless and often lonely road of self-improvement, sooner or later you're going to find yourself rejecting what you once thought were gospel truths.

For Asians, there are very few sacred cows more highly venerated than that of the college education. In my opinion, there is no sacred cow that more thoroughly deserves to be turned into hamburger. Almost from the time you're old enough to understand the idea of education, Asian children are indoctrinated into thinking that more education is always and everywhere a Good Thing. Indeed, if you're Asian and you're reading this, then what I'm about to write is going to sound as if your dad is speaking to you through this blog:
  • From the time you're old enough to read, the virtues of hard work and focusing on your studies are dinned into you (this, by the way, actually is a good thing)
  • Any grade less than a B (or a B- in case your parents really like you) is cause for parental heart palpitations
  • If, heaven forbid, you should ever find yourself called into the principal's office for any reason, it's treated as a Very Serious Matter requiring the entire family to sit down and hash it all out to make it clear that what you've done is Totally and Completely Unacceptable
  • Girls? What the hell are girls for anyway??? They get in the way of your college admissions essays!
  • What do you mean, you want to go outside and play?! You've got a test to study for!
  • If you don't get into at least one Ivy League/top 10 university, you've wasted 12 years of hard education!
  • "Fun" is what you have AFTER you've completed your studies! And after you've gotten married and raised kids! And after you've spent your best years working in a good respectable stable job! (Uh, come to think of it... what is this "fun"???)
For the sake of keeping a good conscience I should point out that, to my immense relief, my parents never quite went as far as all that when I was growing up. What I have written above, however, is merely stereotyped and somewhat exaggerated behaviour on the part of Asian parents- not for nothing, after all, did Amy Chua write her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. There can be no question that education is valued extremely highly among Asians, particularly of Indian or Chinese extraction, because for hundreds- if not thousands- of years, it has been seen as the key to a better life and higher social status.

That is no longer the case.

If colleges today were what they once were intended to be- repositories of learning, hallowed halls of training for a very select few who had the wit and the will to do great things, engines of innovation, that sort of thing- then going to university would indeed be a good decision. However, anyone who has spent more than a week on the campus of a modern university will know full well that, in large part, universities are no longer about teaching people, about exploring the mysteries of God's creation, or about training people to think rigourously.

When I was about 14 years old, I read a book by a chap named Peregrine White called The Idea Factory: Learning How to Think at MIT. That book was my glimpse into what I thought a university education is supposed to be. I thought that going to university would be teach me how to think- how to solve problems, how to understand the world around me, how to be the best I could be at whatever I eventually did. In fact, when I actually went to university, I quickly came to realise that much of what I was being taught either didn't make much sense in the modern world, or was flat-out wrong. And all the time, I had to deal with the constant steady drumbeat of leftist indoctrination that has become so prevalent on modern university campuses.

Modern universities do not exist to teach you how to think. They exist to teach you what to think.

I will readily admit that there are exceptions. If you study a hard science, or a true art like mathematics, or engineering, then chances are that you're going to be way too busy to deal with the sort of pseudo-intellectual garbage that passes for leftist cant on a university campus these days. Classic example: during my Master's program we would often have to take classes in the university's School of Social Work. (Yes, I am sorry to say that the university had such a thing. Along with a School of Public Policy. There were- are- a lot of things wrong with that place.) Walking into that building was like entering the Twilight Zone, where normal things don't happen very often. You would walk in and see posters lionising Hugo Chavez and calling for "action rallies" or "solidarity marches". (Isn't the latter a euphemism for a painful bowel movement?) We would get there, go for the lecture we needed to attend, and then GTFO as fast as we possibly could to the relative safety of the computer lab or the Mathematics department.

The reality confronting the modern young man is that university is going to be, by and large, a giant waste of your time and money. You will get a far better education simply through constant and dedicated reading. Over his lifetime, my father's uncle amassed a truly awesome collection of books and textbooks, which for decades were housed in the upper floor of my grandparents' house back in the old country. As my father remarked the last time we were there, a man could get a truly phenomenal education from simply reading through that entire collection. The same is true of my parents' house- it is filthy with books. A modern man could easily achieve the same effect by simply reading through his local library. In my case, my lifelong love of good books has translated very well into e-books; I actually read probably twenty times more e-books than I do regular paperbacks or hardcovers these days. Never before has more knowledge been available for a lower cost than in the modern day.

With all of the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years' worth of human experience and understanding just a mouse-click away, is dropping 60K or more on a year's tuition and room and board really worthwhile if you're studying anything other than a hard science?

I will concede that there are certain disciplines where, if you want to progress, the only choice is university. If you love mathematics, or the sciences, or computer programming, then yes, university is (probably) for you- and you've got the added benefit of studying a subject which translates into actual, real-world skill and monetary reward. That route has certainly worked out very well for me personally; I studied Mathematics & Economics as an undergraduate and Mathematical Finance as a postgraduate, and on the whole things worked out all right. (Unfortunately, I've had to spend the last 10 years unlearning everything I learned about economics, but oh well, c'est la vie.)

If, however, your aim is to study history, or economics, or (God help you) English literature, and then... find a job of some sort, well, I've got bad news for you: that sort of wishy-washy thinking is a luxury that neither you nor the rest of society can afford any longer. Most of what you will be taught will be wrong anyway, so why bother?

One of the hardest things I've ever had to learn is that there is no classroom substitute for hard-earned, real-world experience. There is no faster way to learn how inadequate your education has really been other than getting out there and trying to make something of yourself. If you try to delay that time of reckoning by instead wasting four years- or five, or six- in university, then all you're doing is depriving yourself of the kind of hard-earned common sense that could save you from years or even decades of pain and suffering later in life. University will not teach you anything these days except for an inflated sense of self-importance.

If you are in high school right now (unlikely if you're reading this blog) and you're thinking of going to university, think hard about the alternatives. Go to a trade school and pick up real work experience. Start your own business doing what you want. Learn how to write computer code. Hone your writing skills as a blogger. Read as much as you possibly can. But whatever you do, for heaven's sake, don't delude yourself into thinking that you "deserve" to go to university. You don't, because your motives for going there are wrong.

If you're already in university, think very hard about your choices afterwards. The (mis)education that you receive will potentially blind you to the alternatives available to you in life. If you live and study in New York, for instance, you would be forgiven for thinking that the ONLY possible careers are in finance and banking. This is simply not true; in fact most of the kids who graduate and go into finance quickly realise how much they hate it and end up leaving after a few years, from my experience.

The bottom line is that university is an investment. It is not a right. You should go to university for the right reasons- and make no mistake, most of the "reasons" that young people have for going to most universities these days are simply wrong. Think about the alternatives first, so that you don't find yourself ten years down the line drowning in debt that you cannot default upon, with a piece of paper that is worth less than the value of the ink on it.


  1. I had a few classes about thinking about things, and they were all philosophy.

    1. We mathematicians always had a friendly rivalry with the guys taking philosophy. The way we looked at it, we solved problems, while they created problems. The way they saw it, their problems were too "profound" to be solved.

      Of course, the fact that they took like half as many classes as we did, and seemed to get away with twice as much BS as we could, may have coloured our opinions of them somewhat...


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