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I need my diplomas like I need a…

I was reading this article about EduPunk in The Tyee yesterday, and it got me thinking. (Ironically, something else I thought was that I wanted more thoughtful meat, and more concrete history and policy in that article.)

For every formal job I’ve ever had, I’ve been either over- or inappropriately credentialed. I have a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and a master’s in educational studies that, despite snobby academic eye-rolling by “real scientists”, may as well be in developmental psychology.

In the last eleven years I’ve been hired as the coordinator of a community centre’s after-school program, a travel-camp counselor, a substitute teacher, a magazine editor and the community dude at a web start-up.

(That’s not very much formal hiring; most of the time I work by cobbling together contracts or by writing books.)

To be clear, I’ve never not been hired on account of being over-credentialed. It’s just that my credentials were never very relevant to the work I sought.

Note that I’m not saying I’ve been overqualified. I reject the notion that credentials equal qualification. Book learnin’ ain’t the same as actually doing. This is why the EduPunk article got me thinking about this.

Except in the case of professions like doctors and lawyers that undeniably require a tremendous amount of study and apprenticing, I think a default reliance on professional credentials is dumb. Of course some fields involve a tremendous amount of learning and mastery, and some people learn best in a school setting or enjoy taking classes. That’s all well and good. My point is just this: When you’re hiring a web designer and your two final candidates have five years’ worth of portfolio for you to judge, do you care which one has an MFA?

No, you don’t. You judge their work on its own. It doesn’t matter if their skill and craft developed in a classroom or in an office or in a lean-to.

To most people school is just school, to some it’s the bee’s knees, but to others school is a place where learning simply can’t happen. I, for example and despite being in school till I was twenty-two, learned very little in the classroom. I’m just really good at being a student. Even when I was bored to tears, which was much of the time, my overdeveloped sense of achievement kept me focused on earning high marks. I’m uncomfortable failing, see, and so on paper I’m the perfect student. In reality, I spent most of my time in the vast majority of my classes completely zoned out. If not for that overdeveloped and totally insane need to get A’s, I would certainly have gone mad and would have dreamed of dropping out. In the few classes that really engaged me, I devoured the material and my imagination took me to countless new places I would have dedicated years of study to. But I only had a semester, and that was that.

So, oh my gods am I glad to see a DIY movement taking hold in education. What’s unclear from The Tyee article, though, is that there’s expertise available to those DIYers. But that’s not what’s got me writing right now.

See, despite my dismissal of credentials as relevant, in my freelance work I’ve been keenly aware of the legitimacy my credentials bring – the illusion of legitimacy, that is. At the first hint of doubt on someone’s face as we discuss my ability to learn the job I’m applying to do, I mention something or other about grad school. It’s amazing what people assume you’re capable of when you’ve already managed to jump through the hoops and navigate the politics and bullshit of academia. Or maybe we’re mostly just programmed to equate respect to initials – M.A., B.A., etc. Even when the degree you have is in a branch of study wholly unrelated to the job.

But here’s the thing, dear creators. Take a look to your left and another to your right and you’re likely to find a high school drop-out who’s written a best-selling book. You’re likely to find someone in their thirties who’s been successfully self-employed for twenty years.

Every day you read blog posts giving you invaluable advice on how to run your business, inspiring you to create, teaching you new skills – all written by people who not only don’t have an MBA or an MFA or an education degree, but who don’t have a GED either.

You might be inclined now to wonder who those folks are. To maybe not take them as seriously as you had. But why? Do you take my posts about creativity any more seriously knowing that I did research with babies for two years and get all nerdy excited about creolization?

No, you don’t. And you shouldn’t.

You value the words of these creators, you value their work and their generosity of knowledge because you’ve benefited from them. Because their work and their personalities have proven themselves. Hell, some of them may even be publishing anonymously. So you don’t even know their name, yet you learn from them, become inspired by them, consider their advice.

Our creative world is all the richer for the varied backgrounds of the people we keep company with and learn from. I felt stress and pain through much of my formal studies because I’m interested in too many things and couldn’t choose. But I lived in a very small world back then, and I didn’t know the option of dropping out was even available to me. I believed drop-outs were destined for poverty, addiction, crime and tearing up their families. I was a very naïve and easily intimidated kid. So I can only try to express to you in words how much I admire and learn from the people who are so much like me, who have such varied interests, who read such fascinating and entertaining books, who make me think hard about so many things, and who did have the presence of mind and the fortitude of spirit to be true to themselves when they were young. Who sought the kind of learning they needed.

Of course I don’t regret my education. I may be totally cynical about the ivory tower, but I know I was not only lucky to have the opportunity to go to university, but to have it be an expectation placed upon me from a young age. But I also grew up being told that I needed a university degree to make something of myself. And now I know that’s just not true.

It’s proven again and again by the brilliant, creative, successful people I have the utter pleasure of working with every day.

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sillylittlelady

I was always told growing up that you went to highschool, went to college, got your degree and started life. It never occurred to me that people *didn't* go to college until I got there!

I have learned that school isn't for everyone, and I know now that it isn't necessarily for me either but since I am so close (I graduate next May) I am deciding to stick with it and get the degree.

I'm not getting a 'legitimate' degree, just a Bachelors in General Studies, but this has allowed me to personalize my educational experience to the things that I find most interesting and useful. I'm sure that my choice of school was also wrong (a Tech school? for me? really?) but, again, I'm so close I'm gonna stick it out.

I admire my classmates (ex-classmates?) who have dropped out because they wanted to follow their dreams and they knew what would suit them best, sometimes I envy them.

Kirsty Hall

I have an *interesting* educational history. It took me three shots to get a college degree.

The first time, I studied English but I only chose that because it was my favourite subject at school. Plus I didn't know what else to do, so I figured I might as well go to college. I was 17 & a party girl – I got thrown out after a year. I call it My Year Of Living Dangerously and it was definitely a learning experience but it dented my confidence for a very long time.

The second time, I was 23 and I went to art college. I'd already successfully done a year on Foundation (a one year preparatory course). I knew I wasn't ready to do my degree, I only went because it was the next logical step and the tutors on my Foundation year pushed me into it. I got pregnant in my first year and dropped out to have my son.

The THIRD time, I actually wanted to be there and ended up getting a First class degree in art.

All three of these experiences were vital in making me who I am today and in many ways, the two failed attempts were probably far more important than the successful one but if I talk to people about the failed attempts, I always think they'll be judging me as someone who took three shots to get a degree. I've kind of got over that now but I used to hide it.

Teresa Sullivan

Good to hear. I dropped out of college in part because I was learning more out of school than in school. Still am!

madebymegs

I went to school to become a nurse…then was in a car accident and can no longer work. I have been thinking about going back to school to get a degree in art…but really, what the hell will that piece of paper do for me! I know my future will be in the arts, being creative, but really…do I have to go to school for it?? Hell no!!

LB

I was the reverse – no one in my family went to university – I was the first. So I always knew there were plenty of other paths in life and I, thanks to government student loans, got to take the path that worked for me. Full disclosure: I loved university. I mostly agree with you about the weight our society gives to credentials (even when unrelated) being silly and excessive, but I have a nagging thought about the lack of critical thinking skills I tend to find in people who haven't gone to university. Uni isn't the path for everyone, and it's certainly no path to success (you have to find that on your own), but going through the process of university (including, I think all the admin cr*p) teaches you something you're not even aware of at the time (at least I wasn't), necessarily: to question everything and realize the world isn't black and white but a zillion shades of grey. I really really value that. The more I see of the world, the more I think we need people who question what media (for example) tells them, and universities do seem to pop people out with critical thinking skills (generally). I used to say that if you didn't need a university degree to do what you wanted to do (i.e. be an engineer/doctor/whatever), then don't bother. But I've changed my perspective since. If you need the credential to do your thing, go for that, and if you don't need any silly credential – go for the learning. Even if you think what you're learning on your subject of choice isn't the best thing ever – you're probably learning skills you aren't even aware you're learning. That's not to say that non-uni people can't be brilliant, creative, and… Read more »

Isaac Watson

I always admired my father for never having a college degree and rising within the ranks at Nike as his skills and business sense developed. After 20 years he retired, and now works for a consulting firm on supply chain solutions.

For the longest time, however, I thought that the days of working up through the ranks were long over, that the more society progressed, the more important it was to have a degree—any degree. And so I went to school. First it was Architecture, but I flunked out of basic physics three times in a row. Then I fell in love with graphic design, but between financial woes and an evolving program at the university I was attending, I burnt out and dropped out after four years oscillating between full- and part-time.

Then I discovered my art, which led to my involvement with the handmade community, which led to a really awesome job in Communications. At this point, I don't know if I'll go back and complete a formal degree. In fact, I don't really even know what I want to do with my life, and I'm completely okay with that. Will I become a full-time artist? I have no idea. Will I pursue a career in public relations, communications and marketing? Perhaps.

But at this point, I feel like it IS possible to continue on without at degree. And I take comfort in the fact that there are scores of people out there doing the same thing.

Rebecca

As someone with multiple degrees, I am a really good student and I feel most comfortable in the university setting. I am at home and I know how it all functions. I was a complete Lisa Simpson grade addict, my self-worth was completely wrapped up in those letters and numbers that tell you, you are succeeding. That said those degrees have yet to do anything for me in my “chosen” career, though I was told I had to have then if I wanted to work in that field. So what does one due when there is no one to evaluate her and tell her she is good and those degrees are not helping you in the non-academic world. In short you have to start learning about yourself, and making decision on your own about your own self-worth and what you want to do with your life. Where my life will take me is unknown, I am getting to work on my own art, run my own business and get involved in a community that I otherwise would not have had the time to. Now if those pesky loans would just take care of themselves.

Rachel

Really interesting post. I was like you in that I'm good at being a student, but I'm not sure I got much out of classes. However, I think a degree is particularly helpful when you don't have another product of your work to show people. Web designers who have been working for a while have products. Anyone who has been working for a while has recommendations in their field regarding specific skills. However, someone just finished with high school often doesn't have anything to show a prospective employer. If you're in college you can either learn specific skills, general skills (more below), or find an employer that wants to hire a student so you can get on the first rung of the career ladder (my college employment was absolutely vital to launching my career). On the other hand I think college is misunderstood as a place to learn specific knowledge or career skills. It is completely possible to learn the skills for a career in places other than college. But, college shouldn't be about learning specific skills or information. It should be about learning to write and think, construct arguments, be an informed citizen, etc. Large universities don't do that very well, but small colleges do a pretty good job at this because students can do the necessary projects and writing assignments with the critique of the professor. You can learn these skills outside of college too, but it's a lot harder. Overall I think you're running into the two biggest problems with universities. (1) that students perceive them as a place to learn career skills, and (2) that they fail to teach vital critical thinking skills and engage students. We need a huge revolution in our educational system, at least in the US so high schools teach basic information… Read more »

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