School, and Its Alternatives

I have been working my way through Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society on our trip. This is Illich’s most well known, and notorious, work where he outlines a vision for a society that does not include mandatory, publically-funded schooling. While I do not intend to review his ideas here, I will say there is a certain attraction to elements of Illich’s vision (particularly his concept of convivial institutions and tools), and I believe a deschooled society might (might) be more beneficial to those at the lower end of the social spectrum. What I would like to do is provide a concrete example of how his “learning webs” actually do work better than structured schooling.

I left college with two degrees, one in philosophy and another in writing. My philosophy advisor had always insisted I take up a “practical” degree, as he rarely recommended that his students pursue graduate work in philosophy (he did not actively pursue current philosophical trends, or even stay current in his area of expertise), and finally, by my senior year, his advice took root in me, and I gave up any intentions of graduate school. I even ignored my “practical” degree, and instead took a job running a rock climbing gym in Pittsburgh.

A few years later, I knew the work was a bit of dead end, so I reviewed my options. I considered graduate school in writing, but the thought of acquiring school debt was unattractive. A friend suggested that I consider picking up a book on computer programming. He was a mostly self-taught programmer himself, and he believed I wouldn’t have trouble picking up a language or two, and then finding a job (this was during the dot com bubble, so development work was plentiful). He passed along a few books about PERL, and I was on my way. He functioned as my “master,” as I would pepper him with questions via email, and he gladly answered my queries and provided further guidance in my reading. Roughly a year or so later, he thought that I knew enough to test the waters of employment.

Through the social network of the climbing community in Pittsburgh, I was offered interviews at two companies–both small start-ups looking to grow their staffs with junior level programmers who learn on the job. I received offers from both, and eventually settled on a company located just a few blocks from our Shadyside apartment. My boss was another self taught programmer (who did not even have a college degree) who was immensely brilliant and willing to tutor me and, more importantly, take a chance on me.

Nearly eight years later, I am still grateful for the opportunity. I remained with the company for two years (until they closed their doors when the bubble burst), and I stayed on another year or so with my boss doing contracting work for various local companies. Every moment was a learning experience, for both of us. What’s ironic is that I am more well-rounded than some people with programming-related degrees. That’s not to say that they do not know more about computer science that I do (the algorithms that drive data collections, for example), but as far as marketable skills go, I have a few more hats to wear.

So, what’s the point of this? I am beginning to suspect that for many people, white collar-types included, college does little to enhance your vocation. Programmers, certain flavours of engineers, accountants, business people–they would likely be better served by immediately joining the workforce in an appreticeship position. I am not advocating destroying the university, but I am curious if a degree is a necessary key for most every professional. Employers require a piece of paper that often speaks little of the graduate’s ability to do the given work, and we as a society consider college a necessary step in the growth of a young person (aside–you know you are getting old when you refer to college kids as young people), and an expensive one at that. Perhaps Illich is correct, and we should begin to re-assess at least elements of our educational system.