As of late, I’ve been seeing a video resurfacing among some friends on social media that I criticized when I first watched. The release and subsequent virility of the video below in 2012 – Why I Hate School But Love Education by poet Suli Breaks – seemed to have people questioning the distinction between education and school and suggested that university was worthless and we don’t need it. I beg to differ.
First of all, of course university isn’t always necessary; it’s all in what you want to do. The problem with this “debate” is that it is stirring the pot in terms of whether or not higher education is useless. Although Suli Breaks’ voice and argument, fueled by his personal experience, appear to portray the idea that institutionalized education is utterly obsolete, this stance is dead wrong. Here’s why:
Throughout the video, many faults in his arguments are immediately evident. The first is that he uses outliers – outstanding individuals – rather than average people to make his point. In terms of ‘the statistics’ (a term which seems to be misunderstood and overused in the video), these people are extremely rare; one-in-a-million if you will.
Secondly, some of the facts Suli presents are just simply incorrect. Some of the people referred to as having no post-secondary (higher) education, actually do. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, had an outstanding level of education before attending Harvard, where he learned lessons which helped him get to where he is today. Just because he dropped out to pursue Facebook and ‘technically’ didn’t graduate does not render his university level education obsolete.
The video also uses many historical examples to make the case that school is unnecessary. Though today anyone can put forward great ideas without scholastic education, there is no evidence that this leads to more valid idea generation. Furthermore, although Socrates had his own ideas, he was the teacher of Plato, who in turn taught Aristotle, and so on. Without Socrates teaching the likes of Plato and Aristotle you could argue that they may never have come up with their philosophies independently. The ‘Socratic method’ and Plato’s foundation of the Academy were early versions of institutionalized learning and proved to be huge assets to the progression of society at that time, without which the shape and direction of progress may have been very different. Additionally, given the preliminary state of human knowledge, it was likely easier to put forward thoughts and ideas without scholastic education in historical times than it is now, if simply because we didn’t know as much. The amount of information that must be comprehended before forming truly great ideas is outstanding and, again, only one in a million may be able to present such ideas without a high degree of formal education.
All the while, Suli Breaks forgets to mention such great minds as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Gandhi and the countless other such individuals who did go to school and did receive degrees. Without a higher education, these individuals may never have gained the knowledge they needed to propose their theories, or enact their paths; and our current knowledge of the way the world works may have never come about to be.
It’s great that people are starting to question the nature of higher education — a degree is not something that everyone needs to or should pursue. But the fact of the matter is that post-secondary education does have its place and is a necessity. Without universities and degrees, academia and our breadth of knowledge wouldn’t be where it is today. Great scientists, philosophers, businessmen, politicians, and others from a multitude of fields often need the guidance of professors in order to better formulate their thoughts and gain the necessary information needed to make substantial contributions and breakthroughs — not to mention the benefit that can be garnered from ones’ peers.
Before jumping on this bandwagon of higher education being useless, ask yourself this question (or one similar, pertaining to your passion and goals):
“If I wanted to be a scientist, business mogul, great philosopher; or a nurse, veterinarian, doctor – could I really do so by teaching myself, without the aid of a professor or mentor?”
No, not everyone needs to go to school to be successful and make money; but a lot of people do. Very few of us can learn entirely as autodidacts, while the majority of us need some sort of guidance, at least initially, to steer us on the right path. Furthermore, universities are often exactly the place where individuals find their true passion to go on to live their lives doing what they love. I am a living example of the great things that higher education can do for people and am certainly not alone. Without going to university I never would have discovered my passion. University is not just about getting marked – if you feel it is, then you are there for the wrong reasons.
People can argue until they’re blue in the face that ‘school’ is fundamentally unnecessary, but they’re absolutely and unequivocally wrong, not to mention naive. Higher education isn’t necessary for everyone – perhaps you don’t need school – but for most people it is. Not just to learn and get marked, but to discover passions and learn how to contribute to the benefit and progression of humanity. Without the extensive success of institutionalized learning, our knowledge of the world wouldn’t even be close to what it is today. Instead of debating as to why schooling is useless, I proffer that we debate how it might be improved.
During my three-year (and counting) tenure as a Ph.D. student at the University of New Brunswick, I’ve held numerous positions as a teaching assistant (TA) within my academic department. Teaching grade school is something that I had initially considered as a career path until I was introduced to the wonderful world of research, but teaching is something that I continue to take quite seriously as a prospecting academic. Given the unique relationship between TA and student, I’ve been able to mentor and help undergraduate students in a myriad of different ways. However, one recurring theme that students continue to seek advice for is whether or not to attend graduate school.
Personally, I love graduate school, so I am a great promotional tool. I’m of the mindset that graduate school is a very unique time in a researcher’s career that can be a great experience (and indeed it has been just that for me). Yet, I see and hear of so many graduate students having a very difficult time in grad school, and ultimately seeing it as a negative part of their life. As a result, many students drop out of graduate school, particularly Ph.D. students (sometimes dropping out can be for the best; see a great post on this topic here). I think it’s true that it takes a certain type of person to endure graduate school, but it also takes a series of strategic and well researched decisions to optimize your graduate school experience. And so here I want to offer some personal suggestions on how to decide whether or not to enroll in and attend graduate school and, once in, how to maximize your grad school experience.
I’m thinking about grad school, what should I consider?
Don’t attend grad school because you “don’t know what to do next”: Contrary to popular belief, graduate school should not be a consideration that’s taken lightly. Like any other endeavor in life, some people are not cut out for graduate school; others are perfect for it. And so going to grad school for the sole reason of being unsure what to do next in life is a bad idea. Make sure you are choosing graduate school for the right reasons – because you are passionate about what you study and you are committed to standing on the forefront of knowledge. Otherwise, you may very well be wasting your time and that of others, and having a bad time doing it.
Choose a PI, not a school: I hear of far too many graduate students choosing a school over a PI or project simply because of the prestige of that school – BAD IDEA! Although some schools don’t allow you to hand-pick a PI, many do, and it’s worth investigating what these schools have to offer. A Ph.D. program is a 4-year (usually longer) commitment that will be optimized by choosing a supervisor who is compatible with you as both a researcher and a person.
Follow your passion, not the letters after your name: If you’re considering graduate school, it’s likely that you’ve been involved with some sort of research program or are excited about a particular field that you studied in your undergraduate courses. Credentials are great, but it’s important to recognize that passion most often fuels success and happiness in graduate school. Choosing a topic that gets you excited to no end is going to make your experience all the more enjoyable and can promote important novel discoveries as a developing researcher.
Is it the right time? Be sure to take into consideration where you are in life. Graduate school can be tough when you have a family, job, and/or debt. All of these personal life attributes are important to consider when thinking about graduate studies.
Alright, I’m in! What now?
Take the lead: Independence is essential in graduate school, and if you’ve followed your passion and have chosen a compatible supervisor, then you should have the ability to take the lead! Remember, this is your project, and so it should reflect the questions you’re interested in. Utilize your PI’s expertise to optimize the quality of your work, but make the project your own.
Be realistic: It’s important to be realistic with respect to your research project. Here in Canada, a Master’s thesis is scheduled to be finished in two years and a Ph.D. in four (although they most often take longer). Be sure to structure your project with this timeline in mind. It’s easy to get excited about new research opportunities and waddle outside of the scope of a degree. If your PI suggests a project that you think is impossible to get done in the time frame given, be realistic and say no!
Learn to say ‘no’: If you’re in graduate school, it’s most likely that you’re an excelling person with an overachieving work ethic. Great! But this may result in people taking advantage of you – even your own PI! Make sure you know when to say no to a request that you don’t have the time to do. Of course, do this in a respectful manner, but your job as a graduate student isn’t to organize your PI’s thirty year collection of journal articles.
Criticism is a good thing: As a prospecting academic, you must learn to accept criticism in all forms, whether it’s positive or negative. Although it may be difficult, learning to harness that criticism to become a better researcher rather than treating it as a hurdle will make your time in graduate school much easier. One way to do this is to remember that all academics are criticized, not just you! You are smart enough for grad school, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Criticism is an aspect of academia at all levels – don’t take it personally.
Don’t stop learning: This goes beyond graduate school as well. You don’t know everything there is to know – nobody does – so remember to never stop learning. This is one of the best things about graduate school! Not only are you continually learning from your colleagues, but you are at the forefront of knowledge! You are now contributing to how we, as humans, understand the ways in which the world works, and that is exciting!
Try not to compare yourself to the merits of other graduate students: It’s easier said than done. But remember: different projects move at different paces. If a colleague is publishing and you aren’t, don’t sweat it! In ecology, for example, a purely field based study is going to take longer to publish than an experimental study. At the very least, consider all the variables before you reach a conclusion about your performance.
Take time to de-stress: In graduate school, your work should certainly be a top priority, but that doesn’t mean that you should spend every waking day working. Some graduate students enjoy the work so much that it doesn’t really feel like work (myself included), but even they need to step back at times and spend a couple of days to de-stress. Go for a hike, head out on a road trip, or simply relax – it’s important to make time for the other passions in your life, and coupling those with de-stressing can help to optimize productivity and overall happiness.