19 March 2013

Autodidacts Are In Good Company

I dropped out of college after one semester in the late '70's, realizing at the time I was getting more useful information and education at the local bar than I was sitting in a classroom (though I'd not recommend that option for others). As someone else once said, college simply wasn't teaching me anything that I wanted to know - or needed to know.

Though my original plan was to attend law school and practice law, I ended up getting married early, starting a family and being an entrepreneur; though I did work 12 years as a Virginia Magistrate and fulfilled part of my dream to work in the legal profession. Since dropping out of college, I've racked up many hours of technical training in business, finance, and law. I completed paralegal training and have gone back to college for some very career specific classes and continuing education. But, for the most part, I consider myself self-educated - a "lifelong learner."

Though that raises eyebrows in certain circles, I'm quite proud of that fact. As a recent article at Art of Manliness points out . . .

Many, perhaps most, of history’s greatest men were autodidacts – those who devote themselves to self-education, either in addition to or as a substitute to formal schooling. A fantastic example of this is author Louis L’Amour. L’Amour was one of America’s most prolific and manliest fiction writers. During his career he cranked out over 120 dime Western novels as well as several collections of short stories and poems. What makes Louis L’Amour’s story all the more remarkable is that he was almost entirely self-taught.
Due to family hardships, L’Amour dropped out of school when he was fifteen and spent the next eight years traveling around the American West working odd jobs on cattle ranches, farms, lumber mills, and even mines. To earn extra money L’Amour boxed in small prizefights around the country and earned a reputation as a formidable opponent. While in his twenties L’Amour became a merchant marine and traveled the globe via steamship.

During all this time, L’Amour was voraciously reading books. As soon as he set foot in a new town, he’d locate the local library. If libraries weren’t around, he’d skip meals so he’d have enough money to order books from catalogs. He was also working on his craft as a budding writer, scribbling notes in cheap notepads that he kept with him all the time.
All of his experiences while traveling, all the books he read, and all the notes he wrote laid the groundwork for his later successful career. But even after L’Amour became an established writer, his pursuit of learning continued and rewarded him greatly. He is a perfect example of the fascinating life one can create for himself when he makes the commitment to be a lifelong learner. (If you want to learn more about L’Amour’s lifelong self-education, pick up a copy of his autobiography, Education of a Wandering Man. Super inspiring read.)

The point of this post is two-fold: First of all, don't be intimidated by academics or those who are more "educated" than you are. Before becoming a magistrate, I was in awe of lawyers - even intimidated by them. They were, at least in my mind, the best educated and knowledgeable persons in America; ostensibly having a firm grasp (by necessity) on the English language, history, and an appreciation for tradition. But when I was first appointed to a four year term, my immediate supervisor - a graduate of Washington and Lee - told me that within 4 years, I'd know more about Virginia criminal law than 99% of all attorneys in the Commonwealth. He was wrong. It only took two years. It has become common knowledge that a bachelor's degree today is about the equivalent of a high school diploma in the 1950's. Big whoop. If you're well read, you can, in most cases, stand up to anyone with a college degree, even if you never finished high school.

Of course, those with advanced degrees often have very detailed and specific knowledge in their particular field, but knowledge does not necessarily equate intelligence nor wisdom. 

Secondly, obtaining the level of education that most bachelor degrees now offer is relatively simple. Just read good books on history, politics, finance, and whatever else interests you. Read classic literature. Ask questions. Explore the world around you. The internet has opened up the world's libraries and books to folks who once could have only dreamed of having access to such treasures. No, you won't have a piece of paper making your education "official", but you can earn the same merits and respect through accomplishments, which is really what it's all about anyway, right?

Read the rest of the excellent article on lifelong learning here at the Art of Manliness.


ropelight said...

It isn't an either/or proposition, of course one can graduate from college and continue learning throughout life, or skip college and self-educate. There’s much to recommend both approaches, after all, it’s the results that count.

Recall the wisdom of Tom Jones: It’s better to have not gone to school and know something, that to have gone to school and know nothing.

But, it’s also true that one of the recognized goals of a good college education is to prepare one for a lifetime informed and enriched by continual learning, and there’s no better foundation for continued learning than a broad liberal arts education whether it’s acquired in the academy or in the public library.

Now, I wouldn't trade my college days for anything, they were wonderful magic carefree days, but that was then and this is now. And, now, we have the Internet, which is a game changer, bigtime.

Today, with the outrageously high cost of college tuition and with the lack of intellectual diversity among the faculty so pervasive as to render a formal college education little more than an indoctrination in left-wing dogma and Democrat Party electoral politics, the public library is emerging as the better choice when the two options are subject to cost/benefit analysis.

BTW, the only people impressed with college degrees are the ones who don’t have them.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Rope - great comment and I agree. I encouraged my children (the ones who wanted to) to attend college. 3 of the six did so. I've entertained the idea of going back to school and earn a degree via the portfolio route along with the credits I've already earned. But at this stage of my life, its simply not worth it. Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Good post. One item to consider though is starting salaries. College degrees = significantly more money for most jobs. You can't get around that nowadays.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Anon - in some cases, yes, others no. I know the recruiters and lenders like to shout that from the rooftops but it's not as much the case as it once was. A bachelor's degree is little more than a gatekeeper anymore - particularly for small businesses. The best route to wealth in this nation remains entrepreneurship, not a college degree - though it can certainly play a role. Were I 17 or 18 again, I'd opt for a technical education first, perhaps college later. The demand for those types of skills is much higher and more consistent.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I have to respectfully disagree. If you look at most professional jobs for major firms or corporations posted on places like the Washington Post or Monster for example. Almost every one requres a Bacholers and prefers a Masters degree.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the annual salary average differences between educational levels is staggering:

•High school drop outs: $18,734
•High school graduates: $27,915
•College grads (with a bachelor’s degree): $51,206
•Advanced degree holders: $74,602

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

As I noted, I was referring to "small businesses", not "major firms or corporations." Moreover, I don't accept those CB numbers at face value. - the CB is part of the Federal govt. - they have skin in the game. Besides, those jobs have, for the most part, evaporated since the crash.

And I would have to assume those aren't entry level, right? Also, you have to weigh the cost of that degree for the true cost/benefit. See: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2012/11/01/the-value-of-a-college-degree-vs-the-debt-it-takes-to-earn-it/

And: http://dailycaller.com/2013/02/20/the-value-of-a-college-degree/

But I want to be clear, I'm not suggesting learning or knowledge has less value, I'm saying college is no longer *necessarily* the best way to get get an education, nor does it live up to the promises it once did. Anecdotally, I know several millionaires - none of them finished college. I realize persons go to college for other reasons, but money is a primary motivator.

And, as former Economics Professor Walter Williams recently wrote:

"Robert Samuelson, in his Washington Post article "It's time to drop the college-for-all crusade" (5/27/2012), said that "the college-for-all crusade has outlived its usefulness. Time to ditch it. Like the crusade to make all Americans homeowners, it's now doing more harm than good." Richard Vedder – professor of economics at Ohio University, adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of The Center for College Affordability & Productivity, or CCAP – in his article "Ditch ... the College-for-All Crusade," published on The Chronicle of Higher Education's blog, "Innovations" (6/7/2012), points out that the "U.S. Labor Department says the majority of new American jobs over the next decade do not need a college degree. We have a six-digit number of college-educated janitors in the U.S." Another CCAP essay by Vedder and his colleagues, titled "From Wall Street to Wal-Mart," reports that there are "one-third of a million waiters and waitresses with college degrees." More than one-third of currently working college graduates are in jobs that do not require a degree, such as flight attendants, taxi drivers and salesmen. Was college attendance a wise use of these students' time and the resources of their parents and taxpayers?"

Thanks for the comment.

The History Book Guy said...

In my honest opinion...
the internet today has, when you think about it made college obsolete. I can go online and take an open course at Yale, Oxford, or any other major university for FREE. I think there ought to be a way that we can earn credits for that sort of thing. Yes, I think that considering the cost of college today, the library is a much better and cheaper option for education. Now, granted doctors should be required to go to medical school, but most professions, i.e business...why?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

HBG: "In my honest opinion...
the internet today has, when you think about it made college obsolete."

To a point, yes. Don't forget Hillsdale! You can earn credits, but then, in most cases, it is no longer free, which is understandable. However, the price differential between brick and mortar vs. "cyber-credits" has not yet reached equilibrium, but that day will come.

And don't forget you can also use the credit by exam method (CLEP) and test through many required classes and credits. One organization offers a bachelor's degree for around $17,000 (total) using this method along with some other ways. See: http://www.collegeplus.org/

Ralph Steel said...

Wow...I hope you don't break your arm patting yourself on the back.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hey Ralph, thanks for the comment. I didn't realize admitting you were a college dropout was "patting yourself on the back."