There’s one person that we Americans almost all look up to as a bastion of morality, character, intelligence, and wisdom.
Can you guess who it is?
I’ll give you some hints.
First, he didn’t go to college — let’s get that out of the way.
In spite of that, he was a stalwart abolitionist, a brilliant storyteller, and a courageous and masterful leader in what was the most tumultuous period of American history.
As far as his wide-ranging knowledge, he was self-taught in politics, warfare, human nature, history, law, surveying, and literature.
And he was a deep reader and thinker, not to mention an elegant writer and speaker.
Have you guessed who I’m talking about?
It was none other than Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.
His formal schooling amounted to less than one year. The rest of his education he got on his own, by reading books and newspapers, and by having experiences and reflecting on them.
During the American Civil War, for instance, when he needed to learn how to lead an army, he ran to the library and checked out a stack of books on military strategy and warfare.
He was always learning, and by all definitions, perhaps one of the most educated people in history.
“Education is not just about going to school and getting a degree. It’s about widening your knowledge and absorbing the truth about life.” – Shakuntala Devi
Think Lincoln too old an example?
Here are some modern successes who never got a college degree.
- Richard Branson
- Steve Jobs
- Bill Gates
- Oprah Winfrey
- Maya Angelou
The list goes on.
The Obsession With a College Education
There’s a strange obsession with college today. It’s positioned as a prerequisite for cognitively demanding work, as the only door to an intellectual life.
I find this to be a toxic belief that holds people back.
It gives people who don’t want to, or cannot, go to college the idea that they’ll never become fully educated, and that they are therefore destined to remain behind the college graduates.
This is demotivating, and can make people think:
- Why compete in the intellectual sphere?
- Why enter into the realm of ideas if I’m going to lose?
- Why study and read and write if I’ll never catch up?
- Why express my opinion or become an expert in a topic if I’ll always play second fiddle?
This is all bullshit.
We’ve Lost Our Idea of What it Means to be Educated
22-year old me with my shiny econ degree was certainly not more educated than someone who spent a year deeply reading and considering 30 classics of the Western Canon.
I’ve learned twice as much in the past 2 years from self-directed learning than I did in my 4 years of college.
We’ve lost our idea of what it means to be educated. We’ve conflated it with getting a degree.
The two do not always go hand in hand. They aren’t married. However you define being educated, college is not a prerequisite, despite what college marketing departments might want you to think.
To demonstrate, allow me to offer a series of traits of an educated person. You’ll note that all of them can be attained without formal schooling.
- Able to think and express yourself clearly
- Have the ability to comprehend information, analyze it, and draw logical conclusions from it.
- Able to distinguish propaganda from serious well-researched writing of intense thought and consideration.
- Able to go off and learn new subjects on your own.
- To have attained a sense of what’s good and virtuous, and to know that striving towards them is right.
- Able to appreciate complex ideas, works of art, nature, humanity, and the other aspects of the world.
- To be historically informed and philosophically inclined when arguing and debating issues.
- To be well-read in your areas of interest.
- To have some understanding of your own interests.
- To have self-control.
- To have a disciplined and well-stocked mind that you can effectively use to navigate the world towards your goals — ones you’ve set, not ones society has placed in front of you.
- To be familiar with some of the classics of your tradition.
- To be curious.
- To have intensely studied at least one subject.
- To be a free thinker.
College is not the only way to develop these traits. I’m not even sure it’s the best way. I know a lot of people with college degrees who are anything but well-educated.
I Wasn’t Well-Educated After College (the Real Work Began at 23)
After college, I realized I still had a long way to go myself (I still do). Education is a lifelong endeavor, and the best educated are the ones who spend a lifetime, not just their school years, learning and studying.
Where I really started to gain an education was through self-study; by reading classic works of philosophy, history, politics, literature, and other fields that interested me.
I’m sure in college some useful stuff slipped into my mind and stayed there, and perhaps the accountability to study forced me to learn how to do it well.
But I still can’t help but think that locking myself away in a library and reading books, with occasional discussions with a mentor or a peer, would have been a far better use of my time, if education was what I was looking for at college. (of course, at 18-22, it wasn’t).
A snob might say that autodidacts won’t know what books to read, or what they mean, without professors to guide them
I’m not sure what century they’re living in.
Today we have the internet. Today there are teachers who put course syllabi and reading lists on the internet for people interested in self-learning those topics.
There are even full online courses from Ivy league schools.
Right now I’m taking Don Quixote via Yale’s online course platform. It’s amazing. I get to see how a professor reads a classic and what he notices, and this teaches me not only about the book but also about how to approach classic literature like a scholar.
If I had taken this class in college, I would’ve been too immature to go to class, and I would’ve ended up retaining and learning nothing because I treated college like a job I had to clock in for.
The mind holds on to a lot more when you’re self-motivated to learn something.
My grandpa once said you learn for no one but yourself, and I used to think that sounded a bit selfish, if highly pragmatic, but now I kind of get it. He wasn’t telling me to be selfish at all.
I think what he meant was that no one can teach you anything without you taking the effort to really learn it. Or that learning had to be your choice or else it wouldn’t stick.
In college I was learning for my parents, for society, for the teachers, for the degree, not for myself, and I think a lot of students do the same.
And now I’m making up for the wasted years, reading the classics, thinking about them, studying topics of interest, writing about them, talking about them, with whoever will listen, and pursuing self-education rather relentlessly, outside of college or any formal program.
College Does Have its Purpose, But It’s not the Only Way to Become Educated
I’d like to finish this little rant by saying that college does have a purpose.
It holds you accountable to learn, better than you might be able to do for yourself as a young person.
Then again, you’ll probably find ways to BS papers and cram studying anyway. I sure did.
It can also train you for a specific field if you know that’s what you want to do, although, I’m not sure how many 18 year olds know that. I certainly didn’t.
But I want to leave you with the fact that you do not need college to be educated. You might need it for a career path or a status indicator, but not for an education.
Ask Mark Twain:
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. – Mark Twain
Check out my article on ways to educate yourself every day, and implement some of these methods.
And read books, hard ones that give you something to chew on, that act as grindstones to your intellectual faculties.
And if you want to go to college, do it. I had a great time, though I’m not sure how much of an education I received.
If you don’t, remember that you can still get an impressive education for yourself, using unconventional means and self-directed learning, which is what this blog Knowledge Lust is all about.
To learn how to learn things outside of school, check out my 7-step guide to becoming an autodidact.