Is Education Ever A Waste?

I’ve been thinking about my university education and speculating. I spent five years of my life paying no small amount of money to read the same books I would read at home anyways, writing essays for teachers whose opinions of my writing seemed to vary greatly, and attending painful three-hour night lectures whose content has failed to stick in my brain. Considering that I’m an English and history major, it’s unforgivable that I couldn’t answer Jason’s recent question about the reason for the legal formation of Upper and Lower Canada. What was I paying for, anyways?

University education was always considered mandatory in my family. Both of my grandparents were the first in their families to attend university. I never doubted I’d go, though I didn’t want to when the time actually came. I just wanted to stay in Brazil but my panicking parents relentlessly broke down my resolve to join a forró band as an itinerant fiddle player and made me promise to come back for a single year of study at the University of Toronto. Once I’d started, I felt I had to finish, so my career as a Brazilian violinist never materialized.

Does anyone else find it frustrating, or even tragic, that so many young people spend the prime years of their single lives locked into an institution that molds their brains to whatever serves capitalism best? Because, honestly, universities nowadays are more like trade schools than centres of creative exploration. A lot of young people fall victim to the assumption that a university degree is the holy grail of success and must be pursued at all costs, personal interests and happiness notwithstanding. It doesn’t help that we get counselled by parents whose degrees from the 1970s did, in fact, open doors to fabulous career opportunities, but that’s not the case anymore. Bachelor’s degrees are a dime a dozen and MBAs are everywhere.


When Jason talks to his brother on the phone, he hears the same script repeating itself: “I’m unhappy in my job. I think I should go back to school and get my MBA.” He doesn’t know why, or what it would be for, or even what he wants to do afterwards. “Figure that out first,” Jason tells him, “because it’s one hell of an expensive experiment if you don’t know why you’re getting that MBA.”

I’ve come to believe that career success comes to those people who have the right interpersonal skills and a creative personality that can think outside the box, more so than the right credentials. When I look around at the people whose careers I envy the most, they are all self-made people who have used their brains, individuality, and innovativeness more than they’ve relied on a degree to get to where they are. They’re often the ones who, years later, have deviated from their university paths into areas of work that intrigue them but seemed too risky to study formally at the time.

Of course it’s necessary to have a degree in many situations, but a degree without life experience, without personal pizzazz, without ambition and dreams, without the ability to run with an idea and turn it into reality, without being a good communicator, is nothing more than an obscenely expensive piece of paper. Call me idealistic, but more people need to focus on what they love doing and pursue that, because trying to turn something that you dislike into a career is a bad idea from the start.

I didn’t need to go to university to become a writer, which is now what I want to be more than anything else in the world. University opened my eyes to an academic world I never want to be part of. It sucked the creativity completely out of my writing and turned me into a citation-obsessed, essay-writing robot. It’s taken two years of being out of that system to reclaim writing for myself. So, was it really a waste? I don’t know. No experience is a waste if something can be taken away from it, but talk about a pricey life lesson.

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9 thoughts on “Is Education Ever A Waste?

  1. There are a zillion creative people out there, but not many who naturally have the discipline, work skills, and above all, self-confidence that you need to pull off a creative career. University gives you that stuff, even though it may not seem like it. It’s good to do that while you’re young, I think. It’s inexcusable, though, that those of us who benefited from affordable education are now unwilling to fund education for younger people. It’s insanely expensive.

    1. I don’t know where it is, Mom. It hasn’t shown up anywhere here, so you must have posted it wrong. Can you resend it, please?! I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  2. While I did go to university and I believe every cent was worth it, I think university is a waste of time and money for many who go. Wen I was finishing my last semester, I met many more than one person still doing second year courses because they changed programs so many times.

    I also know people who finished a five year degree only to find jobs in short supply (and this was before the great recession). Less than one year of trade school later they have great jobs that make them happy.

    There are also problems on the employer side of things. I strongly believe employers over estimate and/or specify the amount of education required to do a job. Administrative tasks like filling out paperwork simply do not require college or university education. These tasks have been done successfully for decades by those with a high school education.

    I have heard the resoning that having a degree shows you can hang in there. I don’t believe this for one reason – universities do not note how long you took to do your degree on your diploma. Even if they did, a single parent going to school in the evening and a less than motivated student could finish in the same time period.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this issue.

    1. Your last paragraph resonates with me. There are so many different kinds of students, people juggling various challenges to complete a degree. That raises a whole new set of questions, though, about the education system that caters to young, unattached 20-somethings who live at home and have their school paid. There is very little support for people who don’t fit within the boundaries of that system. The other thing you mention is how employers overstate the need for education for jobs. That’s true, but I’ve heard that change is starting in that area. Employers are starting to realize that people can be over-educated to the point of lacking interpersonal skills entirely because they’ve been so busy living in an academic world. Less of a well-rounded education often makes for a better employee than a superbly educated person who’s never done anything other than deal with profs.

  3. Unfortunately, I have a few friends’ children who wen to University and got an MBA, etc and couldn’t get a job. Then they wen to a college and learned either “web design” or something equally. They received jobs and well paying jobs. This is not to say that the University education didn’t help them emotionally get the jobs, but the cost of an university education wasn’t worth it?

  4. No experience is a waste if something can be taken away from it, but talk about a pricey life lesson.
    This made me smile. That’s roughly how I’ve thought about law school the last decade, just in a lot more words.

    1. I didn’t know you are (or were) in law school. Good for you! I’m sure that’s a lot of work when you have a child, too. Funny you should mention law school because a friend of mine just finished it in the U.S. with $200K of student debt. I wanted to work that into the post somehow but it didn’t fit in. I know it’s a career that can pay off that debt eventually, but it also limits what a young person can do and enslaves them to that debt. A person has to be pretty darn sure that they’re doing the right thing when you’re talking about that kind of money that needs to be paid off!

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