Open Classroom: Mitch in NYC, pre-pandemic. Photo by Larry Busacca.

Down With College

Pandemics and student debt don’t mix

Some of the most inspiring and successful people I know did not attend college. They went directly into their careers, including gunsmithing, fashion design, tech, and film directing. I believe the trades are a wonderful career, including plumbing, contracting, landscaping, and hairstyling. I often tell my two sons, “You can be an electrician who loves opera, can’t you?”

My only college courses of value were mathematics and a few composition and journalism classes. (I grew up with the absurd notion that I wasn’t “good at math.” In college I went from getting an “incomplete” in proficiency math to an A+ — because I had help from a roommate who was actually capable of teaching math.) Those were probably the only classes that imparted what I consider a lasting education. Otherwise, I learned my craft as a writer at the student newspaper, where I worked long hours.

I urge parents and kids to think flexibly about higher education. The costs are stratospheric and the payoff is questionable unless one is entering the professions, sciences, or receiving some kind of certification, like physical therapy. (In that vein, I am a big fan of community colleges.) I attended a nationally ranked state school in the 1980s where tuition — adjusted for inflation — would be under $1,600 a semester today. Dorms? About $955 inflation adjusted. I shit you not. Those days are sadly gone.

In fairness, I was an English major so maybe I am closing the door after the fact. But I do believe that greater educative purpose is served by reading the classics (for which you’ll rarely find time in working life) and in honing your writing skills rather than engaging in deconstructive theory (spoon please).

Lest that sound kneejerk, I have witnessed waves of young graduates with fancy humanities degrees stream into publishing (where I worked for nearly thirty years) often with boundless opinions but with scant and feckless work habits. I believe that discipline and rigor give a person the foundation for experiment and growth. Experiment as an end to itself leads to idolizing experiment as a way to excuse absence of training.

At one point in my publishing career I thought about taking business classes or enrolling in a continuing education program to get an MBA. Thankfully, I was dissuaded by educator and author Ronald Gross, who is responsible for popularizing the term “lifelong learning.”

Ron convinced me that I could learn just as much on the job by throwing myself into the financial details of my work and collaborating with business managers, which would prove both educative and career advancing, and also save a lot of money. Ron was correct on every count.

(This article is adapted from the author’s forthcoming book The Miracle Habits.)

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