Leaving College to Leverage Compulsion

Tagged as Education, Personal
Written on 2008-03-28 20:15:31
I realized in the shower this morning that while I’ve made a few statements about my decision to leave college I haven’t really given much explanation. Moreover, I haven’t explained a tremendous amount about my views on education or the modern system of education. Those views I’ll hold for a later post. This one will be short and sweet.

I spent 3 and a half wonderful years at Oglethorpe University and half a year at Southern Polytechnic State University before deciding to leave formal education for a while. Before I state why I left, I think it’s important to note what I feel I benefited from while I was there.
1. An incredible community of mentors and peers to learn from (Oglethorpe), particularly social skills my Emo (ahem, Freshman) year.
2. A library filled with interesting books with ideas waiting to be digested (Oglethorpe, I only started using it Sophomore year).
3. A forced exposure to subjects I otherwise wouldn’t have studied (essentially the CORE program, again, Oglethorpe).
4. Time to figure some things out for myself (Oglethorpe and SPSU). And yes, I realize this one is pretty vague.

So, why did I leave? Well, there are a number of reasons but three stand out as prominent.

1. Burnout. I was miserable with school post-Sophomore year. I liked college but I couldn’t stand school. I felt like it was keeping me from learning all the things I really wanted to learn. There are plenty of books I knew I wanted to read, think about, and work my way through but I couldn’t due to prior academic obligations. I was unmotivated when it comes to those obligations so I shirked them in favor of personal study. The implication is that I knew I was getting an arbitrary education. Pursuing the paper for the paper, so to speak. And that didn’t sit well with me, both because it was preventing my personal education and not supporting my future in a direct fashion. I essentially avoided working both on schoolwork and my work to try to force myself towards a degree while hating the degree because I didn’t plan to use it. I felt like a failure most days. That alone was reason enough to leave. Or, in the words of Mark Twain, “I never let school get in the way of my education.”

2. Once I came to realize I wanted to study computer science and programming (they are arguably different) I realized there were very few schools that had the sort of program of study I was looking for. Of those that had something adequate, fewer would let me learn it the way I wanted to (at a moderate pace for fun as opposed to Ivy League sink or swim). Finally, I could get in to probably none of those schools ruling out the option of rigorous formal education. Now it would seem that I have a contradiction on my hands. I don’t want the hardship of Ivy League or heavy workload schools but I want the rigorous education. I believe that by slowing the pace you can keep the fun and rigor without the sink or swim aspect of the experience. The important thing is good material, a good approach to the material, and good supplementary material (including peers) to learn and reinforce from. The community of learning is significant but I don’t believe formal education is necessary for that.

3. I had enough of an idea for a course of study to actually do it. That is, I knew well enough what texts were good texts to study, there were lots of online lectures and materials, and programming is very much a learn by doing thing. Some of the best in the field have no formal training and it’s a field that’s historically unusually receptive to alternative training and heretical types. Paul Graham, I must admit, had something to do with this as well. His essays led me to remember that I really would love to try being an entrepreneur at some point. Additionally, they reminded me that if I ever do end up a decent programmer I’ll probably want to work somewhere obscure that would give me maximum freedom in how and what I coded (languages, frameworks, etc etc) as opposed to at a Megacorp. Agile coding with five buddies? *shrug* Sounds good. “What are we going to make?” Working with a ton of people on some accounting or CRM program in Java? Shoot me now, please. To do what I wanted to do, I really just needed to draft a syllabus and get going. So I did.

But I think the truth is really that I left college to leverage my compulsion to learn. I was compelled to learn these things, to read books on Programming, IP Law, Peer Production, Poetry, and plenty of other things and I’m terrible at stopping myself the way I needed to in formal education. So why not leave formal education for a bit? It seemed like the best thing to do and three months in I have to say it seems like a pretty prudent decision. I can think of two concrete reasons to go back, either because I couldn’t find work and was starving or I couldn’t learn something I wanted to. Let me be explicit, I haven’t decided not to go back but if I don’t encounter a concrete need to I probably won’t. Just wanted to be clear.

So what do you think?
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Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Brit Butler