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Breaking From the Herd:
Why Not Go To College

by John Taylor Gatto

What's Wrong With College by John Taylor GattoOn February 28, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates challenged the governors of America’s 50 states to make college preparation a priority for everyone in public high schools. Anything less, he said, would condemn millions of poor children to lives denied of opportunity.

It’s an equation we’ve all heard many times: College graduates make more money, therefore they are happier, therefore send more people to college to find better lives for themselves.

The day after Mr. Gates delivered this heartfelt appeal, I left for Guangzhou. The day I landed, my Chinese hosts were eager to discuss the Gates address, so intimate has the linkage between money and college been made to appear after a century of steady propaganda.

Not a single press account I read or heard bothered to point out that Mr. Gates himself dropped out of college after a single year. Or the even more provocative detail that he hasn’t bothered to go back. Not even $40 billion or so in the bank represents security enough for him to take time off from the office to improve himself? Hmm.

Without dropouts like Bill Gates, America wouldn’t have a dominant global position in computers at all. We owe a great deal to dropouts and record government subsidies during the development period. College has very little to do with it.

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, was a dropout, too. He never bothered to go back for a degree either.

Steve Jobs, the big man behind Apple, dropped out of Reed College after one semester. In all the years since, a pressing need for a diploma hasn’t surfaced yet. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, abandoned college and never looked back.

And whatever Michael Dell of Dell Computer owes his dazzling success and his billions to, it isn’t college. He, too, dropped out. Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle…you guessed it!

Some measure of the gross disinformation peddled on high can be guessed at if you realize that nobody in the computer business believes that high school or college training has much to do with success in the design or operation of the things.

Attention to the things in school is the best advertising the computer business can get, of course, and schools are the biggest customers of all. But you can acquire enough facility with the things in 60 days outside school to handle anything MIT is likely to throw at you.

My daughter Briseis told me that. She graduated from MIT, a computer wonderland, and to my dying day I’ll never forget her outrage about the considerable number of MIT students who don’t bother to wait for a diploma but drop out long before for lucrative jobs. At corporations that couldn’t care less that they have no degree.

When I got to my hotel in Guangzhou, encomiums for Mr. Gates were still echoing in the international press, whose presence in China is puzzling until you realize that half the people in China seem to speak English. After a few days, I came to see that nearly universal Internet access in a dazzling array of businesses – gift shops, tailor shops, restaurants and so forth, as well as abundant Internet cafes – was the reason for this startling language facility.

It had nothing to do with colleges. Which didn’t surprise me.

Computers in all their lucrative manifestations weren’t the only American dropout businesses cutting a huge swath across China. Block after block revealed a density of fast-food franchises, which boggled my Pittsburgher mind. And each Taco Bell, each KFC, each Golden Arches, was jammed wall-to-wall with Chinese people.

“Whatever Michael Dell of Dell Computer owes his dazzling success and his billions to, it isn’t college. He dropped out. Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle…you guessed it! More school isn’t the answer, Mr. Gates. Too much school is our problem.”

Here in a city with the most exquisite and affordable Chinese food on Earth, those killer French fries were winning the day. Good for America, good for Chinese medicine – a good deal all around.

Back in the United States, burger-flipping is becoming a principal source of employment. It is also a business exclusively created by high-school dropouts. According to the best-selling Fast Food Nation, every single founder of every major fast-food chain is a dropout. All of them.

Imagine how horrific our balance of trade would become without this enormous business created by high school dropouts.

More school isn’t the answer, Mr. Gates. Too much school already is our problem.

China is now so perfectly encased in a bubble of American entertainment that I’ll be dumbfounded if much serious all-Chinese culture exists in 30 years. Right under their noses, we’re colonizing their minds.

I was having tea at an outdoor café where every single patron – about fifty Chinese men and women, of all ages – sat entranced before a TV set showing the Minnesota Timberwolves pro basketball team have a go at the Detroit Pistons. Then the thought struck me: It won’t be long before these people are hooked on everything American. Soon they’ll want to participate in the American imagination. Not America’s bad schooling, but its imagination.

It turns my stomach to say this, but we owe more than we know to our dream team: David Geffen of Dreamworks (flunked out of Brooklyn College), Yoko Ono (dropped out of Sarah Lawrence), Blockbuster founder Wayne Huizenga (logged only three semesters), Ted Turner (kicked out), Bill Murray (dropout), Sharon Stone (dropout), Brad Pitt (dropout) – hey, I could go on until Christmas.

The Gates approach could bankrupt our native genius by locking away even more of our young people – at the zenith of their creative power – into sterile classrooms.

Why would he do this? If he thinks the jobs will be there to absorb these millions of new college graduates productively, then he: knows nothing of the deadly disease of capitalism called overproduction; doesn’t realize the lesson of his own life and Ray Kroc’s and Walt Disney’s and Louis Armstrong’s; and doesn’t understand the lessons of British India or post-World War I Germany about what happens when too many people trained as clerks for the bureaucracy – for that’s really what our colleges are about – suddenly find themselves underemployed.

"David Ricardo, the great capitalist philosopher, would understand at once what I’m saying: The road to wealth comes from understanding yourself. Doing what you do best, not what other people do best."

Our economy has prevailed against all comers for several centuries because it has allowed resourcefulness, inventiveness and imagination, along with courage, to dominate. The American juggernauts sweeping all competition in Guangzhou owe nothing to college training.

All are erected out of nothing but imagination: imagination and lines inscribed on sand grains; imagination and ground-up cow parts; imagination and visual and auditory recordings of people pretending to be someone they aren’t – or singing their hearts out.

We need to realize with pride and exhilaration what these things mean. We need to follow the lessons of our unparalleled jazz domination of the world, not the interlude of factory slavery – even in the factories of university life.

Try to understand what it really means to embrace the American dream of liberty and how very rich that has made us and will make us again if we’re willing to turn our backs on the promise of corporations to make us safe.

We need to demand that our schools locate our own American genius once again and learn to know and appreciate it. We’ve had about a half-century now with schooling in the service of government and corporation, instead of serving families, free enterprise or God.

Fifteen years ago, Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told graduating college seniors, “Your challenge will not come so much in breaking new paths but in deciding to choose among the many paths open to you.”

But 200 years earlier, at the beginning of America, Thomas Jefferson told an American audience a much different story. He said that only bad citizens train themselves to fit the reality they inherit, but good citizens make the society they live in.

Are you listening, Mr. Gates? My friends tell me you’re investing in another project to transform secondary schooling called “To Make Citizens: Seven Propositions Toward a Course Correction in Education.” Citizens? Sounds good, as long as you don’t forget that citizens learn to argue with power. They aren’t “yes men”. They don’t memorize what society says should be taught in colleges. They make the world they live in. The Jeffersonian ideal of citizenship isn’t Justice O’Connor’s, and I don’t believe it’s yours at the moment. Only one is fit for free men and women.

The Apostle Paul wrote again and again that salvation isn’t about following the rules. We aren’t going to find secular salvation today through observing the rules of yesterday. Alas, they are mainly what colleges teach. The best clue to what people follow is hidden in our jazz.

Apple Computer is jazz, McDonald’s is jazz, DreamWorks is jazz, the Super Bowl is jazz, comic books are jazz, block parties are jazz, bass-fishing derbies are jazz, the Williams sisters are jazz, Tiger Woods is jazz.
Over in China, the revered Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the oldest continuous music school on the planet, can’t even believe the principles of jazz are real! That with enough courage and trust in yourself, you can hear a piece of music once, and ring dazzling changes on it forever and ever.

They can’t duplicate our jazz. But everything else we make doesn’t worry them a bit.

David Ricardo, the great capitalist philosopher, would understand at once what I’m saying: The road to wealth comes from understanding yourself. Doing what you do best, not what other people do best.

John Taylor Gatto. Gatto is the author of a number of books about education, including Dumbing Us Down, The Exhausted School, A Different Kind of Teacher, and The Underground History of American Education. Formerly a three-time New York City Teacher of the Year and New York State Teacher of the Year, he “dropped out” of teaching in 1991 via an article in the Wall Street Journal, claiming he was no longer willing to hurt children. He has been writing and talking about non-schooling ever since.

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