Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Should a writer go to college?

with 10 comments

A few years ago, I woke up with the startling realization that of all my friends from college, I was by far the least educated. I don’t mean that in any kind of absolute sense, but simply as a matter of numbers: most of my college friends went on to get master’s or professional degrees, and many of them have gone much further. By contrast, I, who loved college and would happily have spent the rest of my life in Widener Library, took my bachelor’s degree and went looking for a job, with the idea that I’d go back to school at some point after seeing something of the larger world. The reality, of course, was very different. And while I don’t regret any of the choices I’ve made, I do sometimes wonder if I might have benefited from, or at least enjoyed, some sort of postgraduate education.

Of course, it’s also possible that even my bachelor’s degree was a bad investment, a sentiment that seems increasingly common these days. College seniors, we’re frequently reminded, are graduating into a lousy job market. As Louis Menand points out in this week’s New Yorker, it’s unclear whether the American college system is doing the job it’s intended to do, whether you think of it primarily as a winnowing system or as a means of student enrichment. And then we have the controversial Thiel Fellowship, which is designed to encourage gifted entrepreneurs to drop out of college altogether. One of the fellowship’s first recipients recently argued that “higher education is broken,” a position that might be easier to credit if he wasn’t nineteen years old and hadn’t just received a $100,000 check to drop out of school. Which doesn’t necessarily make him wrong.

More interesting, perhaps, is the position of David Mamet, whose new book The Secret Knowledge includes a remarkable jeremiad against the whole idea of a liberal education. “Though much has been made of the necessity of a college education,” Mamet writes, “the extended study of the Liberal Arts actually trains one for nothing.” Mamet has said this before, most notably two years ago in a speech at Stanford University, where he compared the process of higher education to that of a laboratory rat pulling a lever to get a pellet. Of course, he’s been saying the same thing for a long time with respect to the uselessness of education for playwrights (not to mention ping-pong players). And as far as playwrights are concerned, I suspect he may be right, although he gets into trouble when he tries to expand the argument to everyone else.

So is college useful? In particular, is it useful for aspiring members of the creative class? Anecdotal information cuts both ways: for every Tom Stoppard, who didn’t go to college at all, there’s an Umberto Eco, who became a famous novelist after—and because of—a lifetime of academic achievement. Considered objectively, though, the answer seems to lie somewhere in the middle. In Origins of Genius, Dean Simonton writes:

Indeed, empirical research has often found that achieved eminence as a creator is a curvilinear, inverted-U function of the level of formal education. That is, formal education first increases the probability of attaining creative success, but after an optimum point, additional formal education may actually lower the odds. The location of this peak varies according to the specific type of creativity. In particular, for creators in the arts and humanities, the optimum is reached in the last two years of undergraduate instruction, whereas for scientific creators the optimum may be delayed until the first couple of years of graduate school. [Italics mine.]

Which implies that a few years of higher education is useful for artists, since it exposes them to interesting people and gives them a basic level of necessary knowledge, but that too much is unhelpful, or even damaging, if it encourages greater conformity. The bottom line, not surprisingly, is that if you want to be a writer, yes, you should probably go to college. But that doesn’t mean you need to stay there.

10 Responses

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  1. And sometimes a person desires college more than they do anything else, without thought to where it may lead. I’m starting back this fall to complete my degree. Of each endeavor during my life, all the pleasures and pain, my only standout regret is not finishing college. Any twenty something could benefit from knowing that they will have the rest of their lives to be free, artists, wanderers, poets, all the while knowing, they will always have their accomplishment of university. Those first four years after high school are the easiest to stay in school, I didn’t listen.


    June 7, 2011 at 10:13 am

  2. I know that Tom Stoppard, for one, has occasionally expressed regret that he didn’t go to university. And I suspect that I’d feel the same way if I’d dropped out too soon.

    Good luck!


    June 7, 2011 at 10:21 am

  3. A fellow unemployed classmate and I compared notes and agreed that the most useful skill that we’d acquired in our education, the one that but bread on our plates, was the typing course we’d taken in high school. I would still go to college again, absolutely, but there was an aggressive disinclination to train us to do anything to make a living. At our graduation, our college president, an Oxford alum, encouraged us to go out and “dig ditches and wait tables” as a slummy-cum-enriching endeavor; a week after graduation I was counting skirts and dresses as part of a department store inventory for $7 an hour as a temp job; I was not prepared to do anything else.


    June 7, 2011 at 1:38 pm

  4. Thank you, and good luck with your book, it seems highly original.


    June 7, 2011 at 1:58 pm

  5. @kirsten: In all seriousness, the only really useful class I took in college was Latin prose composition—it really improved my grammar. Otherwise, just about everything “useful” I know I picked up on the fly.

    @Blue: Thanks!


    June 7, 2011 at 2:01 pm

  6. I, for one, don’t even know my own publications from that era.


    June 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm

  7. @Drew: I know the feeling.


    June 7, 2011 at 10:26 pm

  8. Education


    I think one should do whatever one wants.

    It’s not a matter of usefulness. It’s a matter of enrichment.

    Lawrence of Arabia

    [referring to the Arab Revolt]
    General Murray: It’s a storm in a tea cup, Mr. Dryden, a sideshow. If you want my own opinion, this whole theater of operations is a sideshow! The real war’s not being fought against the Turks, but the Germans. And not here, but on the Western front in the trenches! Your Bedouin Army, or whatever it calls itself, would be a sideshow OF a sideshow!
    Mr. Dryden: Big things have small beginnings, sir.
    General Murray: Does the Arab Bureau want a “big thing” in Arabia? If we get them to rise against the Turks, does the Bureau think they’ll sit down quietly under us when this war’s over?
    Mr. Dryden: The Arab Bureau thinks the job of the moment, sir, is to win the war.
    General Murray: Don’t tell me my duty, Mr. Dryden!


    June 7, 2011 at 11:14 pm

  9. Important historical film, 15 March 2008

    Author: JustCuriosity from United States

    Writ Writer had its world premiere appropriately at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, TX. This is a well-made historical documentary that brings back to life an almost forgotten chapter in Texas history. Writ Writer documents the tragic life of Fred Cruz and his efforts to win new rights for prisoners in Texas. The film documents the awful conditions that existed in Texas prisons in the 1960s and the efforts of Fred Cruz to challenge and ultimately change the Texas prison system. Despite a limited education, Fred Cruz read law books and learned how to stand up for himself and other prisoners. Fred Cruz is an almost a forgotten hero and this film is a way of rediscovering his important place in the history of the civil rights and prison rights movements.


    June 7, 2011 at 11:33 pm

  10. Or, as Lawrence himself says (quoting Themistocles): “I cannot fiddle, but I can make a great state from a little city.”


    June 8, 2011 at 7:28 am

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