Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Secret Knowledge

Should a writer go to college?

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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.

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