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Like Jaden Smith, the young star of After Earth, many 15-year-olds believe they are too smart for school and would rather spend their time starring in blockbuster films. (SONY/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Like Jaden Smith, the young star of After Earth, many 15-year-olds believe they are too smart for school and would rather spend their time starring in blockbuster films. (SONY/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Education

Getting ahead without a degree Add to ...

When a young celebrity goes off on a tirade on social media, I normally brush it off as comical nonsense. But a recent rant by child actor/rapper Jaden Smith caught my attention.

In case you missed it, the After Earth and Karate Kid star decided to wax philosophical about the value of education, tweeting “School is the tool to brainwash the youth” and “If everybody in the world dropped out of school we would have a much more intelligent society.”

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Sure, many 15-year-olds believe they are too smart for school and would rather spend their time starring in blockbuster films. On the other hand, perhaps this tirade hints at a cultural shift that recognizes there are limits to the value of a formal postsecondary education. A degree, as many have found, isn’t a guaranteed ticket to career and financial success.

An alternative story line is that of the exceptionally successful dropout. What parent hasn’t had the names Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Richard Branson thrown back at them as they urge their kids to stay in school? Taking this argument to the extreme is Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, whose Thiel Foundation pays students to drop out of school to launch companies. This is another pipe dream: For every Bill Gates there are countless dropouts struggling to make ends meet.

So what is the right approach, given the increasing need for technical skills and a challenging job market? Perhaps it is to delay making drastic educational decisions, especially if those coveted pieces of paper don’t land you a job. Keep in mind that 65 per cent of children entering grade school will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet, according to Cathy Davidson, a Duke University professor and author of Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Businesses for the 21st Century.

Some of the most valuable aspects of a postsecondary education are not the academic courses themselves. Consider Ryan Murphy, now in his seventh year at Memorial University working on a bachelor of science degree in psychology and computer science. During his time at university, Mr. Murphy became involved with community activities, such as Engineers Without Borders and Memorial’s Student Union, among other student-run clubs and societies. He estimates that he has spent one hour working in either a paid or unpaid role for every hour he has spent studying.

“I have rarely found my formal education to offer classes or courses that relate directly to the skills or knowledge that I want to have, or the things that I want to do,” said Mr. Murphy, 24. “But by diving head-first into student life … I’ve been able to use my formal education to inform my personal development, and to give me the literacies and research ability I needed to undertake self-directed study.”

Although he will be happy to one day get his degree, he’s certain that formal education alone is not enough to launch a great career.

“My generation recognizes that focusing only on school won’t be enough; that each person needs to diversify and find their niche through meaningful work or volunteering,” he said. “I feel immensely more secure about my career path because of my extracurricular involvement, and I think that’s true of most of my classmates, too.”

Cathy Bennett would agree that there is more to success than an academic career. “When I was 17 in university, I didn’t have enough information about what I was passionate about,” said Ms. Bennett, chief executive officer of St. John’s-based Bennett Group of Companies, which employs hundreds of people, and who is running for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Ms. Bennett dropped out of university after a semester and a half of a physics degree to work at a McDonald’s restaurant, where she said “I fell in love with the business of business.”

Although working at McDonald’s doesn’t appear to be a precursor to financial success, it worked for Ms. Bennett. By the time she was 18, she was managing 50 employees. The experience instilled the importance of getting her hands dirty; she recounts that when she joined the board of communications company Bell Aliant Inc., she insisted on accompanying a service crew installing fibre-optic cable in customer’s homes.

Although she recognizes the value of postsecondary education, Ms. Bennett believes you needs to be open to opportunities.

“If you had asked me when I was 16 if I’d be sitting here, in my mid-forties, running for the leadership of the Liberal Party, I’m not sure if the 16-year-old Cathy would say yes. You never know where your path is going to take you.”

Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: leah.eichler@rallyyourgoals.com

 

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