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University as a universal human right? Try the Dropout Gospel instead

Spare a moment of sadness for little Lucia, who finds, at the age of 4, that life's golden pathways are shut to her. Recently, Lucia's mom, Nicole Imprescia, decided to sue a $19,000-a-year Manhattan nursery school for failing to prepare her daughter adequately for entrance into a leading university.

Ms. Imprescia's lawsuit claims that "getting a child into the Ivy League starts in nursery school," the New York Post reported, and alleges that Lucia was left floundering in an intellectual abyss, surrounded by three-year-olds, while being taught - I can barely bring myself to write this - shapes and colours. Perhaps the trigonometry professor was busy in the infants' room. "The school proved not to be a school at all," the lawsuit claims, "but just one big playroom." Wait a second - doesn't that describe George W. Bush's years at Yale?

Perhaps the lawsuit should claim damages for "failing to turn my toddler into a mirror adequately reflecting my own glory," because that's really what we're talking about, isn't it? Watching your child gain entrance into a university, especially an elite one, is the middle-class Holy Grail. It can be very good for the child, especially if you think only in terms of future income and not the crushing weight of debt she will be saddled with, but it's even better for the parents. Why else would we be reading about Tiger Mother Amy Chua's oldest cub, Sophia, gaining admittance to Harvard, as if it were the pinnacle of both their lives?

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What if some kids shouldn't be going to college or university? Now there's a heresy, especially since the postsecondary trajectory is embraced by every progressive political party from Michael Ignatieff's Liberals to President Barack Obama's Democrats. "We need to put a college education within reach of every American," Mr. Obama said, announcing his American Graduation Initiative. "That's the best investment in our future."

And it is a great investment - but is it the only one? If there's a single accepted path to success, what happens to everyone who finds that path restrictive or tricky or so dull they want to throw themselves off?

"I have had no choice but to recognize that many of my students have no business being in college," Professor X, a part-time English instructor at two American colleges, says in his new book, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic. Prof. X surveys his students, who are so woefully unprepared for postgraduate studies that many of them don't know how to punctuate a sentence, and thinks: "For a certain percentage of students, college attendance is an emotional, spiritual and financial drain." He fears for his life when he informs a student that his essay has been plagiarized word for word from the Internet.

But the book, an expanded version of a controversial article in The Atlantic magazine, has serious points to make: Maybe employment standards, where even basic jobs require college experience, are artificially inflated. Maybe too many people are being sent to college, at a terrible cost to the ones who won't benefit. Prof. X cites a statistic: 50 per cent of American graduates leave school with a debt of at least $20,000; for 10 per cent, it's at least $44,000. In Canada, where college and university enrolment has increased by 57 per cent in 15 years, the average debt for university graduates is $26,680, according to the Canadian Council on Learning.

Obviously, university is the place for the knowledge-hungry student (I say this as someone who benefited from a beer-stained degree from a mediocre school). But what about the ones who are entrepreneurial, restless, unorthodox? Shouldn't they be encouraged to look at different paths - vocational training, travel, volunteering, apprenticeships - without stigma? Maybe they could be pointed toward the world's great dropouts (Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg) or the ones who never made it to university at all (Jamie Oliver and any number of other great chefs).

Henning Mankell, the best-selling Swedish crime writer, was so bored with school he joined the merchant navy at the age of 15. "A wonderful year of hard work and learning how to live," he told The Guardian newspaper recently. "My university."

Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College in Portland, Ore., after six months. "It was one of the best decisions I ever made," he said in a commencement address at Stanford University in 2005. (Show the speech to your teenagers; it's both inspiring and moving.) Dropping out freed his mind. It allowed him to sit in on courses such as calligraphy, which seemed fun but useless at the time. Ten years later, designing the first Mac computer, the lessons of that calligraphy course inspired its elegant typography. He finished his lecture by saying, "Stay hungry. Stay foolish."

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Listen to the dropout - he's the billionaire, not me.

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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