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I’m trying to break the education habit

SAM KALDA/The Globe and Mail

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Like most children, I used to dream about being 32 and stuck in a low-paying customer service job with no hope for advancement.

No, wait, I used to dream about being a cyborg bounty hunter. That's what it was. Anyway, that first thing happened instead.

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Now, like 99.9 per cent of adults, I'm thinking about pulling a screeching U-turn with my life and going back to school.

People think that university is like the Time-Turner from Harry Potter: It magically lets you turn back the clock, erase your mistakes and try again. But university can also be like Quidditch: a huge waste of time that doesn't make any sense when you stop to think about it.

There is one good reason to give school another shot, and a lot of bad ones. Here are three of the worst:

1. Everyone else is doing it.

This wasn't a good enough reason to do the Harlem Shake, and it's certainly not a good enough reason to study anthropology.

Thirteen years ago, I worked in a fast food restaurant with a bunch of people who hated working in a fast food restaurant. We thought the job was a prison, and each of us believed education was the dessert spoon with which we would tunnel out. I was in university but had switched my major from psychology to sociology to history, which is to say from useless to pointless to aimless.

Everyone around me was doing the same thing. We'd complain about our dead-end jobs, then pin our hopes on the vague promise of getting a degree. There was one guy in the restaurant who wasn't in school. One day he said: "I think I want to be a pilot." He quit the job, enrolled in flight school, got his licence and started flying planes. As far as I know, he spent the rest of his life walking majestically away from an F-15 Eagle at sunset, helmet under his arm, while the Top Gun theme song played.

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This guy escaped his job as quickly and easily as the Road Runner escapes Wile E.Coyote. The rest of us were left standing there, mouths open, saying: "How did he do that?" It's taken a long time, but I finally get it. He went to school because he wanted to be a pilot. The rest of us were in school because we didn't want to work in fast food.

2. You want to look like you're moving upward.

Here's a question: If you could buy the respect of every person you know or will ever meet, how much would you pay? Now, take that number, multiply it by 20 and you'll have something closer to the real number. The admiration of others is way more important than most of us would like to admit.

Unless you've moved to a hidden monastery in the mountains of Nepal, you probably run into people you used to know sometimes. And when you do, the awkward chat usually goes like this:

"So, what are you up to?" (What job do you have?)

"Oh, just working." (The fact that I won't tell you what my job is implies that it's unskilled, low-paying and I hate it.)

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"Oh. Cool." (I'm sorry to hear that you are mired in a bog of your own failure.)

Now, watch what happens when we add school to the equation.

"So, what are you up to?" (What job do you have?)

"Actually, I'm finishing my degree." (I'm staking thousands of dollars and years of my life on a Hail Mary pass to respectability.)

"Nice!" (Jeepers, I'd better leave before I get permanently blinded from the dazzling success of this superstar.)

3. You like going to school more than you like going to work.

You know what I like more than going to work? Mixing a bunch of M&M's with Reese's Pieces in a bowl then eating them in a blanket fort while watching The NeverEnding Story. But you can't do that for four years and expect your life to get better.

I'm part of the "millennial" generation, and we love going to school. If we get a flat tire, our first response is to take out a student loan to get a masters degree in Flat Tire Theory.

It's easy to get addicted to education. From the age you stop peeing your pants to the age you get tired of binge drinking, school is the solid ground. It has a feel and a rhythm. You get clear goals from a clear authority. Your achievement is expressed with a number, and you can compare other people's numbers to know who's winning.

Have you seen those trained seals that can balance on one flipper and push a ball through a hoop? Imagine if you took one of those and said: "All right, Cinnamon, you've completed all the tricks we've taught you. It's time for you to leave the aquarium and live in the ocean. It's way colder, there are lots of sharks, and all the skills we've been rewarding you for are now completely useless. Good luck!" That seal might just be applying for a post-graduate program.

I said at the beginning that there's one good reason to go to school, and here it is: You want to do something that needs specific skills. That's it. Anything else is a hobby. And going to university while you decide what you want to do is like skipping your skydiving lesson because you want to figure out the parachute during free fall.

Dave Jorgensen lives in Victoria.

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