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The richest man in the world has some advice for us about college

(P.S. He didn’t take it himself)

Bill Gates and China

On February 28 of this year, Bill Gates of Microsoft, told a gathering of the 50 American state governors that the United States has reached a competitive crisis which we were losing. This could best be combated by making college prep the sole function of secondary schooling, college prep for everyone, and college, too. Those who couldn’t afford it should be subsidized by the states. In Erving Goffman’s chilling locution, college was to become a “Total Institution,” controlling all work in the economy. Gates’ speech was headlined in the European press, where I read about it the following day at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, which I was leaving for Guangzhou, China. When I landed there, it was big news in China, too, if the English language “China Daily” can be believed.

It was the first thing my Chinese hosts wanted to talk about — this radically utopian idea of college for all.

But, Do As I Say, Not As I Do

I asked my hosts to consider this: If Gates’ proposal was such a great idea, then how was it that Gates, like Faulkner, dropped out of college his freshman year? And why didn’t he ever go back? And how was it that from among millions of college-trained techies, Gates decided to hook up with another dropout, Paul Allen, to found Microsoft?

That could have been a million-to-one coincidence, of course, except for the fact that Steve Jobs, the brains behind Apple, dropped out of Reed College after one semester. And never went back to college, not for a single day! Was it only an accident that Jobs chose to partner with another dropout, Steve Wozniak, in the founding of Apple?

Michael Dell of Dell Computer didn’t bother with college either. Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, said he didn’t have the time to waste on college. Is the penny beginning to drop? These multi-billionaires, who’ve changed the face of the global society in technology, were all dropouts. What do you make of that?

Ted Turner, founder of CNN was pitched out of college on his ear, flunked out just like Al Gore did at Vanderbilt. Ray Kroc of McDonald’s told his mother at age 15 that he didn’t have time to waste on high school, dropping out at almost the same age that the female auto-racing phenomenon, Danica Patrick did. Danica dropped out at 16, went to London on her own (just like Benjamin Franklin did two and a half centuries ago) and signed herself into a course on how to sustain speeds above 200 mph on a racetrack!

A few years later she almost won the Indy 500 and would have except for an error by her pit crew.

A Mass of Clerks

In his monumental history of civilizations, Arnold Toynbee said that institutionally forced schooling was always about creating a mass of clerks for the prevailing bureaucracy. Not educated people who can think for themselves, but clerks – parts of a social machine. In your heart, you knew that, with or without Toynbee, didn’t you? Over in Guangzhou, I witnessed the largest society on earth undergoing phenomenal, dynamic changes that were intended to make China over in the model of Western industrialization, which steam-rollered the global economy between 1800 and 1960.

China has mastered the techniques of the West and has gone far beyond them. It employs the ruthless logic of financial capitalism with a discipline it would be impossible to achieve in the soft-hearted management systems of the United States and Canada.

They don’t make things better than we do, but they do make them just as good and cheaper, by a factor of from six to thirty. It is fanciful to say, as Mr. Gates did, that if we just have more schooling, we’ll be okay. In the next 10 years, China and India, et al., will release ten million well-trained engineers in excess of domestic needs on the world’s skilled labor markets.

These men and women will bid for work against your own techie sons and daughters.

At sixteen cents or so on the dollar, the effect on wages will be a catastrophe for this important segment of middle-class life. Mr. Gates didn’t bother to tell his audience that Microsoft has already opened large colleges in China and India to train young people in those nations to its own specifications.

That puts a new spin on his appeal for universal college training doesn’t it? Perhaps you believe the corporate policy of Microsoft will prefer to continue to pay high wages when a stream of its own foreign graduates becomes available.

Unless you do believe that, it becomes a duty for all of us to wake up and warn our children because one thing is certain: Schools won’t.

The Answer Is Jazz, Not Schooling

Saturation schooling, kindergarten through college, was a leadership response to the demands of a centralized corporate economy that replaced American/Canadian entrepreneurialism between 1880 and 1920.

What corporatism required was two things: A laboring mass – including a professional laboring mass of doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects and schoolteachers – who did what they were told without question, and a citizenry in name only, one which defined itself by non-stop consumption, one which believed that choosing between options offered by management was what democracy was all about.

Lockstep schooling, driven by standardized testing, testing not to measure learning but obedience, was the mechanism used to drive out imagination and courage. It worked and still works superbly, but, like the little mill that ground salt when salt wasn’t needed, this brilliant utopian construction is about to kill us.

North American economies dazzled the world for centuries because they encouraged resourcefulness, individuality and risk-taking to dominate the marketplace, and these qualities were encouraged in everyone, not just in the elites.

Three North American commercial juggernauts are currently blowing away competition all over China: computer hardware and programming, fast food franchising and commercial entertainment (singing, dancing, story-telling, games and all the rest).

Each of these businesses is almost exclusively the work of dropouts, from college, high school and elementary school. They are erected from imagination. Our fast food franchises don’t really sell “food” at all, but two intense tastes – salty and sweet – surrounded by clean, well-lighted places and spotless toilets and primary colors. They sell a return to early childhood and its simplicities.

Our computer world is built upon imagination inscribed on silicon chips on grains of sand. It’s magical. And our entertainment industry, which dominates China and every place else? Assembled from the raw material of people pretending to be who they aren’t and singing their hearts out about emotions some writer made up.

We need to realize what all this means. We need to follow the path opened by our unparalleled jazz domination of the planet.

Over in China, at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music (the oldest continuous music school on earth) they have a hard time believing that jazz can even exist, that with imagination and courage you can hear a piece of music once and ring dazzling changes on it forever.

Jazz writ large has always been the key to North American genius. As David Ricardo, the great philosopher of capitalism often said: The road to wealth comes from understanding what it is that you do best, then doing it. It’s time we abandoned the cowardly path of imitating what China and India will do best in the future, realizing that our own security can only be preserved by encouraging imagination.

Stiffening the Backbone

Not long ago, I got a letter from Ed Hamilton, the largest mail-order independent book dealer in America, in which he disclosed that he had taken three college courses long ago before he realized that the time and expense was largely a waste and struck out for himself on the course that made him a multi-millionaire and, for what it’s worth, one of the most influential purveyors of self-education in the country.

Hamilton admitted to delight in the fact that most of his potential competitors did so waste their time, thus leaving the field much less difficult for him to negotiate.

Chris Paolini, a real-life homeschooled kid from the remote Absaroka Mountains of Montana wrote a fantasy novel at 15, “Eragon,” self-published the book with his parents and drove from school to school, library to library, with mom and dad who quit their jobs to help him so, so much did they believe in his book!

So far “Eragon” has sold 2.5 million copies – earning enough so mom and dad and Chris won’t ever have to work for strangers again – and Knopf is bringing out a sequel called “Eragon, The Eldest” with a first printing of 1.3 million copies. “Eragon” is scheduled for Hollywood release in 2006 starring Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich.

Chris is 21 as I write and, like Danica Patrick, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Michael Dell, has no plans to go to college.

Or, how about the boy who flunked out of second grade, the kid labeled with dyslexia and ADHD who was fired from his job at a gas station for writing illegible receipts? In 1970, that dropout, Paul Orfalea, founded Kinko’s.

And how about the dropout Richard Branson, who at the age of seven, was treated to this lesson in self-reliance by his mother: Miles from his London home on a drive with mom, she pulled over and asked little Richard, “Do you think you could find your way home from here?” He said he thought so, whereupon, she opened the car door on his side and said, “Well, get out and do so.”

Whatever education is, one thing is certain: It doesn’t take place locked in seats following the commands of total strangers, your obedience measured regularly by short answer tests. And it’s education we need to meet the future, not schooling.

Let the Past Go

Mass college attendance once served America and Canada very well, but that time is gone and good riddance. It dampened down the inventive, entrepreneurial spirit in the interests of habit-training and attitude-adjustment.

We have the most efficient management in the world at a very high price: Mutilating the public imagination, vesting it in a handful of corporations. School was the factory producing incomplete human beings who were easy to manage. It worked for a century to produce national riches and a citizenry increasingly poor in spirit.

Gates is correct: North America faces an emergency. Vested interests will have to be set aside for the common good. The biggest obstacle blocking progress is the shape of our forced institutional schooling and its weapons of mass destruction.

As Pope Paul once said to the Poles: “Young people, don’t be afraid. The future depends on you.”

Let me add, parents, don’t be afraid, either. Take your lead from Herman Melville’s immortal Bartleby, the Scrivener, and say to Mr. Gates and his ilk: “I would prefer not to.”

John Taylor Gatto wrote this article for The Wall Street Journal, July 25th, 1991. Gatto was a New York State Teacher of the Year. An advocate for school reform, Gatto’s books include Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, the Underground History of American Education and Weapons of Mass Instruction.

Photo by Bion Whitehouse. Children in Classroom in Keene New Hampshire. ca. 1900-1920. (Keene Public Library and the Historical Society of Cheshire County)

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