The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar

Secrets of a Buccaneer-ScholarI've had James Marcus Bach's Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar on my reading list for a while just because it sounded interesting, but when B.J. came into our life, the time seemed ripe for giving it a read.  B.J. had trouble with high school (despite being sharp as a whip), and after completing his GED, has considered college.  Although my own experience with college was 90% positive, I can't help feeling that most higher education isn't worth the time and money nowadays, and Mark is even more anti-establishment.  So I opened Bach's book with the question --- are we doing B.J. a disservice by recommending he self-educate rather than enroll?

James Marcus Bach's book covers both his own methods of educating himself and the reasons he was forced to do so.  Bach (son of Richard Bach, who he writes a lot like) ended up living in a motel down the road from his mother's house at 14 due to a falling out with his stepfather, and he later dropped out of high school due to differences of opinion with the administration.  His thesis is that school is great if you enjoy it, but if you're not getting anything out of the experience, you should get out.  Bach had no problem getting a job at Apple Computers and then embarking on his own software-testing consulting business without a high school diploma, and he figures lack of credentials isn't going to sink anyone else's boat either.

Most of the book is engagingly written (and quite funny in parts), but I found Bach's methods of educating himself more dense.  Part of the problem is that Bach clearly thinks and works very differently than I do --- I suspect a type B person would get more out of this book than I did.  On the other hand, I'm not so sure that Bach's tips would really work for a type B person who doesn't have a wife to keep the accounting side of the business In a snowy treegoing (as Bach readily admits he does).  And it also seems a bit unfair to assume that just because the software industry can handle lack of credentials, that all industries can.

I know that I would be a very different person if I hadn't gone to college (but, also, that I wouldn't have gotten nearly as much out of the experience if I hadn't landed in just the right liberal arts setting).  My social education was probably the most important component of my college experience, but I also learned a lot of critical thinking skills as well as how to learn on my own.  That said, I probably was ready to start self-educating after a couple of years of college, and I've vastly preferred my own recent self-directed learning to any classroom work I'd done previously.

I'm curious to hear our readers' take on higher education.  If you had a young person in your life, would you send him to college or mentor him to learn on his own?  Do you feel like college helped you become a more fulfilled person or did you simply enroll to increase your earning potential (or perhaps you skipped college for a particular reason)?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I grew up in a household in which college was not only expected, it was simply assumed. My sister and I were not raised to believe there was any realistic choice in the matter...and it was always framed in the notion that college gets you more money, and that's what you should strive for in life.
I admit I've imparted some of this onto my two kids, ages 18 and 13. In the face of the recession and the dire predictions of job opportunities and increasing competition to get into college, who could blame me for wanting to make sure my kids are not only happy, but stable financially? Instead of teaching my kids that money equals happiness, my husband and I encourage our kids to pursue their passions, and seek education in that direction. Will the four-year degree be worth the money? Not necessarily. But that isn't necessarily a reason not to do it. I saw an interview of Dale J. Stephens recently who founded, and wrote about self-directed education ("Hacing Your Education). He dropped out of mainstream education at fifth grade and seems as happy and educated as his parents would have hoped.

Comment by jen g Mon Mar 11 10:07:09 2013

From my experiences and observations I've come to the conclusion college is not for everyone. Some or many do need it, others react and engage in education through other means. I went to the best schools in my state, am I better from it, yes at a primary level k-12 I was taught and trained into being a better self-learner or finding out problems on my own and not relying on a teacher/professor for that. But I've always been like that. I did later on after high school take an opportunity to go to college and get a degree. Only because financially it wasn't a burden, otherwise I'd continue being self taught in my trades which I've been excelling at.

Over all I agree Anna that I also enjoyed my own self learning experiences much more than any classroom. Society is different now in that it is very hard to be accepted in most industries without formal higher education credentials. My best mentor's or teachers where usually those that where self-taught.

Comment by Marco Mon Mar 11 10:42:12 2013
Both my parents have degrees, Mom a nurse and Dad a business major. My Dad went back to college to become a certified teacher and did so for 20 years, his passion. I reluctantly went to college and got my BA in Graphic Arts minor in forensics. I had to work and earn scholarships to pay for college.Did college prepare me for real life work, NO! I learned much more working for low pay in related fields after graduating.The college degree gets you "in the door" if an employer bothers to check. However, you have to have the common sense smarts to work in your field and experience. I thought college was a waste of my time and was a big nursery for people who did not want to face the real world. If I had a "do-over", I would have not chosen the expense nor the waste of time of college, just dove into my fields.
Comment by Ruthlynn Mon Mar 11 10:44:23 2013

I have a Ph.D. When I finished it, 20 yrs ago, there were not nearly as many jobs for PhDs as they were cranking out PhDs. There are even fewer jobs now. I got a part time gig teaching correspondence courses through the local university [and I started a business doing something completely unrelated on the side] I can definitely say that the quality of students in college now has gone way way down since I was a student. I don't want my kids wasting all that money [probably 15 times more than what it cost me to go to college] to get a credential from a university that expects so little from the students. They won't get a good education from the university and there are much cheaper ways to get the credential.

For sheer education, you cannot beat the local library and Great Courses.

Both of our kids are teens. We homeschool and we have started talking about higher education options. If my kids go to college it will be for a credential that they need, at a community college that they can afford. They're getting educated on their own.

Until the kids decide what they need the credential for, they can get out into the workforce and do something - anything - and get the real life experience that no one gets from a college classroom.

Comment by Robin E. Mon Mar 11 12:50:45 2013
I think that college should only come after you figure out what you love doing in life. A lot of people go to school under the understanding that it is "required" to be successful (in any capacity of the word). Speaking from personal experience, I was an exceptional student my entire life, including high school where I took every science and math class my high school offered, including the AP courses. I then joined the military where I worked as a Clinical Laboratory Technician, and learned TONS of critical thinking skills. I got out after 6 years (at this point I was 24 years old), and took the ACT to go to college. I scored a 33. Because of my experience and scores I was able to choose pretty much anywhere...well, after 3 different colleges and 3 years later (I am now 27) I have decided that I just can't do it. I refuse to make myself miserable for the convenience of a society that judges your intelligence based on college transcripts. So, I've decided to just educate myself. If I have a question I turn to resource books, Internet, friends, experts, and good old fashioned experimentation. I wouldn't have it any other way. However, if your dream is to be a nurse,doctor, lawyer, et cetera, then you obviously don't have too much of a choice. Just follow your dreams above all else, and if the path leads you through the education system, then so be it.
Comment by Robert Mon Mar 11 13:20:50 2013

I would strongly recommend college for anyone with tendencies towards nursing, doctoring, or engineering.

Otherwise the price to pay will be too high in the long run. This is from someone who is watching engineers quietly being laid off at one of the largest tech companies in the world, this from someone with a few degrees.

There are values to going to college like the socialization, learning direction, etc. This are not things that absolutely need to be obtained from college. I do think that it really really depends upon the person's goals. If they do not have a goal firmly in hand, well, then working and saving for college/buying a farm/etc. would be better time spent. Going to college is not something that has to happen when you're 18 or 19. It can happen when you're 30 or 40 and you'll get more out of it in a more focused manner.

I know way too many in-debt and underemployed college grads that I would have great difficulty recommending college for anyone not considering the careers at the top of this comment.

Best of luck to BJ, he seems a hard worker and smart, which is likely to get him far in life no matter which path he takes.

Comment by c. Mon Mar 11 13:59:34 2013

If you want to pursue a career in e.g. medicine, chemistry or engineering, college is more or less mandatory; those professions generally require you to give proof of competence. Which is a good thing for people poking in your innards or designing the car that you drive!

But the most important thing you can learn there is how to learn. I'm a mechanical engineer (bachelor) by training, but my career so far has been in design and manufacturing of fiber reinforced plastics. None of which I was taught in college. :-) In any professional capacity you'll probably spend the rest of your career learning new things.

But my engineering education was relatively wide, so you got to know the basics from a lot of technical disciplines. From gears to electronics and from power generation to designing constructions. That is a good thing, I think. With such a basis you can work in and adapt to many different fields.

But I've always found a bachelor's degree sufficient for my needs. If you want to go into research, getting a masters or Ph. D could be a good thing. Otherwise I'd skip them. A masters or Ph. D might pay more, but would certainly leave you in a lot more debt. And beyond meeting your needs, more money doesn't really make you happier.

In IT (especially in periods of scarcity) demonstratable competence can still go a long way. I'm convinced that you can be a great programmer or sysadmin without a degree. A friend of mine from my college days (also a mech. eng.) does IT consulting and even had his own IT business.

Learning social skills can also be an important part of college, especially for us nerds and introverts. But that alone is not the worth the price of admission, I'd say.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Mar 11 15:41:33 2013

Great article today on The Atlantic about this. College grads do amazingly better in the job market on average, but recent male college grads are doing very poorly.

As a teacher, now an administrator, I'd say that if he is looking for an interesting line of work that could take advantage of a rigorous math/science field then there are boundless opportunities out there for geologists, engineers, hydrologists, etc.

Going just to go and ending up with a largely undifferentiated degree doesn't return what it used to, there are tons of people out there with the same, and you can learn a great deal (though not make those vital contacts and connections) on your own without stepping foot on campus.

Comment by Cameron Moser Mon Mar 11 17:30:17 2013

I personally find that most education people have very divergent ideas and of course only their way is best. The Navy has a way of education that is generally pretty good for most jobs, that is condensed into what you need to know and how to perform the jobs. Then there is Nuclear Power School, where they go from 2 + 2 to calculus in six months, and this method is used in all the subjects taught in the school. You then go to a prototype school to learn the operational side of the naval propulsion system. The end of the 1st school ends with 10 questions and four hours to answer them. The second ends with an oral exam for as long as the instructors ask questions. Most people pass this system and go to work successfully in the fleet. You get into this school by your entrance exam and volunteering to work in the nuclear industry. I think that making education a privilege instead of a right would force parents to be more involved and make the students more motivated to succeed.

Comment by Vester R Stevens Tue Mar 12 13:25:24 2013

This is so timely for us. My daughter is 15 and also mildly autistic. She's brilliant, but has a very difficult time with any sort of established education system. She just can't keep track of what she should be doing, when. It makes a lot more sense to her to just learn the heck out of whatever she is interested in at the moment. She's done public school and homeschool... the homeschool works better for us but now that she is doing things like Algebra I'd rather have someone else instructing her. Currently she is in a virtual public high school that is rather dry but works very well for us. She also attends the Fine Arts Center of Greenville which is an amazing local magnet school for the arts (not your typical high school program -- they have over a million $ of art on their walls, the instructors were able to design their ideal studios during construction of the building, and the class sizes are very small and personalized).

I ordered this book for her the other day (it hasn't arrived yet... incidentally, neither has YOUR book which I ordered months ago. Amazon keeps sending me "do you want to renew your order and we'll get it to you when we have it" notices. I think the latest one tells me it will arrive in April). Anyway, the book I ordered for my daughter:

She's very interested in figuring out a way to make a living using permaculture/primitive skills. (She really enjoyed the primitive skills half day tracks at the Organic Growers School this past weekend). I'm hoping we can eventually evolve into a family business she'd enjoy taking part in.

On the college end of things she's most interested in Warren Wilson... she thinks maybe for an Environmental Sciences degree. She'd rather not accrue the 40k a year tuition cost as debt, though (she'd probably manage some financial aid, but we don't know yet, and she'd still probably have hefty debt afterward). Alternately, she is thinking about our local community college since it is more affordable and would look decent on paper. There's a part of me that would rather tell her she doesn't need a degree at all. I may get her the Bach book, too.

Comment by Eliza @ Appalachian Feet Tue Mar 12 19:59:13 2013

Eliza --- (I'm replying to several comments on different posts here, so it'll probably confuse everyone else, but hopefully it'll make sense to you!)

I went over to check out your facebook page and it turns out I've already friended it. Shows how much time I spend on facebook.... :-)

I hope the book helps your daughter. I suspect this issue would be much thornier if we had an actual child of our own rather than a friend to experiment on. :-)

I had really thought my book would be back available by now, but since it's not, I just put up a page to let my most ardent readers buy a signed copy directly from me. Feel free to cancel your Amazon order and get this one if you're desperate....

It's good to hear from you!

Comment by anna Tue Mar 12 20:28:48 2013

I keep saying IF they had the on-line resources they do today (iTunes has all kinds of free lectures from top universities, BBC has free language courses, etc) I totally would have bypassed college.

Instead, I should be taking advantage of those opportunities anyway!

Can't wait to read it.

Comment by Rosary Tue Mar 12 22:51:55 2013

I dropped out of college in the early 70's and was a poor HS student. I also self-educated myself, thinking that college grads would know more than I. Only to discover that most college grads are uneducated and almost illiterate.

Slightly more than 10 years after dropping out of college I was a VP at Citi and 10 years after that, I dropped out of Korp Amerika.

While there, I realized that my lack of "education" had given me an advantage over those educated merely to do a job. They needed me to show them how to innovate.

Comment by Buzz Wed Mar 13 21:02:52 2013

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