Answering a Complaint: Arguing About Education

Answering a complaint: no I really don’t think you need a business degree to start a company. I don’t have any hard evidence that people who have degrees are more successful than people who don’t — although I have to admit I’d like to have that evidence. I do have very good evidence that people with degrees are more educated, on average, than those without. An education is good. Maybe it’s not a direct line to more money, but it’s still good. The opposite of education is ignorance.

The complaint was that I post too much about education. Don’t I know, the critic asked, that lots of people start companies and become wildly successful without having degrees?  It seemed angry. There was some name-calling I edited out.

So, when a teenager in email says he’s going to inherit a family company “so I don’t have to get an education,” I wince. I shudder. I answer “please, give yourself a break, get that education while you’re young and it’s easy, you’ll be so glad you did.” And I don’t apologize for that.

I’d like to think my thread on education has been fairly consistent, and that my posts on the topic show pretty much the same opinions here.

Seriously, don’t you agree with me? Do you really think any teenager is better off without more school?

Of course there are special cases. Hardship cases. Can’t afford more school, have to work. And I wouldn’t want to be insensitive to those exceptions. But the rule is, at least through college, if you have a choice, get the education. You’ll be way better off. And not necessarily wealthier or more successful; not necessarily more likely to start and grow a company; just plain better off.

Quote from a bumper sticker: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

I’m not saying you have to. I’m not even sure that you’ll end up wealthier if you do, on average (although it would surprise me if that weren’t generally true). I’m just saying you’re going to be better off.

And I am saying, strongly, that it isn’t about money. I hate it when people argue for or against education by comparing what it costs to the income differential it supposedly generates. I object to the line of argument that education pays for itself, because that puts the whole thing on a different level. Some things are good — health, relationships, integrity, a clear conscience, and education, among them — whether or not somebody can show that there’s a provable monetary value.

I had a cynical older friend, who had the same MBA degree I have, and had it before me, who always referred to it as “a union card.” He said it meant nothing except “you get to bill more.” He was a good guy, a good friend, and I enjoyed his healthy cynicism. But I also liked what I learned in the classes.  And I’ve used it a lot since.

So at least I’ve also practiced what I preach. I studied what I was interested in, what I wanted to learn. I won’t run through that here, my bio is there if you want it, but I followed the advice of a wise person who suggested, “choose your major as if you were going to die on the day you graduate.” That was almost 40 years ago, and I still think he was right.

I’ve also remained consistent with that idea when advising my own children. The five of them have five undergrad degrees and two grad degrees among them, none of them in business. They made their own choices, but when they asked me, I always said “business is a trade. Get an education first, a general education, and then, if you want, you can learn  business.”

So there. That’s my opinion. I might be wrong.


  • Tim Berry says:

    Mark, good point, thanks. Always is always dangerous. And you reminded me that five of the best classes I took were at night school in Mexico City, for which I an all of my classmates had to take time from work and family to study economics and such. The institution was not the most prestigious, but the quality of teaching and classmates was excellent.

    And Greg, alright, I'll let that go without further ado, and hooray for typos. With that you and I both will make editors everywhere happy.


  • Greg Frether says:

    This blog would be better if you stopped talking about Stanford constantly. The only people that want to hear about Stanford are the people who went to school there. Just my two cents. You are alienating people. The Internet and "web 2.0" start ups are NOT about stanford, no one cares about that. The internet is about typos and emotionally driven comments on blog posts!!! ok thanks.

  • Mark Silver says:

    I've been reading your blog for awhile, and I've enjoyed your fresh, honest style of writing- plus the info.

    I was tempted to chime in about the education issue, because I think you've fallen into the 'always' trap. I don't think people are -always- better off with more education.

    That said, would I be dissuading children from getting an education. I don't think so. But, I've also witnessed people in college, when I went to university, before they were ready to really learn, and wasting years of their life, thinking they were getting something they weren't.

    And, I've also gone to community college with folks who had had life experience, and their approach to education was very, very different. They were there to learn.

    Final point: education isn't always -formal- education.

    Anyway, just a little comment to say I like what you say, and I personally would avoid the 'always' trap with anything… even education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *