Monday, June 23, 2014

Review of Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree.

I haven't written a book review on this blog for ages. Probably because I've read very few non-fiction books in the last couple of years! But sparked by some newly discovered energy and motivation, I decided to change that, which is why I put aside some time over a couple of days to read Blake Boles' Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree.

The first thing I liked about it was that I could easily read it over a couple of evenings, with plenty of time left over. I'm a fast reader, but even so, this book isn't long. It's concise and straight-forward, which is really nice, as longer, more verbose books on education often just aren't that easy to get through. If you want to appeal to a larger audience, make it something that isn't intimidating to pick up. On a similar note, get rid of any ideas you have about self-published books being sloppy or unprofessional. Thanks, I'm sure, to a lot of work by multiple people, this book looks really appealing. You want to pick it up.

But all that isn't nearly as important as the contents. So, on to that!

There are some things I really liked about this book. I like that it starts with some "propositions" on which the rest of the book is based on, outlining the reasons college might not be as great as it's cracked up to be, and why skipping college might be a good idea. I was happy to see that the idea of it being a "gamble" skipping college was addressed, with Blake pointing out that going to college is just as much of a gamble. Also, of course, some criticism of the cost of college. As Blake writes
This is the real culture of fear that should surround college: not that purposefully skipping college will ruin your life, but that mindlessly attending college (or graduate school) may lock you into a huge pile of debt from which you can never escape.
As I've struggled with figuring out what I'm doing and how to go about doing it, one of the things that never ceases to make me feel better is just going well, at least I'm not in debt.

I also appreciated the big focus in this book on the importance of self-knowledge. To me that's always been an important aspect of unschooling. Knowing yourself, and working to understand more about the way you best function, what's important to you, your strengths and weaknesses, is invaluable. I agree with Blake that that's an important thing to be striving for, whether you're in college or not.

The other main thing I appreciated about Better Than College was that Blake does a very good job of taking the concept and giving you concrete ideas on how to actually implement the whole living-without-college-and-learning-lots-of-stuff-and-becoming-financially-more-secure thing in your own life. Parts were inspiring to me, as Blake makes it seem, if not easy, than at least very doable.

The parts that weren't as strong to me were those talking more about famous successful college drop-outs, quoting The Education of Millionaires frequently, and Blake's list of inspiring people. Made up in large part of financiers, venture capitalists, business writers, and CEO's, they're not exactly the type of people I'd personally look up to. Steve Jobs and Penelope Trunk (author of this charming piece on why women should just put up with sexual harrassment) are not my idea of good role models. With a quote from each "inspiring" person included, one especially stood out to me. William Deresiewicz has this to say:
You can live comfortably in the United States as a schoolteacher, or a community organizer, or a civil rights lawyer, or an artist--that is, by any reasonable definition of comfort. You have to live in an ordinary house instead of an apartment in Manhatten or or a mansion in L.A.... [B]ut what are such losses when set against the opportunity to do work you believe in, work you're suited for, work you love, every day of your life?
My first thought was just really? You can live comfortably as a community organizer or artist? I must just know the wrong organizers and artists... I agree that these are deeply worthwhile vocations, and that you should be able to live comfortably doing such a job. But currently, it can be pretty darn hard to.

This is a good example to me of the obliviousness that seems to run through this book. It seems to have been written mostly for a very privileged audience, and it would have been nice if it was acknowledged that all the suggestions on networking and marketing yourself and similarly hacking your education are likely to work best if you're white, male, affluent (or at the very least middle class), straight, and are generally the stereotype of the entrepreneurial, tech heavy, young professional crowd.

There's a great exercise nearer the beginning of the book, designed to get you to look critically at what's most important to you, and how you can use your skills to help others. I loved it, and the sentiments behind it! But then for much of the rest of the book, everything is couched as a way to gain value or "get" something: get a job, get money, get skills, get ahead. Everything was about networking and badgering people to hire you (and I'm sitting there thinking what about sufferers from anxiety, especially social anxiety?), and seeming to encourage you to look at every single interaction as a networking opportunity. What about simple kindness? Friendships where you're not trying to get anything from the other person other than reciprocal caring?

I ended up liking the first half of this book, with more of a focus on self-knowledge and concrete ways to learn outside of college, better than the second half.

So, I would recommend Better Than College, but with some caveats. I think it addresses some things very well and provides some good tools and ideas, but falls short in other ways.

I hope to continue reading more non-fiction, and have some more interesting books to share soon!

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