Savvy Advice From My Cousin Vinny about an Education Worth Having

When I was 18, I thought I’d be an aeronautical engineer in the Air Force.  I went to an engineering school and majored in mechanical engineering, but I also did a big project on the military-industrial complex and minored in U.S. history.  Turns out that I did do engineering in the Air Force, specifically software testing and project management, but I soon moved into history and got an MA and D.Phil. focusing on science and technology.  Meanwhile, forty years later I still find myself writing about the military-industrial complex.  My “broader” education helped me to move away from engineering into fields that over time interested me more.

College is (or should be) about a lot more than earning a specialized degree and then cashing in.  In retrospect, half of my college experience was about living on my own and with roommates, growing up, and making friends.  Maturing.

You rarely know what your career arc will be.  What you want at 18 years of age may not be what you want at 22 or 32.  A broader education can give you the tools to branch out and pursue exciting opportunities as they come along.  All these things were on my mind as I read the following stimulating article by my longtime friend, M. Davout.  W.J. Astore

Even in The Matrix, there’s more to life than code.

An Education Worth Having

M. Davout

My son, who aspires to be a successful software developer and entrepreneur, applied to colleges this year and is finally getting word back from the universities to which he applied. The school he preferred, a prestigious state institution focused on technical fields, rejected him and the disappointment (particularly, and perhaps even more, for his parents) was great. As other rejections came in from universities that were, in retrospect, obvious longshots for my son, I felt the need to reach out to an older cousin who recently retired after a long and successful career working in technical support, sales, and then in upper management in a globally-dominant company that sells both computer hardware and software.   

As a native-born kid in the suburbs, I always looked on my cousin with admiration for how, coming to the country at the age of ten without any English, he was able to navigate the tough immigrant neighborhood of Boston’s North End and managed, through determination and hard work, to get an education at a local technical college and, afterwards, a well-paying job at a computer hardware company. Over his long employment there, he rose in the corporate ranks, while continuing to advance his technical education during nights and weekends. But there was also, I should admit, some condescension—as a native-born speaker benefitting from the well-funded public schools of the suburbs, I was able eventually to get into an elite liberal arts university whose education I considered superior to the narrow technical one that my cousin presumably had.     

When I reached out to my cousin for advice about my son I expected full-throated support for a path that was practical, realistic, and single-mindedly attentive to what the marketplace promised in the way of lucrative careers. In other words, as a smug liberal arts professor, I expected my cousin to conform to my preconceptions about the values and character of business people. What I got (as demonstrated in my cousin’s replies pasted in below) was something different, a demonstration that the values of broadmindedness can flourish in many different places including the business world and that a liberal arts college professor can be as narrow-minded as they come.    

I conveyed to my cousin that my son loved to code, was very focused on privacy software development as a career, and had ambitions to make a lot of money, to which he answered: “Yes, youth always thinks that way. As you know he needs a base education so that he can do that. Focusing on security software is fine, but he needs general computer understanding, hardware and software, along with marketing and business.”

I mentioned that over the last year, my son had more than once questioned why he has to spend four years in college if he already knows what he wants to do and has developed coding skills. My cousin responded: “He thinks he might have, but I assure you he has not. If he has the skills, school should help bring them further out.”

Ordinarily, I would insist on my son going to college. However, a software development friend had mentioned that his nephew successfully attended a software coding academy, which teaches coding skills over a two to three month intensive (9-5 each weekday) schedule. Tuition is $12-14K but the graduates leave with excellent prospects to start in the field at $70+K. I thought this might be something for my son. My cousin, the computer business guy, expressed skepticism: “Which academies in particular do you have in mind? As you know he should have a rounded education, especially in computers, there are many facets, focusing on just one thing might get boring, and it limits his personality.”

When I mentioned that my software friend had said that one can make a good salary without a college degree (though management jobs did usually require a BS or BA) and that half of the developers working at his companies don’t have college degrees, my cousin responded: “Yes, but the game is long term, Tino might think this is what he wants now, but only with a broader experience can he then be sure. At the end of the day, he should have the biggest say, if he is excited about coding academy, maybe he should try it. But remind him that being rounded is better than just one super skill. He might like coding now, but who knows in the future.”

In his long and successful career in business, my cousin had acquired a respect for broader education that was based, unlike my own, on the experience of working with diverse people in complex and evolving organizations, operating in-country and overseas, responding to the varying demands of customers and bosses, staying abreast of technological developments and political changes, all the while pursuing lifelong learning. I realize now that I sold him short and am grateful for his teaching me how I can better convey to my son that a broader education will serve him well not only in business but in life.

12 thoughts on “Savvy Advice From My Cousin Vinny about an Education Worth Having

  1. My experience was exactly the opposite of Professor Davout’s. When I was in college 40+ years ago (!), a liberal arts major was looked upon with disdain by most of the people I encountered. “What are you going to do with it?” was the usual question. Such a pursuit was largely considered a waste of time when more “practical” trajectories were available.

    With decades of hindsight at my disposal, I can agree that a more technical education would have given me more financial security and success over the years. I might still be valued in the workforce, as my coding guru brother is. Nevertheless, I count the knowledge and reasoning ability gained in my wide-ranging liberal arts curriculum to be priceless.

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  2. I recall a sign on the door of my Japanese professor. For clarification, he was Japanese and taught Japanese. The sign had a quote from a professor at Oxford. It was addressed to a student and it went something like
    ‘My hope is that when you finish your tenure here you will be able to know when a man is talking rot, and when he is not. For that is the sole purpose of an education.’

    If not the sole purpose, certainly a critically important one. However, I am not sure it is taught in very many institutions.

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  3. I used to tell my students that one purpose of higher ed was to develop one’s own personal BS meter. Know when people are spouting BS — and know when you are too, which may be harder to discern.

    Well, as we all know, Trump put it succinctly: “I love the poorly educated.” Hmm … I wonder why?

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  4. My only regret about my college education was that I lacked the wisdom to know how to be fully present in every moment. There was so much I didn’t see coming. I had a naive notion that everyone was going to be looking out for each other’s best interests. I learned a lot about life, although I did not sign up for that particular course in the registrars office and never got any credits towards graduation for stumbling my way through it. I did enjoy the freedom to choose the classes in my field of study and because I was more interested; I became a much better student than I was in the rigid high school structure.
    I attended a college in Northern Illinois that was transitioning from a teacher based curriculum towards a business oriented school. It was over populated with accountancy,finance, and marketing majors. It seemed everyone had money on their minds. It seemed everyone in the business school was already a big shot; and they let me know it when we met.
    My chosen path was to acquire a BS in Elementary Education. Knowing what I know now, the BS part of my degree always gives me a good chuckle.
    By the time I left school I was very disillusioned about life’s future prospects. I went in to the experience with an idealism that eventually got shredded; and as I left the campus I struggled to answer the basic question of, what am I doing here?
    I spent my senior year basically running a local open 1st grade classroom while I was mentored by 2 very passionate, skilled and artistic women. There were several other very impressive ladies in the upper grades and these teachers had a strong bond which was producing positive results and vibrant changes for all the students they touched in the elementary school where I was learning the trade. . But, as I sat in on the weekly faculty meetings and watched their ideas get mocked ridiculed and sabotaged by 2 male teachers who were vying for an open principal position in the fall; realities cold embrace left me shivering. It was a whole new level of rude and bordered on playground childishness. I never knew these things went on in the professional world. Why wasn’t everyone only interested in becoming the best at their craft; and giving everything they had to the students best outcomes?
    So basically I got “ schooled “ in a different sort of way. Plus in the other world on campus there was only hyper financial self interested characters; that were all plotting their paths to financial fortunes and gilded lifestyles. There was so much to learn and I hardly felt prepared for the reality of the professional world. There was no “graduation glow” and I put my future on hold for a year, heading to the woods to help a friend build a cabin from the ground up with his father; who was a skilled woodworker. When I came back; I was none the wiser but I had acquired many useful skills in the building trades. Upon my return I made my way back into the stream and started paddling towards an uncertain future in education.
    Life had other plans for the sojourn I was on and I never did get to use that BS degree. As I have stated before; I was gifted a special needs child and the teachers union health insurance wasn’t going to cover his pre-existing condition. So my wise father in law,Jerry, let me know the real world score and the ramifications of my present condition. “You need a job with health insurance, or you’ll be broke all your life!”
    In the end I too, “went for the money” as the finance majors used to preach to me back in school. Jerry also wisely stated,” Government insurance covers everybody, no conditions are excluded.” As he handed me the job listing for City Letter Carrier for the USPS.
    Carrying mail for a career opened up a whole new spectrum of understanding. I was able to meet tens of thousands of new faces over the course of my career and become intimately involved in watching their varied existences unfold. I got deeply involved in the cause of organized labor and represented employees as a union steward for over half of my career. Plus, I secured health insurance for my son for as long as he will need.
    I had absolutely no regrets and came to understand that education wasn’t about learning specifics in a field of study. It was about learning how to learn.
    Self realization is where I put my focus after attending college; and it proved to be the key to unlocking the many faceted mysteries of human experience. There was a hidden gift of becoming a letter carrier that I did not see at first; as I only was thinking, I’m here for the insurance.The profession left you alone to study the mysteries of awareness as you walked alone between houses repeating your process day by day. The great lesson in that daily task….
    You only get one chance in every moment to make each movement of your body, so always put your utmost into it, because it was the best insurance at being successful in the venture. Be aware and make each attempt at motion or thought, filled with the best intentioned effort you are capable of applying to the situation. Focused presence provides the highest satisfaction each circumstance has to offer. It was identifying the sweetness in being aware. Awareness is what provides the sweet savor of every moment; not the action or outcome of it. Being in that state is the challenge we all strive to attain. It’s not easy and is likened to walking along the razors edge barefoot. Like I said at the start of my college career, much is missed in living one’s time out in this body. But…Being aware in each moment will teach one all that needs to be know and prepare you for that next step. Helping to keep your feet from bleeding and remaining balanced in your approach. Learning is truly an infinite adventure that never stops bringing one expansions galore.
    There were many wise and profound educators along ones journey and most came after formal education ceased. The greatest teacher, among many great ones…. my special needs son and those peers he exposed us to that lived in their challenging bodies within his unique community. I have always believed every high school student should be made to take a class mentoring in the special needs population for one semester. It will birth a foundation in the much needed skill of compassion; and just maybe a more tolerant society going forward. Compassion is one of life’s greatest skills to hone. It too is a wise educator.
    At present I am soaking up as much as I can from this site I am on. It has put me in touch with a master educator and his staff that comment on his discourses are also helping me to expand my viewpoint on the skills necessary for the creation of a society that is committed to peaceful and caring outcomes for everyone who sets foot within it’s borders. There is a joy in this thing called learning. No matter where you find your university setting.

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  5. I am a fanatic on learning, but my formal education was a joke, not because the schools were lacking in quality, but I was unmotivated. I was the horse led to water. Right through my graduation from college I was adrift with no real interest in any classes and grades that showed it. College was automatic out of high school fully funded by my parents and I thought of it as simply more of the same. When I hear it said that education is wasted on the young, it resonates.

    What carried me along intellectually from about 8 years old was a fascination with radio and the weather. What carried me along physically was a love of motorcycles, going through six of them.

    I would study books on radio and became a ham radio operator with a fabulous callsign – WA7MAD. The weather never ceased to fascinate me, but I never considered science or engineering as I was abysmal at math, so bad that on a second quite earnest attempt at basic algebra in college I was so lost and behind at only a few weeks in that there was no point in continuing and I dropped the class.

    Both of my kids went through schooling through 4 years of college because, like me, it was assumed they would do so.

    I hesitate to offer any advice on college from my experience as in truth I was never really there and paid nothing to go. Talk about privilege! Oh did I love those days in the Arizona climate, but nothing was learned.

    My career in TV broadcasting had absolutely nothing to do with the BA I got in geography. I used to say it kept me from ever getting lost, but then came GPS. : )

    Those who benefit are the ones who have a clear idea of what they want to pursue with aptitude appropriate to the field. Motivation is everything. Better to postpone college and then put it to use later when one can go with a will to succeed. To go just to get a piece of paper and a load of debt is a recipe for continuing regret. The millionaire college presidents out there are the ones who have really drawn a benefit from the idea that everyone simply has to go to college. The old rule applies: think before you do.

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    1. Good stuff Cliff. I never trusted myself on a motorcycle because I didn’t believe my instincts could keep me safe. They sure fascinated me though and I it is a regret that I never took up the challenge. I used to get work done at a welders shop and he had 9 restored Indian Motorcycles I used to marvel over while he fixed things for me. They were tempting.
      But one of my all time favorite reads was about a journey on a motorcycle with a father and son dynamic; and the importance of a good instruction manual.
      Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance…Robert Pirsig

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      1. You are right about instincts. I did things like riding at 100 mph that were insane but miraculously survived with only a broken collarbone from one stupid accident that was my fault. Indian, by the way, is now a going concern again. I saw one yesterday, big, low, black and rumbling aimed at the (aging) Harley crowd, not the young male crotch-rocket bunch.

        I read Pirsig’s book twice and the philosophical point I loved the most was his insistence that you have to engage with what you do, be a real part of it: the “art” of the title. His example of the opposite was the motorcycle repair shop where a radio was blasting as the work was being done.

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  6. On the one hand I think that it’s quite possible to become a well rounded, thoughtful, critical-thinking individual with a wide range of knowledge without getting into five or six figures of debt to a university. I’ve a known a number of people with impressive liberal arts qualifications up to and including doctorates who don’t seem to be able to tell when “a man is talking rot and when he is not” and a number who have no formal academic education beyond high school that have no difficulty in doing so.

    On the other hand focused training in a currently presumed practical field also seems to be no guarantee of steady, decently paying employment either. It certainly wasn’t for me. So why not study something you’re really interested in? I studied music at university for reasons of personal growth and have never earned any money as a musician but the experience is one I wouldn’t give up for anything. I later went back to university studying business focused on accounting and also spent two years training to be an aircraft maintenance engineer. Neither of those two educations ever earned me a dime, despite being sold as eminently “marketable” skill sets.

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    1. Agreed, about the monetary value of a college education sometimes. Under the terms of my partial scholarship, I could take any courses I wished, as long as I took sufficient hours to satisfy my major. I took everything from anthropology to philosophy, and I loved it. On the other hand, I’ve never made a dime for majoring in English, although the knowledge has come in handy.

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