Friday, March 8, 2013

"Hacking Your Education," by Dale J. Stephens


Dale J. Stephens left traditional school at 12 years old to become an unschooler. After giving college a try, he discovered that fellow students were more interested in partying than learning. He quickly concluded that if the best experiences were to be had outside the classroom, it made no sense to pay tens of thousands of dollars to sit in the classroom. He dropped out of college, and ended up founding Uncollege.org.

In his inaugural book, Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More than Your Peers Ever Will, Mr. Stephens proceeds to undo the myth that a college degree guarantees job security and happiness. He shows that with a little gumption, people can create their own educational path, build networks of mentors and supporters, and make some close friends along the way.

Hacking is often associated with computer hackers, tech-savvy people who break into computers to spy or drop viruses. In the sense of education, hacking means breaking away from the tradition-bound structure of education to design an lifelong learning mentality which doesn't rely on being spoon-fed what those in academia assume is needed in the real world. Mr.Stephens does make an exception for careers that require highly specialized training, such as medical doctors, but perhaps even they could benefit from a little hacking.

In addition to describing his experience with education and real life, Mr. Stephens shares the stories of others who have taken it upon themselves to be responsible for their own learning and success. We meet Tiffany Mikell who, despite being a young black single mother without a college degree, discovered a talent for JavaScript programming and ended up working at Accenture. We learn about Christian Keller, who dropped out of school when he was thirteen and is now, at 25, working on a film with Barrie Osborne (producer on Lord of the Rings and The Matrix). The pages are littered with people who took control of their education.

One of my favorite parts of Hacking Your Education is the "Hack of the Day" at the end of each section. Each "Hack of the Day" focuses on the idea just presented and gives hands on tools for incorporating it into your life. Whether it's planning a "brain party," finding out "what you aren't talented at," or making "the most of $100 a week," the ideas are doable and in small enough doses that they don't become overwhelming. Even though I am well beyond my college years, I look forward to trying many of these ideas to expand my experiences and create opportunities for my children.

Mr. Stephens is an extrovert, so many of the techniques he uses come easily to him. He acknowledges this and suggests a more low-key approach for the introverts among us. Even doing a little of what he describes will put most people light-years ahead of the crowd stuck in college lectures on subjects they must take in order to get to the classes they really want to attend in two or three years.

I do have one quibble with the book, and that is the use of profanity. As I have already admitted, "young" parted ways with my "adult" many years ago. I also realize that this book is aimed at older teens to young adults, not their parents. While interspersing the f-word here and the s-word there may make Mr. Stephens sound like one of the people his book targets, those very words detract from the message, drawing attention away from the text and instead pulling it to themselves. This is language one may use among friends, but certainly not when putting on our adult persona. And the author (and editor, who should have excised these from the text) needs to remember that many parents will be reading this book before passing it on to their kids. There is a market beyond the target, and writers and editors need to be sensitive to those pocketbooks.

Having said that, I still recommend Hacking Your Education. The overall message and specific action items far outweigh any language issues. Going into debt for an education that guarantees nothing but classes, homework, and a piece of paper, doesn't make sense in this age of information access. With a library card, Internet access, and passion, people can create their own path in life, without the debt and lost time. Hack your own education and see what it brings!

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