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  • Ken Ilgunas

Why go to college?

Dear Ken,

Kudos to you for taking such a daring adventure. I love the book Walden and you are a modern example of it.

I am 18 years old and in my first year of university. Two months in, and I’m not enjoying it too much.

I cherish simplicity and live as humbly as possible. I hardly spend money except on food and shelter. I even dumpster dive. I know you are the same.

And truth be told, I’d love to live in a van.

That said, why am I, and why are you, in university? I can’t find a good answer to this and I’m considering dropping out. I feel like I chose to go to university just cause I get good grades and everyone else was doing it. Also, my family really expected me to go. But the thing is, it’s just a piece of paper, a diploma. If I drop out, I can learn all the material on my own, without the stress and money involved. I can work, but my lifestyle wouldn’t require much working; just a little bit to cover my minimal expenses. I can spend my days with loved ones and learning. I can take a greater role in the community with volunteering and activism.

Perhaps you can help me by offering the reasons why you’ve chosen to get a degree and take on the stress and financial burdens. I’m not saying/accusing that you don’t have valid motives. I suspect you have very valid motives, and I would love to hear them. It would greatly help me as I weigh my options.

Huge respect,

Nick from Canada


Your email made my day. Slapped a smile right on my goddamned face—not just because I’ve learned of yet another kindred spirit who shares this world with me, but also because it’s people like you who, every now and then, renew my faith in humanity.

I normally don’t send emails in the form of an essay, but the subject calls for it. So please excuse me for my formal tone, and for—what will probably be—an unreasonably long and largely uninteresting history of my education.


When Thoreau was 31, Harvard—his alma mater—sent him an alumni questionnaire. One of the questions on it (quite innocently) asked what his profession was. Thoreau—in a tone that some might call “brash”—wrote,

I am a Schoolmaster, a private Tutor, a Surveyor, a Gardener, a Farmer, a Painter, (I mean a House Painter) a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-laborer, a Pencil-maker, a Glass-paper-maker, a Writer, and sometimes, a Poetaster.

If his intro didn’t communicate it, he emboldened his condescension in his letter’s conclusion:

P. S. — I beg that the class will not consider me an object of charity, and if any of them are in want of any pecuniary assistance and will make their case known to me, I will engage to give them some advice of more worth than money.

Thoreau hated Harvard and he didn’t hide it. He famously said that Harvard “[teaches] all the branches and none of the roots.”

My undergraduate education at the University at Buffalo didn’t leave nearly so sour a taste in my mouth. In fact, I was quite indifferent about school, perhaps because I hadn’t reached the level of intellect necessary to bring something into question the way only the perspicacious can.

Like you, Nick, I enrolled in college hardly of my own volition. But, unlike you, it took me a long while before I even thought about why I was there or why I was spending so much money to be there.

It’s tough to explain just why I decided to enroll in undergraduate college, perhaps because there never really was a “decision.” I never weighed pros and cons; I never considered other options. In fact, the only options I thought about had to do with which school was going to get my money. And I point all this out—not because I think I’m an interesting minority—but because I think the way I thought is the way the great majority of young people think about their education at first. And when young people—caught in a vulnerable stage of development—are expected to make a five-digit decision that could affect them for the rest of their lives, they often (and understandably) make decisions that they’ll later regret.

My high school classmates and I—like most eighteen-year-olds of our generation—thought less like individuals, and more like a school of fish: While we had the physical capacity to go off on our own, to do our own thing, and to make our own life decisions, there was some overpowering, irresistible force sweeping us all into the halls of an academy like debris into a dustpan.

The social pressure to go to college was—I can’t emphasize this enough—incredible. Throughout my primary and secondary education, no one—and I mean no one—even passively mentioned an alternative to going to college. Sure, some kids were encouraged to enroll in trade schools; and others, to enlist in the military, but I honestly cannot think of anyone who tried to show us the countless options that we could pick from; and these options—by virtue of them being right in front of our noses—were invisible. No one talked about the merits of traveling, or the virtues of work; no one spoke about anything except going to college.

This—in hand with other forces—fostered an intensely competitive social atmosphere. One’s “success” and social status was in large part measured by how highly his prospective college was ranked. Those going to community colleges were considered inferior, and those heading off to top-tier private and state schools were envied.

By school and other forces beyond my ken, my classmates and I were molded into a certain sort of human being, who were then funneled into college—where most would experience further programming in slightly more exclusive pods.

From a very early age, I was programmed to think: “I need to go to the best college I can get into, no matter the cost.” And while it was ultimately my fault for applying to schools that would cost me so much, it’s evident to me—looking back—that it wasn’t just me who made “my” decision to go to school.

For the first couple years, I kind of just drifted through college. Despite my apathy, it didn’t once occur to me that I could leave school. I was mentally incapable of grasping the idea of self-ownership—that my life was my own; that I could do anything I wished with it; that I could—at any moment—cast off the chains that I’d unknowingly wrapped around myself.

My sophomore and junior years passed much the same way: I fulfilled my general education requirements, I sampled courses from different departments, and I mostly listened to lectures in large auditoriums, oftentimes with several hundred students. Occasionally, I’d enjoy a course or a lecture, but for the most part I continued to thoughtlessly drift with the current.

It wasn’t until late in my junior year that I actually began to enjoy college. In the English department, I read Shakespeare; in the history, I studied the Constitution and founding fathers. In my senior year, my classes got smaller. We had passionate discussions in seminars, I started to write for my school newspaper, I interned with a local progressive newspaper, and I developed relationships with a few of my professors. Every day I could feel myself growing: I was writing and speaking better; I was thinking with unprecedented clarity. My curiosity was piqued, my passions roused, and my brain hungered, insatiably, for knowledge. I loved school, so much that I’d stick around for a fifth year. Those last few years represented a period of intense personal growth; it was a renaissance of sorts. I learned that college was worth it after all.

And then I graduated.

I moved to Alaska to pay off my debts, oftentimes working alongside people who had never set foot in a college classroom. In Coldfoot, in the coworker housing unit I lived in—a refurbished forty-room trailer with paper-thin walls that once housed workers during the construction of the Alaska pipeline—I had, on one side of me, Mike—a half-Vietnamese/ half-American schizoid and alcoholic. Mike would kick open the hallway doors while sputtering fake bullets that sprayed from a pair of invisible machineguns that he carried on each arm. On my other wall was Morey—an 18-year-old pothead from Colorado—who I could hear at any hour snoring, blowing bubbles in his bong, or strumming tunes on his guitar. Caveman Dan, a lodge cleaner, saw action in Panama. Paul, a carpenter, brought with him an arsenal of automatic weapons. Chad, a tour guide, had a thirty-strong dog team. I hitched with truckers, rubbed elbows with hunters, and gave tours to upper-crust septuagenarians.

These were just a couple of the many personalities and groups I came to know intimately. Later, I lived in a predominantly black Mississippi ghetto, I delivered packages alongside a homophobic UPS truck driver, and I lived with Alaskan natives in a remote, one-road village at a Park Service ranger station in Bettles.

I moved around for years. I was in a state of constant interaction with a variety of classes and cultures. At first, I thought this was what a real education was—the education I was getting outside of classroom walls. I learned about alcoholism and drug addictions. I saw people living subsistence lifestyles and others wallowing in abject poverty. On the road, along rivers, and atop lonely mountains I was able to continue to “discover” myself.

But it wasn’t long before I started to miss college. More and more, I fantasized about locking myself behind the bars of a university again. That’s because the intellectual capacities that I’d worked so hard to develop were gradually fading: my writing was plateau-ing; I was speaking less articulately; and the thinking muscles I had to constantly flex in school atrophied from disuse.

I tried to compensate by writing daily introspective emails to my best friend, and by reading book after book after book. But nothing worked to retard my regression. I needed back the structure of school.

My cultural experiences were invaluable, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything, nor all the friendships I made over the years. But there came a point when I realized that I still had a lot to gain from school, but little else to gain—in terms of self-development—from the people around me. There are things in the outside world that you can’t get at a university, but there are things at a university that you can’t get from the outside world.

And to be the best man I could be; to give myself the tools to make a difference; to “save the world,” I needed to go back to school.

While Thoreau hated school, he’d eventually come to realize how Harvard had played an invaluable role in his development. Thoreau biographer, Robert Richardson, says:

When [Thoreau] returned from college, Harvard, with all its shortcomings, had taught him how to pass judgment on Harvard, and had in fact prepared him for a life of the mind. Acknowledgment would come later.

At Harvard, Professor Channing helped Thoreau fine-tune his writing. His studies in Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German, and Spanish enabled him to glean wisdom from ancient texts that would later saturate his own.

But, unlike Thoreau, many of the other “greats” didn’t need school. Jack London spent less than a year at Berkeley. Hemmingway and Twain didn’t need a college education, and Steinbeck left Stanford without a degree, traveling and taking a series of odd jobs. Some of America’s greatest leaders—Washington, Franklin, Lincoln—though lifetime learners, never enrolled in college. The most impressive mind I’ve ever come across sits atop the body of a hunter from the rural village of Wiseman, Alaska (pop. 15)—a man who dropped out of college before his first semester ended. The list goes on and on.

Thoreau moved to Concord where he could be near Emerson and other transcendentalists who would provide him with a “graduate education” superior to what any school could possibly offer.

What I’m getting at is: there’s no formula to follow. Some people, like me, need school. Others surround themselves with books and brilliant people and they can “elevate their minds” without having to make hefty tuition payments.

If you know why you’re in school, I think you belong there. If you don’t, then leave and don’t come back until you do. Perhaps, after a while, you’ll learn, like I did, that college really is benefiting you; that there’s a “point” to school. There are merits to sticking it out, even if the benefits of school are not readily obvious to you. But I think this is, for many, a recipe for disaster.

Many students who “stick it out” end up handcuffing themselves to a life that they really never intended to live. They have trouble getting off the career track they put themselves on when they hardly knew themselves or what they really wanted to do with their lives. And the debts that they accrued make getting off that track so much harder.

A college education should provide students with minds that will function in the world at large, not just in the workplace. It should helps us figure out the big questions that will follow us everywhere: what’s worth fighting for; who’s been lying to us; what the point of it all is. A college education, more than anything, should make us citizens before it makes us careerists.

But school, sometimes, does the exact opposite. The university experience—the major we’re forced to declare, the internships we’re compelled to apply to, and the debts we accumulate—too often closes more doors than it opens. It, like high school, winnows us into a certain type of individual. College makes us into “experts”—experts who are great at one thing, but can’t do or think about much of anything else. College helps us become the orthopedic surgeon, the real estate lawyer, the 8th grade math teacher. Every May, a slew of professionals walk off commencement stages with brains brimming with knowledge, but souls severely lacking in empathy, imagination, and the ability to exercise introspection—characteristics crucial for any self-respecting citizen to function within a democracy.

Many of these people walking off stages are not terrible human beings, but they are morally vacuous; they do not care if their job hurts more people than it helps, so long as they earn a paycheck at the end of the week.

“If a man is a fool,” says Desmond Bagley, “you don’t train him out of being a fool by sending him to university. You merely turn him into a trained fool, ten times more dangerous”


To give advice about college, one is forced to ponder, not just the point of school, but the point of “it all.” And this is where I enter murky territory. While I’m in no position to tell someone what ought to be important to them, I suppose there’s no harm in sharing what’s important to me:

I want to the best man I can possibly be. And I’m willing to suffer through a period of misery, sacrifice and discomfort—which a college education often is—if it will equip me with the knowledge, tools, and wisdom that will, in the end, enable me to improve the lives of others. Of course, this goal has been created with self-interested aims, too, for helping people, affecting change, creating original works, and setting myself up to have a real and meaningful purpose will, I suspect, lead to a happier and more fulfilling life.

But college isn’t the only way to accomplish this. Before you’re forced to major and narrow your studies, it would be helpful to know just what you’re passionate about—and such insights rarely come from school alone. So perhaps you should take to the woods, to find the “roots” that Thoreau could not unearth within the confines of his classroom.

I hope that you do not think that you’re in a predicament—No, this is anything but. You are blessed with an awareness that is rare for your age—an awareness that will be an invaluable asset when it comes time to making the big decisions, such as this one.

Whatever you do, I hope that if you leave, you leave knowing that you’re not exiting the classroom, but that you’re merely entering another. And that—even in our most self-interested and solitary endeavors (such as on a journey)—the brotherhood of man continues to run through us all. We’d be fooling ourselves to think that fulfillment comes from selfish acts, and that—whatever your pursuits—I hope that the end goal is not just the betterment of yourself, but the betterment of others. To change the world, as my favorite movie tagline goes, you must first let it change you.

Thoreau would daily embark on long afternoon walks. He lived alone in his cabin for two and a half years. He was, by all definitions, a hermit, and a curmudgeonly one at times, too.

But he came to the determination—based on his education in both his Walden cabin and Harvard classroom—that it would be an irresponsible expression of his life to live just for himself. And that is, I believe, the very reason why he took off on his own; and that is why I’ve cloistered myself within my own upholstered hermitage. Sometimes to play a part in this great big world, we must separate ourselves from it.

But don’t listen to me. Thoreau said it best: “Be not simply good, be good for something.”

Happy trails,


PS: Mind if I use this as a blog entry?


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