Tell your children: “If you don’t go to University, you’ll end up homeless”

The University of :inux?
No chance!

“I never let my schooling interfere with my education” was something Mark Twain once allegedly said. Well it certainly sounds like he had an easy ride!

Infrequent readers of this blog will know that my education and my schooling (clearly different things) have been recurring subjects of this blog since the start.

From bypassing content filters, to satirically moaning about institutional IT to rants about utterly useless courses and teachers and finally how I got first got hired, my schooling and education did not get off to a symbiotic relationship.

Recently I helped Richard Smedley with an article, which appeared in Linux User and Developer Magazine (issue 125, page 57), about my route into industry.

For me, the main thing that keeps hitting home is how little things had a big effect later on.

Some examples:

  • I first got into the technology community through Manchester Free Software Group – Matthew Bloch from Bytemark Hosting was the first speaker I saw at the group. He’s now my boss. (Equally, other speakers I saw at the time are friends and/or customers).
  • I first played with the Asterisk PBX software when I was ~14-15 or something. I never really got it to work. My first job was supporting it. (I’m still not sure I got it to work though! ;) )
  • At the first Barcamp I went to (Barcamp Manchester 1!), I met someone who’d later employ me as a¬†contractor at a big corporation and for a period of time, be my first flatmate. In return, I may have saved his life.
  • Several years ago I attended lots of technology community events to help myself learn stuff quickly. I still attend lots of events, but these days I can support the community, wearing my Bytemark hat.
  • At one point I found myself supporting a cluster of Xen hypervisor VMs using the xm-tools package, later, I found myself working alongside the original author.

Of course, this isn’t all that surprising, nothing is stunning unlikely, and of course, one builds on previous achievements and contacts, but up until after it happened, I wasn’t even aware it was possible.

It is not an understatement of my naivety when I mention that I thought schooling and careers had a linear aspect – get good grades in this, to get a good degree in that, to get a good job there, and be happy(tm).

If you approach it like this, then you can start to understand threads like this: Those of you who did not do well in their GCSE’s, how did your life turn out?

with comments like:

I did alright in the mocks, got a mixture of A’s and B’s. I was wondering if they actually were important for after education seeming as my school is trying to convince me that if I get less than a B on my Biology test then I will be homeless.

Sadly they’re clearly not alone. This makes me upset.

One of the other arguments people used to persuade me I should¬† go to university was that they themselves, made some really good friends at university – “the best friends of their lives”. This argument is relatively watertight, right up until the moment where you ask yourself whether people who didn’t go to university, really go through life with no friends at all… and then it unravels.

As it turns out, actually I’m a member of three university clubs or societies, across two geographically distinct, higher education establishments in different cities. Furthermore, I keep an eye on things that are going on in several other university’s clubs/societies. Hum, clearly no opportunities to meet people if you’re not at uni then!

It’s easy to say “Wow, Tim, you’ve done really well”, but this isn’t about me – it’s about the young people, stuck between by terror stories of university fees and threats that a “B in Biology” will make them homeless, making the right choices about what’s best for them.

I do various odd bits of mentoring but that makes a limited impact here – this is something that needs to be addressed at a higher level and as I’ve no idea how to effectively do that, I’ll just be sporadically blogging here as usual… unless anyone has other suggestions?


This Son of Dork song is a bit of an anthem for me:

Son of Dork – Slacker

5 thoughts on “Tell your children: “If you don’t go to University, you’ll end up homeless”

  1. I agree that the attitude that university is right for everyone who is motivated/hard-working is bad, especially when coupled with looking down upon those who haven’t gone, even if they’re very driven. However I think you should avoid generalising too much from your own experience since it is really quite unusual. You get general skills in expressing yourself and in managing time, working on projects etc. from university that you already have, but many won’t.

    1. I do agree that my situation is clearly unusual and that autodidacts are perhaps less common – I’d hesitantly suggest that the status-quo in education is largely unfriendly to autodidacts which is perhaps why they are less common.

      I’d also hesitantly remind you to avoid relying too much on your own experiences. Had I gone to university, I suspect I’d have gained entry to one of the bottom 30% of institutions. Obviously these institutions could have supported someone like me and helped me find the path for me, but with a greater concentration of lesser-driven people, there’s a fear that you fail to connect so much with people of your mindset.

      As you say, generalisation is bad. Clearly what is right for one person will not be right for another. I would not suggest that any wannbe-lawyer with a good deal of work experience, skip law school or shy away from lesser institutions. Clearly that would be silly. Equally, I’d encourage a enthusiastic advocate of 19th century american literature to go forth and study it, as I would encourage someone who aspired to be a titanium prospector to get their Geology degree whilst building up their mining contacts at every opportunity.

      A driven tech type, who’d already written an ‘joke’ iPhone application, and had squandered grades in exchange for time to play with tech – I’d probably suggest they tried to find an entry level job in that field. Chances are that they’d learn more on the job, faster, more enjoyably and more up to date, than at uni.

      As lawyers say, “it depends”.

      1. My thought is more that your average school leaver doesn’t have the maturity to pursue a serious job, which is something you had thanks to all the projects you’ve engaged in.

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