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

7 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.

  2. I brought into this notion too and felt really threatened by the future instead of making choices on doing what I want now. I was told by my uncle choose a career that goes along the lines of lawyer, doctor, politics or engineer in order to have a stable/ secure job. Because at the end of the day, going to university is about finding a job market. I felt so pressured that whatever decision I made make it seems that it wasn’t good enough, that I need to do what is aligned with what society deemed as respectable. I dread so much when people asking me, so what do you want to be in the future, are you going to university? I always give the same scripted answer about what I want to do which is oh I’ll do this degree, or maybe this degree, ooh this degree interests me too. I can’t choose. So I’ll take a gap year, figure my plans out, the go to university.

    Along the way, I’ve let numbers and grades defined me, so I thought since I am not where I should be, I’ll just work harder and harder in order to feel accepted or loved. I had this mentality that what I worth was measured by how productive I am, how successful I am, how financially secure I am.

    Even though I love photography/painting, I felt so inadequate, almost wrong and selfish of me to do that. I thought that I should earn so much money and make my family happy, that once I get there, whatever it is, then I’ll be happy. My uncle told me that going to an art collage/ foundation year is for someone who doesn’t get good grades right? In the back of my mind I was like…yes that’s me. I felt so ashamed of myself, that no matter how hard I try, I seem to fall behind and I felt so inadequate. I compared my life to the people around me, and how they already know what they wanted to do. I wasn’t brave enough to really tell people what I want to do because I felt scared that they’ll think I’m stupid, a failure, somebody who is selfish, a person who should know better and do what society deems as acceptable.

    I felt ashamed of myself for not staying true to who I am, and I slowly forgot who I was. I told myself, I’ll be a machine, I can work really long hours just to get that grade, just to feel appreciated by others around me. So that people can praise me rather than labelling me as lazy. I felt that I was defined by my grades, and those who work harder get really good grades. I felt exhausted, and it gives me a really realised what I do was almost the case of doing what other people want in order to get a good grade.

    Even though I love the subjects I do, I felt that what I know is measured by my grade. And in my mind, I kept thinking, if an employee see this, would they think of me as lazy/ stupid? Would I be judged my grades, and if that’s the case, I felt really scared of others for not seeing me as who I am, what I stand for, and what I value.

    I thought that I can add value if I go to university, if I can improve the economy. I felt used, lack freedom and almost suffocated to this idea. I put the pressure on myself because I wanted to feel accepted, but at what cost.

    I felt unhappy because I know that if I was going to continue like this and put off my happiness and well being, I’ll later look back at my life and feel scared to realise realised…oh, this is what my life came to?

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