Here is my premise: the harder it is to get accepted into a university, the less value it will add to your life. Another way of stating this premise is: the easier it is to get accepted into a university, the more value it will add to your life. This may sound counterintuitive, but bear with me while I explain my position more clearly.
What do Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Matt Damon, and Robert Frost all have in common? For one thing, they are all college dropouts. But there’s more to it than that. They are all Harvard dropouts. Lady Gaga apparently dropped out of NYU, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, credited with writing the greatest American novel of all time, dropped out of Princeton.
Speaking of great novels, all of these people remind me of Raskolnikov’s theory of the extraordinary man from Crime and Punishment. In his infamous essay, the protagonist of the story argued for the existence of “extraordinary men” (akin to the German concept of “Ubermensch”), destined for greatness and unable to be constrained by any force, natural or social. Such extraordinary men are, according to Raskolnikov, not just above the law, but beyond the law.
I’m not saying that Harvard dropouts succeed because they were destined for greatness at birth, but I am saying that the mere fact that they were accepted into an elite university like Harvard practically ensured their success. There is very little knowledge or capability that they could have gained from a Harvard education that would have set them up for even greater success.
“I’m not saying that Harvard dropouts succeed because they were destined for greatness at birth, but I am saying that the mere fact that they were accepted into an elite university like Harvard practically ensured their success.”
The same argument, it could be said, applies to almost any elite university in any country: Oxbridge Graduates in the UK, University of Tokyo graduates in Japan, and Peking or Tsinghua University graduates in China. They all succeed despite their education, not because of it.
The intellectual hurdles to be overcome in order to get accepted into an elite university are so great, and exclude so many “ordinary” people, that, in and of themselves, they serve as an efficient selection tool by which to identify Ubermensch. Such individuals don’t need what elite universities have to offer.
The opposite argument equally applies. Non-elite universities with a higher acceptance rate can, and often do, add considerable value to graduates’ lives. Students benefit from the content of the education offered, and are given, an assessed against, a repertoire of skills that bolster the chances of success post-graduation. They start from a point of mere potential and graduate having finally at last realized it over years of hard work and dedication to improvement and skills development.
Maybe Raskolnikov was righ (despite the fact that he proved himself to not be among the extraordinary by ending up in a Siberian prison). Maybe there are people out there who are destined for greatness, and nothing can get in the way. Some people will literally move mountains to achieve their goals, and no university education will help them to that end.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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