Grad School Is Worthless

Instead of taking out loans for more classroom education, try learning some streetsmarts to get ahead

Education, someone with stature in the nonprofit world recently told me, is the media darling of social ills. It’s hard to argue. Daily, we read and hear stories about the city’s broken school system, the frighteningly high school dropout rate and the critical need to at least maintain the district’s budget lest things deteriorate further.

Many in education and political circles, Professor Obama chief among them, make the case that a college degree is critical to success, which is why the White House is forever pushing to make college more accessible and affordable; their point: There are no more assembly lines.

David Brooks, the New York Times opinion columnist who can be maddeningly middle-of-the-road when political, wrote a column this week in the shadow of graduation season that strutted some serious enlightenment.

Brooks argued that college grads are being bamboozled by a boomer orthodoxy forever underscored in wearisome commencement speeches that says that grads should “follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself.”

Crapola, says Brooks, to paraphrase.

Most successful young people don’t look inside and plan a life; they look outside and see a problem or a situation that calls them to a life. “The purpose of life,” he says, “is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”

It all sounds a little bit priestly, a lot like vocation jargon, but okay, it’s got heart. I’ll buy.

And Brooks is right about the boomers; they need to stuff their Aquarian Age mouths with a sweat sock. As useful advice, “follow your bliss” is as dead as Jerry Garcia.

But right as Brooks may be about how swell and righteous it is to lose yourself in a problem and see where it takes you, how many college grads do you know who are looking to do just that?

Okay, one. Okay, so maybe you know two.

Now how many college grads do you know running off to grad school to take filmmaking for the digital age or multimedia journalism or whatever else has a ring of cool because they have no clue what else to do and staying in school provides safe sanctuary to the scary outside world?


Trouble is, grad school provides no sanctuary. You come out, still no job. No job, and worse, you owe big money.

There is an alternative. What’s been forgotten in all the talk about education is the vastly underrated value in good streetsmart schooling.

Streetsmarts are earned when one mixes it up with people of different ages and backgrounds and colors and economic classes and national origins. It’s an education you can get free, but the only way to get an advanced degree is to work a job with a diverse labor force.

When you’re streetsmart, you know how to talk to people, you know your audience, you know that—guess what, Sherlock?—best drop the pose because we’re all in the soup together.

A streetsmart education teaches you that if you act righteous and condescending—think of all the politicians and educators and corner office guys in the city you know who do just that—it’s going to come around sling-a-ling style and bite you hard in the ass.

But the very, very best thing about a streetsmart education is that once you’ve earned it, it’s yours for life. It sticks with you. You know things that guys with advanced degrees on their walls will never know. Like how to talk to people and have them actually listen; how to care about people and have them care about you.

So before you enroll in grad school and start writing the kind of big time checks that you’ll be paying back well into the Sasha Obama administration, I recommend you consider finding a place that will school you in the art of being streetsmart. You won’t believe the people you will meet and the places it will take you.

Tim Whitaker ( is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.