LIAM CHAI

Why I Did Not Go to University

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” – Albert Einstein

In my about page, I wrote about deciding not to go to university and in this post I’ll elaborate on that decision.

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

After an eye test when I was 16 years old, my prescription for glasses went up again. I first got glasses when I was 8 and year after year my myopia would get worse. At that particular eye test, my mum asked the optician if there was something I could do to reverse the effects or at least prevent it from getting worst. The optician said no.

I didn’t like that answer, so later that evening I googled, “How to improve my eyesight”. With that search I ended up falling down a rabbit hole. It would be several years of sifting through information and misinformation before I would come to an understanding about my eyes, and actually improve them. I’ve written more about how I improved my eyesight in another post.

What I read on the internet made sense,  the practices I studied did not seem like they would harm my eyes, so I tried them. One afternoon I experienced a ‘clear flash‘ where my vision (without glasses) cleared, and stayed clear for twenty minutes or so. I could see without glasses! This initial experience, while temporary, made me realise eyesight improvement was a possibility. I also felt tremendous hurt and confusion. Either my optician was lying to me or he was ignorant. The latter made me question my trust in so called ‘experts’ or ‘authorities’. After that experience, I went on to question everything I thought I knew.

Everything included my schooling and education. I was holding questions like, “What is the purpose of school and university?” “What do I want my ideal lifestyle to be?” “If money were no object, what would I do?” “What alternatives are there to the 9-5?” “What does it actually mean to be an educated person?” “What do I even want in life?”

I then read books by John Taylor Gatto and learned how compulsory schooling came to be. I read a PDF I found online called ‘Skip College’ and heard about the Unschooling movement. Talks like Sir Ken Robinson’s were also becoming popular. And I saw MOOCs pop up, where top universities like MIT would offer entire degrees online for free. The questions I asked stretched beyond just school and education, and none of this happened in a linear fashion. It was actually a very chaotic, confusing and lonely period in my life.

When it came time to apply to university, I did not want to. Up to that point I had prepared to study medicine. I did work experience in an elderly hospice, shadowed a nurse and volunteered at my local GP. The subjects I chose at A-Level followed the advice teachers gave me for studying medicine – Maths, Biology, Chemistry and French (they said a topic outside of the three sciences and maths made you look more ’rounded’!)

Why I Did Not Go to University

My decision ultimately was influenced by the books I read. While I could write a long list of reasons not to go to university, here were my own personal reasons:

Universities were no longer the gatekeepers of knowledge. It was attention and consistency. If I wanted to educate myself, everything was already available for me. What I had to understand was my why, to tap into intrinsic motivation. And with intrinsic motivation I could pick an area of interest and pursue it.

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” – Nietzche

But not only did the Internet offer knowledge. It offered a way to connect like never before. Suddenly incredibly smart people were just an email away. Or like-minded people could be found on specific forums. If I wanted to learn something, all I needed to have was a genuine curiosity about the topic. The next thing was to follow it down the different rabbit holes the Internet would offer up.

In my teens I read a blog by Steve Pavlina titled, 10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job. When I read the article today I don’t really like how it is written. But when I read it years ago it gave me a new perspective – that there was an alternative to a 9-5 job. Pavlina would argue that being your own boss by setting up a business trumps getting a job. I’m still exploring this question. Ultimately I’m not sure I even want to set up my own business. Instead I’m holding edges around gift ecology. I want to live in a way that is in alignment with reality. And this is calling into question the very existence of our modern economy and how it wants to grow ad infinitum.

In the next few months I want to explore this idea of urban camping, inspired by Richard the Piano Tuner, who several years ago decided he would just live outdoors. But I digress.

“I’ve never let my school interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain

Throughout my twelve years of compulsory schooling, I was always told what to learn. And the reasons were:

1) so I could pass my exams,
2) so I could continue onto next year,
3) so I could go to sixth form,
4) so I could go to uni,
5) so I could get a job.

And as I said in the earlier point, I did not want a job. But I was very hungry to learn. I wanted to learn things that would be useful in life. Not just useful for a job. It seemed the whole point of school and university was to get me a job. It wasn’t designed to support my actual learning – for my happiness, well being and how to lead a meaningful life.

In John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down, he outlines the main points about what schooling does to children:

  • It confuses the students. It presents an incoherent ensemble of information that the child needs to memorize to stay in school. Apart from the tests and trials, this programming is similar to the television; it fills almost all the “free” time of children. One sees and hears something, only to forget it again.
  • It teaches them to accept their class affiliation.
  • It makes them indifferent.
  • It makes them emotionally dependent.
  • It makes them intellectually dependent.
  • It teaches them a kind of self-confidence that requires constant confirmation by experts (provisional self-esteem).
  • It makes it clear to them that they cannot hide, because they are always supervised.

In school and at uni, your classmates are all about the same age. You’re kept in a bubble. Everyone is from pretty much the same background. Everyone pretty much thinks the same (the illusion of choice in left and right wing politics doesn’t count). I wanted to meet people who were challenging the status quo. I wanted to meet people who were triple, even quadruple my age. People who had lived and not just obeyed orders all their life. People with actual wisdom. Or as my friend Louis calls them, the Guardians of Ancient Wisdom.

A few people told me to go to uni, ‘just in case’. They would say, “You can do what you want after uni. Get a degree under your belt first, just in case you end up needing it.” These people probably had good intentions, but their advice planted seeds of doubt, which wasn’t helpful.

I wasn’t interested in ‘just in case’. I did not want a plan b. I knew if I had a degree the temptation to settle down into a conventional 9-5 lifestyle would be high. I wanted to cut that option. I did not want a job. But I did not trust myself to stay true to that decision yet. I knew peer pressure would be hard to overcome, so I self-sabotaged. There was a direction I wanted to move in, so I tried to cut all the others in order to keep moving in that direction.

What I Did Instead

Essentially, I followed my curiosity. I self-directed my education by starting with books and a voracious reading habit. Then I sought out experiential learning using websites like Workaway, WWOOF and Couchsurfing. I did seemingly unrelated projects like a fluent in 3 month Spanish language challenge, built a pretty bad tiny house, and spent a summer talking to strangers in public.

It was the best education I could’ve received at the time. However the biggest struggle was finding a community of support. Taking the road less traveled meant I didn’t have a group of peers who were on a similar path. Coming across the MOE Foundation and people like Anton really helped to accelerate my learning. I felt more at home with the entrepreneurial community. I resonated with their emphasis on action and ‘seeking forgiveness not permission’. However as my inner compass becomes more accurate I’m drawn to a community of noble friends instead.

Earlier I spoke about wanting to move in a particular direction. It’s difficult to articulate, but I had a gut feel for where I wanted to move towards in life. In my about page I used the phrase the more beautiful world. I feel the work of Charles Eisenstein has helped me articulate this feeling I have. The phrases living in alignment with nature and discovering the root cause of suffering also fit well.

To end, I’ll say this: I don’t know much. I don’t know anything really. The universe is incredibly complex and beautiful. School and society at large seems to put pressure on us to need to have answers. But there’s a deep wisdom in not knowing. And maybe that’s the real direction I want to head in – towards wisdom. Towards not knowing.

 

Further Reading

How Schools Kill Creativity – TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson

John Taylor Gatto’s work:

Sugata Mitra’s trilogy of TED talks:

The 4-Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss on learning how to learn. And a podcast from Anton, on a similar topic: How to Create Your Own Education

Sal Khan’s TED talk on using video to reinvent education, and his very popular Khan Academy website.

Also check out the Unschooling Movement.



3 responses to “Why I Did Not Go to University”

  1. Hi Liam! Thanks for sharing your valuable experiences! I would love to experience half the adventures you have!

    I agree on many of your thoughts on conventional education. I’m glad my application to medical school was rejected, and that I dropped out of my Biology degree because both things were leading me down a career path that we not right for me. My brother always knew he wanted to forecast the weather but a lot of people like me aren’t so sure and I think the best thing is to travel and work and learn.

    Finally ten years after dropping out of uni and the religious community I was raised in, I’m starting to pull the threads together into a newfound purpose for life. And realising that my education will never end, it’s one of the greatest joys in life. I might apply to finish my biology degree with the open uni, and keep learning other things after. My blog is very out of date but I will update it soon. I wrote a post about questioning convention http://www.piano-tuning.co.uk/i-question-everything-including-boat-design although it goes into a lot of geeky stuff about boat design – I put the boat idea on hold for now because there’s still so much I need to learn and achieve cycling and ‘sleeping rough’.

    Drop me an email if you’re in London area I’ll get you a pint!

    • liamchai says:

      Hey Richard, thanks for the comment! Also saw your email haha :-).

      I did not realise you applied to med school and studied biology! I thought your background would have been in music. How did you get to become a piano tuner?

      Thanks for sharing that post. I have read quite a lot of your blog, although I’ve kept mainly to the urban camping ones so far. Yes please update it soon. You questioning whether you even need a house has been a great source of inspiration and I’d really like to read more about your insights learned. I’ll be doing more experiments in urban camping this summer and have been checking out your gear recommendations. Have you kept to pretty much the same stuff?

      Stay well!

  2. Whitney says:

    This is a subject close to my heart. Thanks

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