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Degrees Are Not Required: The Road to Success Beyond the Classroom

Degrees Are Not Required: The Road to Success Beyond the Classroom 

A journey back in history.

The Trade-Off of Standardization: How Horace Mann’s Educational Reforms Stifled Creativity and Individual Mastery

In the pantheon of public education, few figures loom larger than Horace Mann, the pioneering advocate of public education who irrevocably transformed the educational landscape of the United States and the world at large.

Horace Mann (1796-1859) is often referred to as the “Father of Public Education.” A lawyer and politician, Mann became the Secretary of the newly established Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, a position he held for 12 years.

Horace mann: The Father Of Modern Education

His tireless advocacy for common schools, standardized curricula, and professional teacher training created the foundation for the public education system we know today. Yet, while Mann’s reforms undeniably expanded access to education and promoted democratic values, they may also have inadvertently stifled creativity and individual mastery, two key ingredients for success and innovation in our modern, rapidly evolving society.

One thing I noticed while doing research for this essay is how remarkably similar Mann’s approach to education is to that of factory workers in the 1900s (and even today).

The way factories were organized were in a manner where specialized workers occupied a row and a material in production moved down the factory line, passing through the hands of different workers until it was completed.

Meals were at specific times, and workers had to maintain single files while moving in and out of the factories. There was a foreman who dictated everything and told them what to do, and when to do it.

A factory in the 1900s

Does that remind you of any place?

That’s probably how your school was organized, right? Classrooms were organized into perfect rows set lunch breaks, and a teacher who dictated everything.

A modern-day classroom

Back then, education needed to be standardized in order to produce competent factory workers. There was no room for creativity as the tasks were fairly straightforward, with little to no deviations. All one needed to know was where certain screws went, and that was pretty much it. Schools back then were designed for one purpose, and one purpose only. To churn out industrial “robots” who would know how to follow instructions.

The central argument here is that Mann’s vision of standardization, which was designed to provide a baseline of knowledge and shared civic values, has in many ways become a straitjacket, constraining learners within a rigid framework and limiting opportunities for creative expression and individual pursuit of mastery.

One of the main issues with standardization is the homogenization of learning. By implementing a uniform curriculum across schools, Mann’s system inherently prioritizes certain subjects and ways of thinking over others. This “one-size-fits-all” approach can often lead to neglect of creative subjects like art, music, and drama, as well as practical skills such as entrepreneurship, coding, or vocational skills. Not all students thrive in a traditional academic environment, and these students may be left behind, their unique talents and passions overlooked or undervalued.

Furthermore, the focus on standardized testing and assessment methods, a natural extension of Mann’s standardization principle, can further exacerbate this problem. When teachers are pressured to “teach to the test,” it discourages exploration and creative thinking, both within the classroom and in individual student study. It values rote memorization over critical thinking and problem-solving, both of which are crucial skills for mastering any field.

Another significant issue is the pace of learning. In a standardized system, everyone is expected to learn at the same rate. But not everyone’s learning curve is the same; some students may need more time to grasp certain concepts, while others may excel in one area and struggle in another. This rigidity can hinder a student’s quest for mastery, which often requires deep, focused study in a specific area of interest.

Moreover, Mann’s model of education is fundamentally based on the assumption that knowledge is something to be delivered from teacher to student. This “top-down” model can limit students’ ability to explore their interests, discover new ideas, and learn independently. In contrast, many of the most successful self-taught individuals were driven by their curiosity and passion to seek out knowledge and master their chosen fields.

In our ever-changing world, where adaptability and innovation are more valuable than ever, it is essential that we cultivate an education system that nurtures these qualities. Perhaps it is time to look beyond the traditional route of formal education and consider alternative pathways to mastery that respect individual learning styles, foster creativity, and empower learners to follow their passions.

Charting Your Own Course: The Power and Potential of Self-Directed Learning

History is full of masters that are not just historical or contemporary icons; but are compelling evidence that the path to mastery and success does not necessarily wind through the halls of traditional education. These individuals, and many others like them, have achieved greatness through self-directed learning, demonstrating that this approach can be both effective and personally fulfilling.

Elon Musk, A self-taught programmer, engineer and businessman

Perhaps to give the reader some perspective on the matter, here is a short list of my all-time favourites:

1. Thomas Edison: While he had only three months of formal education, Edison went on to become one of the most prolific inventors in history, with over 1,000 patents to his name, including the light bulb and the phonograph.

2. Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln had very little formal education but taught himself law, eventually becoming a lawyer and then the 16th President of the United States.

3. Steve Jobs: While Jobs did attend college, he dropped out after six months. He audited a few classes that interested him, including a calligraphy course that later influenced the typography of Apple computers.

4. Bill Gates: Gates dropped out of Harvard to found Microsoft with Paul Allen. While he had a strong background in programming due to his privileged education, a lot of his business acumen was self-taught.

5. Mark Zuckerberg: Another Harvard dropout, Zuckerberg taught himself programming at a young age and later created Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site.

6. Richard Branson: With dyslexia, Branson had a hard time with formal education and dropped out of school at 16. He went on to found the Virgin Group, which controls more than 400 companies.

7. Walt Disney: Disney dropped out of high school at 16 and went on to co-found The Walt Disney Company, becoming a pioneer in the field of animation.

8. Leonardo da Vinci: Known as a “Renaissance Man”, da Vinci was mostly self-taught in the sciences and arts. His inventions and artwork continue to be celebrated today.

9. Frank Lloyd Wright: Although he spent some time at a university, Wright did not complete his degree. He is considered one of the greatest architects of the 20th century.

10. Ray Bradbury: Celebrated author Ray Bradbury couldn’t afford college, so he educated himself by spending three days a week in the library for ten years. He wrote numerous acclaimed books, including “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Martian Chronicles.”

The first argument for the efficacy of self-directed learning lies in its inherent flexibility. Unlike the rigidity of traditional education, self-learning allows for a tailored approach that matches an individual’s unique pace, interests, and learning style. Steve Jobs, after dropping out of college, audited classes that piqued his interest, including a calligraphy course that later influenced the typography of the Apple computers. This freedom to explore a wide range of topics can not only enhance knowledge absorption but also foster a love of learning.

Secondly, self-learning often involves real-world, hands-on experiences, which can lead to a deeper understanding and practical application of knowledge. For instance, Thomas Edison, with just three months of formal schooling, became one of history’s greatest inventors. The real-world problems he encountered stimulated innovative thinking, leading to breakthrough inventions like the light bulb and the phonograph. Similarly, Richard Branson’s entrepreneurial journey started early when he dropped out of school at 16. His hands-on experience in starting various ventures played a vital role in shaping him into the business magnate he is today.

Self-directed learning also encourages resilience and problem-solving skills. Mark Zuckerberg taught himself programming at a young age and faced numerous challenges in building Facebook. Navigating these hurdles on his own undoubtedly honed his problem-solving skills, resilience, and adaptability, traits that are not only valuable but also essential in today’s rapidly changing world.

Moreover, self-learning allows for deep, focused study in areas of individual interest, which is often the key to mastering a particular field. Unlike traditional education, which typically requires a broad focus, self-learning enables individuals to delve deep into their areas of passion. For instance, celebrated author Ray Bradbury couldn’t afford college, so he spent years educating himself in the library. His focused self-study led him to become one of the most celebrated writers of his time.

Do the Math

I am not fighting formal education entirely. I think it has a place in the early life of a child, especially if you were not privileged enough to have personal tutors. I especially think that formal education equipped me with arithmetic, language and social skills that I would have struggled to get on my own.

However, the more I advanced (to high school and beyond), the more I realised that the system was designed to kill my creativity. I could not experiment anymore. They wanted me to sit in a well-organized row, keep my mouth shut and wait for my turn to speak.

So, as with all problems in life, I choose to break it down into basic math. I have presented my calculations below.

A Comparative Analysis of Time Efficiency: Self-Studying Versus University Education

To begin with, the university education model encompasses a range of activities that contribute to the overall time investment. Lecture attendance, typically taking 12 to 15 hours per week, accumulates to a substantial 384 to 480 hours per academic year. Studying outside of class, following the recommended guideline of 2-3 hours of study for every lecture hour, adds another 768 to 1440 hours annually. Assignments and projects, estimated at approximately 10 hours per week, contribute an additional 320 hours to the yearly total. Lastly, when considering travel and preparation time, a conservative estimate of an hour per day results in an extra 224 hours annually. Cumulatively, a university student invests between 1696 and 2464 hours in their education each academic year.

Contrastingly, self-studying presents a different structure. A self-learner may require a similar amount of time for learning and studying as a university student, estimated to be between 1152 and 1920 hours per academic year. Assignments and projects, which are equally important for consolidating knowledge and skills, would still require around 320 hours annually. However, self-studying eliminates the need for travel and preparation time, saving an estimated 224 hours per year. Thus, the total time a self-learner might invest ranges from 1472 to 2240 hours per academic year.

Based on these estimates, self-studying could offer a time savings of approximately 230 hours per academic year compared to a traditional university education.

Imagine that folks! 230 FREAKING HOURS SAVED EVERY YEAR.

How much do you think you can accomplish in 920-1150 hours (assuming your university degree will take you 4 or 5 years)?

Quite a lot I bet.

I did the math and I simply found the time savings irresistible .

What about the monetary savings? Let’s have a look at that.

Unraveling the Financial Odyssey: The Grand Clash of Self-Study Versus University Education

In the modern age of education, a monumental decision looms over prospective learners: the choice between the hallowed halls of traditional academia and the pioneering path of self-study. This essay serves as a compass to navigate the turbulent financial seas of these two dramatically different educational routes, using the backdrop of a Computer Science degree at the averagely-priced, yet respected, Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (JKUAT) and the alternative voyage of self-study.

The conventional voyage to academic enlightenment is a costly endeavor. The university, a financial Goliath, commands a formidable tuition fee at JKUAT, with an annual demand of approximately KES 170,000. Over the typical four-year journey, this academic levy amounts to a breathtaking KES 680,000. But the fiscal demands don’t end there. The added necessity of accommodation escalates the cost by an estimated KES 100,000 per year, leading to a four-year total of KES 400,000. Living expenses further compound the financial burden, averaging around KES 150,000 annually, equating to a staggering KES 600,000 over the four-year expedition. This leads us to the grand total, a colossal KES 1,680,000 for a four-year trek through the academic wilderness of JKUAT.

Venturing into the realm of self-study, we encounter a radically different financial landscape. In this domain, the traditional tuition fee monster is vanquished, replaced by more modest costs for learning materials, online courses, and certifications. With the use of massive open online courses (MOOCs), our self-learner might spend a mere KES 50,000 annually, totaling a modest KES 200,000 over four years. Additionally, the self-learner’s arsenal of books and learning resources might cost around KES 20,000 per year, amounting to a paltry KES 80,000 over four years. Living expenses, stripped of university accommodation and transportation costs, might be significantly reduced to KES 100,000 annually, or KES 400,000 for the four-year journey. Thus, the total expense for this path of self-education amounts to a comparatively modest KES 680,000 over four years.

The financial chasm between these two pathways is a staggering KES 1,000,000 over the span of four years.

The Ivy League Exception

Stanford University (An Ivy League School)

There’s a saying that the exceptions prove the rule, and when it comes to self-study versus formal education, the Ivy League schools certainly serve as a compelling exception. Picture this: you’re standing on the brink of the decision between the path of self-study and the traditional academic route, and an acceptance letter from an Ivy League university lands in your hands. Suddenly, the scales tip decidedly in favor of the traditional route. But why? Allow me to indulge in a thrilling exploration of this exception and the undeniable allure of the Ivy League.

Imagine being handed a golden ticket to a world of unparalleled prestige and academic excellence, a world where the crème de la crème of society has walked before you. Yes, my friends, that’s the first reason – prestige. An Ivy League institution is not just a university; it’s a globally recognized brand, a shining beacon of academic achievement. Your degree won’t just say you’re educated; it will scream that you’ve excelled in an environment where excellence is the norm.

Next, imagine being thrust into a vibrant melting pot of some of the most brilliant minds in the world. The Ivy League universities are not just educational institutions; they are intellectual powerhouses that attract top-tier faculty and students. This brings us to our second reason – intellectual stimulation. Surrounded by this caliber of individuals, you’ll find that ideas bounce around like high-energy particles in a particle accelerator, leading to an explosion of innovation, creativity, and knowledge.

Now, let’s journey into the realm of opportunities. Ivy League institutions are like grand central stations of opportunity, with express trains departing to various destinations in the world of academia, research, and industry. This is our third reason – unparalleled opportunities. With robust career services, a vast network of successful alumni, and strong relationships with industry leaders, an Ivy League education can open doors that many can only dream of.

Lastly, but certainly not least, is the Ivy League’s secret weapon – the alumni network. This network is more like an exclusive club, where membership can lead to lifelong connections, friendships, and even job opportunities. This is our final reason – a powerful alumni network. These networks span the globe, permeating nearly every industry and sector. As part of this network, you’re not just a graduate; you’re part of a lifelong community of influential and successful individuals.

In the grand chessboard of education, an Ivy League acceptance is like being handed the queen at the start of the game. It’s a powerful move that can shape the trajectory of your entire career and personal development.

Ivy League Versus “The Others”

In the grand carnival of education, the Ivy League stands as a dazzling carousel, spinning with prestige, opportunities, and networking potential. Contrastingly, the broader expanse of ‘normal’ universities is akin to the carnival’s myriad other attractions – valuable and enjoyable, but lacking the hypnotic allure of the carousel.

Now, picture this: you’re standing at the carnival entrance, admission ticket in hand. You can’t ride the carousel – the Ivy League is out of reach – but you have the entire carnival to explore. You could step onto the Ferris wheel of a standard university, or you could venture beyond, towards the uncharted territory of self-study. Suddenly, the prospect of self-study doesn’t seem so daunting, does it? Let me explain why.

Firstly, consider the ride on the university Ferris wheel. Yes, you’ll ascend to the heights of a degree, but at what cost? Tuition fees, time commitment, and the rigidity of curricula may make this ride less enjoyable. The ‘normal’ university experience, while still of considerable value, often lacks the draw of the Ivy League’s magnetic field of prestige and opportunity. Thus, you may find yourself questioning: is the investment worth the return?

Now, consider the self-study route – the thrilling roller-coaster ride of the educational carnival. Here, the landscape morphs into a realm of flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and personalization. The rigid timetables of university life give way to a schedule crafted by you, for you. The high cost of tuition fees fades into a more affordable picture, consisting of online courses, books, and perhaps some certification exams. The broad, often inflexible curriculum of a university degree transforms into a tailored learning pathway, enabling you to focus on your interests and career aspirations.

Moreover, the advent of digital technology has propelled self-study from a mere sideshow to a main attraction. Renowned educational platforms offer high-quality courses from top universities worldwide, often at a fraction of the cost. The world of knowledge is at your fingertips, and you’re in control of the ride.

So, unless you hold a golden ticket to the Ivy League carousel, the roller-coaster of self-study may indeed be the best ride in the educational carnival. It’s a thrilling journey of personal growth, self-discipline, and tailored learning that can lead you to the same destination as a ‘normal’ university degree – perhaps even more efficiently and cost-effectively.

The “How”

Let me be clear folks, self-studying is not a guaranteed path to success. There is still a lot that needs to go into it; discpline, concentration, craftiness, creativity and some self-drive. It’s not for everyone, but maybe, just maybe, as you read this, it will ignite in you a fire that will push you towards the unconventional.

And when you do decide to make that decision, you better have a plan.

Luckily for folks like us, the advent of ChatGPT, and other language models has made it easy to plan our education down to the final minute.

As an example, here are my personal study plans for the next 2 years.

One is for Electrical Engineering and the other for Machine Learning Engineering.

Electrical Engineering Self-Study Plan.

Weeks 1-4: Basics of Electrical Engineering


Weeks 5-8: Advanced Circuit Analysis and Digital Logic

Weeks 9-12: Electronics

Machine Learning Engineering Self-Study Plan.

Weeks 1-4: Foundations of Mathematics

Weeks 5-8: Statistics and Probability

Weeks 9-14: Programming and Data Structures

You get the idea.

And all I had to do was feed a bunch of prompts into ChatGPT and it spit out these responses.

Here is a look at the prompts I played around with, you can create your own variations for the field you want to self-study.

1. “I’m planning to spend the next year diving deep into the field of Electrical Engineering/Machine Learning. Can you help me create a detailed and exhaustive weekly study plan that would help me become proficient in this field?”

2. “I’ve decided to self-study Electrical Engineering/Machine Learning and I have a year to dedicate to this pursuit. Can you provide a comprehensive study guide, breaking down what I should focus on each week?”

3. “I’m setting a goal to become well-versed in Electrical Engineering/Machine Learning within a year. Could you assist me in developing a week-by-week study plan that covers all the necessary areas?”

My Favourite Paul Graham Essays On The Matter.

I am a really big fan of Paul Graham and his essays. Here are a few I think you might like on the subject of self-studying.

If you enjoyed this essay, here are a few of my past essays that you might like too:


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Degrees Are Not Required: The Road to Success Beyond the Classroom

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1 Comment

  1. Fenvick

    This article is waaay overdue. You just highlighted everything that’s broken or wrong with the modern educational system. Instead of fostering creativity and innovation, we are in a system that churns out mindless robots .
    After spending a good part of 5years in a university for a piece of paper, I can attest to that.
    I’m in the field of statistical sciences and after years of dy/dx, I thought that was what they were going to ask me but bit was I wrong. The only thing they wanted to know was if I knew data analysis using computer models! Luckily I’m profecient at it but I can’t recall day when we were taught any of it. Everyday was a new version of proving 1=1 or integrating or differentiating or a whole other fuck-ton of crap that I will never use in my life. And the sad thing is 90% of people will never realize it.
    I think it’s way past time to burn down the so called ‘advanced’ or ‘higher’ learning institution because they are nothing more than a waste of time, capital and energy. The basic and foundational part can stay though (for now). We need a new system; one which encourages creativity, innovation and a genuine curiosity to learn not whatever is going on now.
    And thank you for mentioning my all time mentor, Da Vinci.
    As always, great work Mr BDFL and your entire team.

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