Critical ThinkingHigher EducationInformal EducationSecondary Education

Thinking Critically about Formal Education

NPR featured a story today titled “Skipping Out On College And ‘Hacking Your Education,'” in which they discuss the book Hacking Your Education by Dale Stephens, who also founded the website

I felt like I was being a jerk in my head when I first saw the story, because my immediate thought (accompanied by a derisive, subvocal snort) was , “Oh, so dude thinks he’s Will Hunting.” Then I followed the link to and found, top of the front page, a quote from Good Will Hunting, and then I felt super astute and clever instead of jerkish. (Hey! Maybe his system works after all!)

Because, look: That’s a movie. It’s a movie about a guy who’s a genius, a prodigy, an anomaly, not a film about education or the necessity or value of formal education for everyone. Robin Williams is in it, for chrissake.

I have not read the book or much of the website, so I will withhold further judgment until I have, but I wanted to point readers to the story so you can discuss it, and perhaps discuss the broader ideas of “self-taught” vs. “formal” education systems.

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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.


  1. March 6, 2013 at 9:49 pm —

    Generally speaking I think self-teaching does work for certain kinds of skills (look at all the self-taught programmers!), but not as well for many of the skills we are supposed to get from higher education. Generally speaking, these are the kinds of skills that require regular and careful interaction with someone more knowledgeable than the student: language pedagogy, critical thinking and scientific inquiry, research skills. Not to say that formal systems are always great at providing these things (theatre lectures in particular are almost no better than self-teaching from a textbook), but they at least provide a structure and an expert or more who can answer your questions.

  2. March 7, 2013 at 2:30 am —

    I’m the last person to suggest that higher ed is a perfect system, but as a humanities professor I teach a lot of ideas and facilitate a lot of discussion. I still learn so much from listening to my students, talking through concepts with them in the classroom after we’ve all read the same texts. It’s hard to imagine how to substitute for that community of intellectual energy.

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