Mary Kenny: Is Your Uni Course Really Necessary?

A college education is great but not for all

That formidable queen of world fashion, Anna Wintour (Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wore Prada” was based on La Wintour) has been musing on whether she made a mistake in not going to university when she was 17, instead of plunging into the couture world.

I can provide the answer to that, because I knew the now world-famous Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue when she was 17. No, she should not have gone to university. It wouldn’t have suited her at all. She was utterly obsessed with fashion as a teenager: she was due to accompany a group of us on an anti-war demonstration in London’s Grosvenor Square, and she spent most of the preparatory time wondering what she should wear.

I suppose that’s quite a suitable question for an embryonic fashion editor to ponder: what DO you wear to a protest demo? My recollection is that she finally plumped for something in leather.

Her own father, Charles Wintour, once wrote that he had seldom known anyone with less interest in politics than his daughter Anna. However, he conceded, after she been in the US  for some years, “I’m almost certain she now knows the difference between Democrats and Republicans”.

Sure she does: now that Anna is 66, she’s backing Hillary for President.

So why go on a political demonstration if you have no interest in politics? It’s exciting. It’s a ‘happening’. And it’s what you do when you’re young and curious and want to be part of the scene.

Anna had dropped out of her posh North London girls’ school to work at Harrods, because there was fashion stuff at a big department store. But she also dropped out of a fashion course that her parents had coaxed her into attending. She knew better than her teachers.

I know it’s regarded as sacrilege to say so (particularly to anxious parents now scrutinising college courses), but a university education is not for everyone.

Driven, ambitious, active, in-a-hurry young people who have an obsessive idea in their head about what fascinates them are often better just plunging into a working life. Young entrepreneurs bursting with creative ideas can be at their best in their teens and early twenties. Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin mega-empire, was already engaging in business deals at the age of 16. He was far too keen to establish his entrepreneurial ideas – and make money – than to take time out for a university degree.

Bill Gates is another example. The computer magnate, philanthropist (and the world’s richest man) was easily brainey enough to get into Harvard, but he dropped out of college so as to concentrate on his obsession with computers: surprisingly, but perceptively, his parents supported him quitting the Ivy League college without a degree. Gates did the right thing. When you have a great idea, and you’re pursuing an inventive obsession, you should go with it.

Steve Jobs, the legendary driving force behind Apple computers,  also had a fractured period in his college days, dropping out of the main discipline to which he was enrolled, and then attending a hobby-ish course on calligraphy – which, he would afterwards claim, led him to the concept of the Apple Mac.

I wouldn’t want to discourage the many young people – and their families – who are planning their third-level education right now. A college education imparts disciplined learning, an opening into a world of knowledge, achievement, and career expertise, and often, a framework of friends and peers for life. Many generations, in the recent past, were denied the chance of attending university, and the lack of formal education narrowed their opportunities and reduced their earning capacities.

Today, third level education has altered from being the privilege of the few to the norm for the many. A college education has become so normal that other forms of education – such as apprenticeships and training – have lost ground, and the skills of the artisan have lost esteem against the status of the academic.

When university was the privilege of the few, paradoxically, there could be a prejudice, in certain milieux, against college-educated job applicants. The night editor of the Manchester Guardian (as it was then), told me in his blunt Yorkshire manner that he “hadn’t much time for all these ‘Varsity types coming into the trade. They fancy themselves a bit too much.”

A university education was sometimes said to remove the “hunger” from a young person’s ambitions. These young “Varsity” types had been lolling around the dreaming spires and had scant contact with “the real world”. You wanted eager young lads and lasses mustard-keen to learn on the job.

On the other side, there was a snobbishness among the university elite for the “auto-dictat”: the person who had, for lack of a college education, taught himself by reading and accumulating knowledge through self-improvement efforts. George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill were among those “auto-dictats”, and they were never quite acceptable to formal academia because of it.

In later life, maybe, that lack of a formal education causes a moment’s regret, as, perhaps has occurred with Anna Wintour’s musings. But that’s because later life brings the reflective moments to revisit all the might-have-beens in past choices, and you have insights at 66 which you couldn’t have had as a teenager. Maybe 66 could be about the perfect time to start a university degree, and many have done so just at this vintage.

Modern universities and colleges are businesses: they want to attract as many clients – students – as possible. They want to market the idea that a third-level education is something desirable for all; they would not, obviously, go along with Kingsley Amis’s disparagement of the spread of university courses to the masses – “More means worse”. Not necessarily: but more availability of uni shouldn’t mean that everyone must go there. There are other paths to fulfilment.