Should I Finish My Bachelor's Degree?

To some, it might seem like a strange question. If you think of being college-educated as a marker of class (or personhood), the fact that I don’t have a degree at age of thirty-six (!!) probably looks like a scandalous anomaly, which it would be only natural for me to want to remediate at the earliest opportunity.

I deeply resent that entire worldview—not because I’ve rejected education, properly understood. On the contrary. The study of literature, history, mathematics, science—these things are among the noblest pursuits in life, sources of highest pleasure and deepest meaning. It’s precisely because I value education so much that I can’t stand to see it conflated with school and its culture of bureaucratic servitude where no one cares what you know and no one cares what you can do; they just want you to sit in a room and obey the commands of the designated teacher. Whereas in reality, knowledge doesn’t come from “taking courses.”

How could it? Knowledge comes from quality study and practice. Sure, it’s possible that someone could study in order to “pass” a “class” that they’re “taking” in school. But once you know how and why to study, it’s not clear what value the school is adding that can’t be gotten better, cheaper, elsewhere. Just get the books. (And start a blog, go to meetups, chat to large language models, hire a private tutor—whatever makes sense to get better at doing the things you want to do, without having to worry about whether the thing that makes sense can be made legible to distant bureaucrats.)

The people who believe in being college-educated probably don’t believe me. They probably think my pæans to the glory of self-study are the rationalizations of a lazy student who doesn’t want to work hard.

I can understand some reasons for skepticism. Sometimes people really are lazy, and suffer from self-serving delusions. Probably there are some confused people out there who have mistaken consumer edutainment for production scholarship and—maybe, somehow—could benefit from being set straight by the firm tutelage of the standard bureaucratic authority.

But without vouching for everyone who calls themself an autodidact, I think I can present third-party-visible evidence that my self-study is for real? I worked as a software engineer for eight years; I have 173 commits in the Rust compiler; I wrote a chess engine; I’ve blogged 400,000 words over the past dozen years on topics from mathematics and machine learning, to formal epistemology and the philosophy of language, to politics and differential psychology, and much more.

This is not the portfolio of an uneducated person. If someone is considering working with me and isn’t sure of my competence, they’re welcome to look at my output and judge for themselves. (And I’m happy to take a test when that makes sense.) If someone would otherwise consider working with me, but are put off by the lack of a mystical piece of paper from the standard bureaucratic authority, that’s their loss—maybe I don’t want to work with someone with so little discernment.

If I believe everything I just wrote, explaining why I have nothing particularly to gain and nothing particularly to prove by jumping through a few more hoops to get the mystical piece of paper, then … why am I considering it?

One possible answer is that it passes a cost–benefit analysis mostly by virtue of the costs being low, rather than the benefits being particularly high. I’m at a time in my life where I have enough money from my previous dayjob and enough uncertainty about how long the world is going to last, that I prefer having lots of free time to work on things that interest me or add dignity to the existential risk situation, than to continue grinding at software dayjobs. So if my schedule isn’t being constrained by a dayjob for now, why not “take” some “classes” and finish off the mystical piece of paper? Continuing from where I left off in 2013 due to being rescued by the software industry, I need five more math courses and three more gen-eds to finish a B.A. in math at San Francisco State University, which I can knock out in two semesters. The commute is terrible, but I can choose my schedule to only be on campus a couple days a week. And then if it makes sense to go get another dayjob later, “I finished my Bachelor’s degree” is a legible résumé-gap excuse (easier to explain to semi-normies with hiring authority than “I finished my 80,000-word memoir of religious betrayal”).

In short, why not?—if I’m going to do it ever, now is a convenient time, and eight classes is a sufficiently small cost that it makes sense to do it ever (conditional on the world not ending immediately).

A less comfortable possible answer is that maybe I do have something to prove.

I often wonder why I seem to be so alone in my hatred of school as an intellectual. The people who are smart enough to do well in school are presumably also smart enough to have intellectual lives outside of school. Why do people put up with it? Why is there a presumption that there must be something wrong with someone who didn’t finish the standard course?

I think part of the answer is that, separately from whether the standard course makes sense as a class or personhood marker, once the signaling regime has been established, it’s mostly true that people who don’t finish the standard course probably have something wrong with them.

Separately from the fact that I’m obviously right that my personal passion projects are more intellectually meritorious than the busywork school demanded of me, there’s also something wrong with me. My not finishing the first time at UC Santa Cruz (expected class of 2010) wasn’t just a matter of opportunity costs. I also had obscure psychological problems unrelated to my intellectual ability to do the work, which were particularly triggered by the school environment (and thankfully aren’t triggered by software industry employment relations). Someone with my talents who wasn’t crazy probably would have arranged to finish on time for pragmatic reasons (notwithstanding the injustice of the whole system).

This makes it slightly less confusing that the system hasn’t been overthrown. It’s not that school somehow has a monopoly on learning itself. It’s that people who are good at learning mostly don’t have problems getting the mystical piece of paper granting them legal and social privileges, and therefore don’t have a chip on their shoulder about not having it.

If that were the entirety of the matter, it wouldn’t present a sufficient reason for me to finish. There would be be little point in proving to anyone that I’ve outgrown my youthful mental health problems by showing that I can endure the same abuses as everyone else, when anything I might want to prove to someone is proven better by my history of making real things in the real world (code that profitable businesses pay for, blog posts that people want to read of their own volition).

But it gets worse. It may just be possible that I have something prove intellectually, not just psychologically. In 2010, after studying math on my own for a couple years (having quit the University at Santa Cruz in 2007), I enrolled in a differential equations class at the local community college, expecting to do well and validate the glory of my self-study. I was actually interested in math. Surely that would put me at an advantage over ordinary community college students who only knew how to do as they were told?

In fact, I did poorly, scraping by with a C. No doubt the people who believe in being college-educated will take this as proof of their worldview that nothing of intellectual value happens outside of schools, that anyone who thinks they learned something from a book that wasn’t assigned by their officially designated instructor is only deluding themselves.

Ultimately, I don’t think this is the correct moral. (If a poor performance in that one class counts as evidence against the hypothesis that I know what I’m doing, then good or dominant performances elsewhere—including in other school math classes—count as evidence for; a full discussion of the exact subskill deficits leading to my differential equations debacle is beyond the scope of this post.)

But even if the people who believe in being college-educated are ultimately wrong, I’m haunted by the fact they’re not obviously wrong. The fact that my expectations were so miscalibrated about the extent to which my being “into math” would easily convert into proficiency at finicky differential equations computations makes it less credible to just point at my work online and say, “Come on, I’m obviously the equal of your standard STEM graduate, even if I don’t have the mystical piece of paper.”

If that were the entirety of the matter, it still wouldn’t present a sufficient reason for me to finish. Desperately trying to prove one’s worth to the image of an insensible Other is just no way to live. When I was at SF State in 2012 (having endured the constant insults of three-plus semesters of community college, and my father being unwilling to pay for me to go back to Santa Cruz), it was for the perceived lack of other opportunities—and I was miserable, wondering when would my life begin. Whatever resources the university might have offered towards my genuine intellectual ambitions were tainted by the bitterness that I mostly wasn’t there to learn math; I was there because I felt coerced into proving that I could join the ranks of the college educated.

But now that I’ve earned some of my own money (and for unrelated reasons feel like my life is over rather than waiting to begin), the relative balance of motivations has shifted. Getting the mystical piece of paper is still a factor, but now that it feels like I have a real choice, I think I can seek advantage in the situation with less bitterness.

It helps that I only have a few “general education” requirements left, which I experience as insulting obedience tests that are wholly inferior to my free reading and blogging, regardless of the quality of the professor. In contrast, I can regard some upper-division math classes as a worthy challenge. (Yes, even at SFSU. I am not very intelligent.) Learning math is hard and expensive: I can see how it makes sense to organize a coordinated “class” in which everyone is studying the same thing, with assignments and tests for feedback and calibration. It doesn’t seem like a betrayal of the divine to want to experience meeting that external standard with pride—now that I’m less crazy, now that I have a real choice, now that my life is otherwise over anyway. I’m not committed yet (the admissions office is supposed to get back to me), but I’m currently leaning towards doing it.

3 thoughts on “Should I Finish My Bachelor's Degree?

  1. I finished my degree at 44 years of age, and agree that everything of importance for my career has been self taught. Yet I'm glad I did get that degree, and think you will too. I encourage you to finish that degree.

  2. If you don't actually need it to prove your worth to a future employer, why would you specifically want to *finish a degree*? The entire purpose of finishing a degree is proving your worth to an employer. That's 100% what it's used for.

    If you just want to test yourself, or learn in a classroom environment, then you can instead just take the specific open courses you want, right?

  3. Thelo, that's directionally correct, but the decision question is quantitative. In the limit, finishing the degree makes more sense as the additional cost required to finish a degree (over just taking the specific courses I want) goes to zero, and the punishment from Society for not being "college educated" goes to infinity. The punishment from Society is pretty low, but I'm wondering if the additional cost is low enough to tip the decision calculus.

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