Book Review: Hacking Your Education

Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will by Dale Stephens.

Dale Stephens is a whirlwind: when he was twelve he became an unschooler because school was stifling his self-directed learning; then he started so he could “write publicly about [his] frustrations with college;” then he left college and moved back to San Francisco; that coincided with him winning a Peter Thiel Fellowship—a grant of $100,000 with two stipulations: you must be under the age of 20 and for two years you cannot attend a university. Instead, you are encouraged to pursue your dreams. Dale has taken the money, written this book, expanded, started Hackademic Camps, and is launching a new project: the Uncollege Gap Year Program. I think Dale turned 21 in the midst of all that activity, but I’m not sure.

Dale could do those things because he wasn’t wrapped up in the usual four-year college stint and, instead, placed himself in the real world to learn how to be a successful entrepreneur. “Learning by doing” is a creed Stephens understands well, unlike so many who feel this phrase means “learning by doing what the teacher says.” This message comes through brilliantly in his book Hacking Your Education, and he supports it with many stories from young people about what they are doing instead of going to college and how they create or find situations that let them flourish.

There have always been books challenging the value of a college degree, and two people I knew, John Holt and Ivan Illich, were speaking out strongly against college in the seventies and eighties. One of my favorite photos of John Holt (you can see it in the John Holt photo section of this site) is of him refusing an honorary college degree and saying that colleges are among the “chief enslaving institutions” in America. Particularly now, in these difficult economic times, the cost and the value of college degrees is being criticized by more and more people, in and out of the university industry. What makes Stephens’ book so refreshing on this count is his lack of pretension and his emphasis on doing things. There’s a good presentation of the case against college in this book, but Stephens quickly moves past it in order to inspire the reader to do something besides plod the college path.

What’s also different about this book is it is written for Stephens’ peers, not the academic world. It is filled with practical advice and strategies for young people, such as how to improve your sleep, how to contact people you don’t know for advice and help, how to identify your talents, as well as exercises placed in every chapter (called “Hack of the Day”) to get you in a particular frame of mind or train you to do something, such as how to start your own salon as way to create mutual support for your goals and efforts. Stephens claims the two invaluable skills to have today are the abilities to write prose clearly and to code for technology, and he provides several stories, resources, and examples to help you learn to do so in the book.

Most of all, it is filled with lots of examples from the stories of people who wanted something more than just a college degree. As these stories show, courage, gumption, and self-determination are the key ingredients for hacking your education outside of school. Dale Stephens shows this is not necessarily easy, but that it certainly is simpler and less costly than discovering college isn’t for you and then trying uncollege.

Of course, given the somewhat charmed life Stephens’ has had since receiving the Thiel Fellowship (it opened up many connections for him that most uncollegians do not have access to: attending Davos, TED, hobnobbing with high-tech and marketing gurus), it is easy to say he’s the exception to the rule that everyone should go to college. But that’s not fair; Stephens admits his advantages in the book but then shares many stories of people with little or no money or connections who don’t go or complete college yet become successful in business and life (often in unforeseen ways), such as Derrick Carter, a college dropout who is now a world-renowned DJ.

Any young person who feels they don’t have options other than going to college or being a loser should read this book. Hacking Your Education is a career guide and self-help book for people who don’t have a college degree in the 21st century, but it can be useful for older people with degrees who are seeking work or new careers, too. It might not strongly grab readers who don’t share Stephens’ enthusiasm for big cities, technology, and business, but the strategies and tactics Stephens’ presents will still be useful to them for hacking their way to the job they want.