Much was made this week in the coverage of the death of the ABC-TV World News Tonight anchor, Peter Jennings, that he not only had never attended college, he was a high-school dropout. Even so, they said in a tone suggesting awe and amazement at such rare accomplishment, he was well-read, deeply knowledgeable and informed on a wide range of subjects.
But why shouldn’t he have been?
College does not necessarily confer curiosity, interest in the world or even in learning itself. I’ve known plenty of college graduates, a few with graduate degrees too, who are as dim and uninformed as a box of rocks. No small number of people believe learning ends when they leave school and they haven’t picked up a book since then. (Of course, no one who reads this blog falls into that category.)
Jennings was fortunate that he chose a field which isn’t a stickler for academic credentials. Never, in 25 years of television production, was I asked if or where I attended college. What mattered was your “reel” of broadcast stories: whether they were clear, intelligent, factual, well-written and well-told.
That changed when I switched to the web ten years ago where, in looking for work, I have often been disqualified out of hand for not having a degree. In cases of electronic submission, the software refused my resume if I left the college entry box empty. And applicants don’t dare invent a degree; if the recruiter or hiring manager checks with the college, you are doomed as a liar.
Again and again, during this last year of job hunting, one of the first questions I was asked was which college I attended and the conversation ended abruptly - "we only hire college graduates" - when I told them I have no degree.
This is a mistake of magnificent proportions. Don’t get me wrong. There are some career specialties where college and graduate degrees are essential. Medicine comes to mind. Rocket science. The law. Engineering. I’m not so sure about computer science; kids seem to absorb that in the cradle these days, but I could be wrong.
What I am not wrong about is that 50 years ago, a high school education was at least the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree today. Our teachers - who were mostly unmarried women called spinsters in an era with almost no other career opportunities for them - were the ones who today choose instead to run corporations, become doctors, lawyers and secretary of state. They were smart, dedicated and demanding and they crammed a lot more knowledge into our heads back then than most schools do today.
A much smaller percentage of students went on to college 50 years ago because they didn’t need to. Yes, I understand that the amount of knowledge has increased exponentially since then and even without the decline in educational standards, young people would probably need another four years of study today to be ready for the real world. But that requirement cannot and should not be applied to older workers.
Demanding a college degree of anyone older than 50 or so is an arbitrary HR decision that makes no sense. It is ageist thinking from human resources people who don’t know the history of U.S. education which, you would think, might be a requirement for their field. But if that were so, we’d be living in a non-ageist culture.
Also, in the U.S., no credit is given for non-academic learning - the Peter Jennings kind. We autodidacts are a belittled and disparaged group culturally. But what do people - recruiters, in this case - think I’ve been doing with my mind since I left high school in 1958? Do they think I have been operating personally and professionally on that limited amount of knowledge without adding to it?
That must be so. And if Peter Jennings (fame notwithstanding) had left broadcasting to look for work in another field, he too would have faced a brick wall for lack of a degree.