MORE THAN half a century after three brothers dropped out of Acadia University as sophomores, they stood before dozens of young graduates and beaming parents at that same institution, and accepted honorary doctorates. They were James K., Arthur, and Jack Irving, the hugely successful custodians and enlargers of the business empire founded by their father, K.C. Irving.
They wore silky, scarlet, academic robes, with long pleated sleeves and blue stripes running up and down the front.
On their heads perched beefeater-style hats, midnight blue with red tassels. The Irving boys looked like guildsmen in a medieval parade.
They always felt fine in hard hats and windbreakers but in these getups — while Acadia’s president, Kelvin Ogilvie, heaped praise on them — they gave the impression they’d rather be back in Saint John, tending their $5 billion worth of industries.
Just to complete the picture, K.C. Irving, whom Maclean’s magazine declared the greatest of all Canadian entrepreneurs, was also a teenaged dropout from Acadia.
Contrary to what many parents tell their offspring, it is possible to become fabulously successful without ever earning a university degree.
Bill Gates did.
So did billionaire Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways, and 359 other Virgin companies; Michael Dell, founder of the world’s most profitable manufacturer of personal computers; Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Inc., and inspiration to the nearly half million women who started Mary Kay cosmetics businesses; Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computer; and Barry Diller, founder of Fox Broadcasting.
If you want to go back a bit, so did Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Coco Chanel, Harry S. Truman, and Frank Lloyd Wright, the most influential architect of the past century, who never graduated from high school, much less university.
About studies that show a strong correlation between schooling and future earnings, an article in Forbes magazine asks, "If this is so, how did David Murdock, son of a traveling salesman and a high-school dropout, amass a net worth of more than $4 billion in real estate development and the food business?
"And what transformed onetime welfare recipient Tim Blixseth, a high-school grad, into a billionaire timber lord? One thing is certain: It was not the hallowed halls of an ivy-covered university."
Four of the five richest Americans on the 2006 Forbes 400 list were college dropouts, and more than 11 per cent of the 400 never graduated from any institution of higher learning. The average net worth of the graduates was $3.14 billion. Of the non-graduates? $5.6 billion.
Picasso, Van Gogh, Henri Rousseau, and other great artists learned how to paint not by listening to professors but by painting. Scores of the world’s finest poets, playwrights and novelists never wrote a university exam. In my own field, Robert Fulford dropped out of high school to become a sportswriter and, during the next half century, turned himself into a cultural journalist of such stature that he’s a member of the Order of Canada with six honorary degrees.
In Success Without College, Linda Lee argues that the only people who should study at universities are excellent students who want to learn for learning’s sake; future schoolteachers; and those aiming for advanced degrees in law, medicine, architecture, and the like.
"But here is who actually goes to college," she continues. "Everyone. That includes the learning disabled and the fairly dumb, those who have trouble reading, writing and doing math, slackers who see college as an opportunity to major in Beers of the World, burned-out book jockeys, and just plain average students with not much interest in anything."
Will hanging out with this gang for four years help a young woman or man land a good job?
Most people say it certainly will, but Lee reports that a few years ago in the U.S., 75,000 college graduates were working as street vendors or door-to-door salesmen, 83,000 were maids, janitors or cleaners, and 166,000 made their living as drivers of buses, trucks and taxis.
"Jennifer might get that expensive degree in marine biology," she says, "but she also might just as easily end up a waitress/ski bum in Aspen who picks grapes in the south of France to pay for her room and board."
And me? I spent happy years at Mount Allison — which my sarcastic older brother and fellow Allisonian damned as "nothing but an (expletive deleted) winter resort" — and got a bachelor of arts degree there. About journalism and writing, however, Mount A. taught me zilch.
I learned my trade while banging on Underwoods at newspapers and magazines.
Freelance tycoon Harry Bruce appears every other week in The NovaScotian.