A college drop-out’s revenge

April 29, 2007 | By | 27 Replies More

I recently had a chance to talk on the phone with an old high school friend who was an extremely talented artist. Paul (not his real name) took a few college courses, none of them in art, but dropped out before getting any degree.

I have vivid memories of glancing over during high school classes to see Paul doing something he did extremely well: drawing. He used a standard #2 pencil to do his magic. He cranked out dozens of expressive and lifelike bodies, faces, and hands. He did his work on the backs of class handouts, envelopes or any other scrap of paper he could get his hands on. I know I’m not exaggerating Paul’s abilities, because I’ve saved dozens of his drawings. The hands Paul drew might have been his best work. I remember Paul drawing, from memory, a vivid Sistine Chapel reproduction of God’s hand reaching out to touch Adam’s.

After the bell would ring, students would sometimes gather around Paul to see what he had been drawing. I can’t count the number of times that students would ask him how he did what he did. Paul was reluctant to discuss how. Maybe he didn’t understand how. His approach was to show, not tell.

Paul failed to pursue art in college. After struggling through general liberal arts classes for a few years, he dropped out of college to take jobs involving manual labor. He has always been a diligent worker, but his jobs have never really challenged him. When I spoke with Paul today, he indicated that he still has a passion to draw, but hasn’t pursued it.

Talking with Paul today reminded me of an encounter he had two decades ago. Paul attended a party where one of the other guests was Maurice. Back then Maurice had already gone to college and successfully obtained an art degree. Maurice played up that he was an “artist,” and that he had a job as an artist. This annoyed Paul, especially when he personally heard Maurice bragging of his art degree and artist job. At that party two decades ago, some of the other guests, including several attractive females, appeared to be impressed with Maurice. You could see the tension building in Paul.

Toward the end of the evening, Paul walked up and challenged Maurice in front of the other guests:

“Maurice, what kind of artist are you? Maurice, draw a hand!”

Maurice looked confused. The other guests looked at Maurice.

Paul grew louder: “Maurice, draw a hand. You are an artist, right? Then draw a hand! A hand, Maurice. Just draw a hand!”

The party grew quiet. The air was tense, as though two gunslingers with twitchy fingers were facing off.

But Maurice wouldn’t draw a hand. Maurice couldn’t draw hands. Even though he had a college art degree, Maurice couldn’t pick up a simple pencil to draw the kind of hand that would impress anyone.

Paul stood silent for more than a minute as Maurice contemplated what to say. Eventually, Maurice muttered that he wouldn’t draw a hand. Paul had made his point and he sat down, visibly shaken and somewhat embarrassed at the scene he had made.

I’ve always wondered whether Paul wasn’t really as angry with Maurice as he was with himself that he hadn’t developed his own unique talent.

I’ve often thought of this encounter between Paul and Maurice when I’ve heard someone dissing people who don’t have college degrees. I’m fully aware that a college degree can open employment doors. But a degree has almost nothing to do with competence or intelligence. I am often shocked at the ignorance, incompetence and lack of curiosity of college graduates. Many of them happily turned off the learning process the day they graduated. Many of them never really ever turned on the learning process–they got through college by regurgitating factoids. At my undergrad college, for instance, a student could obtain a psychology degree by answering true/false questions and filling in the blanks. The only required papers were a couple of lab experiment write-ups.

Even among those who have obtained advanced college degrees, I am regularly astounded at the lack of competence. For instance, there are considerable numbers of lawyers who I wouldn’t recommend to anyone in need of legal services, no matter how simple the task. But all attorneys have college degrees, of course.

I am not criticizing all colleges and degrees. I have been fortunate to have studied under many inspired and challenging college teachers. Some of the best classes I’ve ever taken, however, were audits of cognitive science graduate level classes after I received my degrees. I truly admire the competence of many of those students and teachers. And in the people I admire most, learning hasn’t ever stopped.

I will continue to hold out hope that Paul will make the decision to develop his gifts, whether or not he gets a college degree in the process. As for Maurice, I don’t know whether he ever learned to draw a hand . . .

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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Try this book – "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" by Betty Edwards. It's a fabulous book.   Here's the link at Amazon.

    I have an older edition. The new one seems to include a lot of new features and information.

  2. College (Ivy League or not) facilitates growth and success in some people and thwarts it in others. The husband of an ex-client of mine, now a successful designer with many celebrity clients and a thriving business, told me that art school left him so traumatized that he not only dropped out but didn't create anything for five years.

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