Hope for the future lies with young outsiders

As expected, there has been a lot of chatter about the personal life of Edward Snowden, even to the extent of details about his girl friend. What surprised me is the amount of time spent on the fact that he did not graduate from high school and had some community college education, and yet at the age of just 29 had a very well-paying job with a major firm that gave him access to a lot of top-secret government information. This is clearly troubling to some people.

Why is this seen as even worthy of note, let alone a bad thing? Apart from shedding light on the nature of how private contractors charge the government for services, it should be irrelevant. There has been no indication that he got his job because of nepotism or corruption or that he was bad at it. As far as I can tell, Snowden could do the work that he was assigned and if his employers felt that he was worth it, what exactly is the problem with them paying him well? Why do we feel that a person’s salary should somehow positively correlate with the level of formal education? Why is the criticism that is made of Snowden not leveled at college dropout Bill Gates? Snowden’s salary has no relevance whatsoever to the merits of his whistleblowing. If anything, it is a positive thing because he clearly walked away from a job that many would love to have.

I have a lot of formal education but have never felt that it entitled me to a certain income. I got the education because I wanted to and because I enjoyed studying physics. The fact that it enabled me to get a job that I enjoy doing and that provided me with some security and comfort is a nice bonus. But I cannot claim that it equips me for anything special. For example, I would be useless to a company like Booz Allen or many firms that pay high salaries because I could not do the kind of work that Snowden did and presumably was quite good at. But I never wanted to do that kind of work anyway so I am not envious of those who do.

In addition, the more formal education one has, the more one gets indoctrinated into the establishment and becomes part of it and thus a servant of the status quo. Having these young people without much formal education gain access to important positions is a significant development because they are far more likely than people like me to buck the system. The Daniel Ellsbergs who, after getting solid Ivy League and establishment credentials, risk everything by turning against the establishment are a very rare breed.

The future lies with young outsiders like Bradley Manning, Aaron Swartz, and Edward Snowden who are disturbed by what they see and feel the need to do something about it. There are a lot more of them entering the higher ranks of the information network than those with Ellsberg-like pedigrees. And that is a good thing.


  1. Corvus illustris says

    I have a lot of formal education but have never felt that it entitled me to a certain income*. I got the education because I wanted to and because I enjoyed studying physics.

    It’s almost impossible to be brought up to current-research level in the sciences without a lot of formal study. Counterexamples are few (not even in combinatorics any more). And try explaining that the PhD is an entry-level qualification (not even that in some areas).

    *I believe there are serious studies that show that the PhD (not a professional one, e.g. as a clinical psychologist) lowers your expected income.

  2. lanir says

    Education in the Information Technology fields largely seems to be useful to get started easier at your first job out of college. I can attest that starting out with nothing but a high school diploma or GED doesn’t aim you squarely at the fast track to anything. The apparent difference is that in this field things shift around enough that once I prove I have the right skills, I’m almost certainly going to be considered (barring other issues). There’s also an increasing demand that is outpacing the supply of highly skilled technology workers.

    Personally I don’t see the current whistleblowing trend as a bad thing either. When people try to claim the lives of our soldiers or the safety of our country are threatened by knowing when the government is trying to hide it’s misdeeds, they need to be reminded that no soldiers fought so our civil liberties could be stripped away and by far and away the most damage dealt to the US in the last couple decades has been self inflicted wounds from enabling banking robber barons, and starting wars over made-up nonsense. And that’s not even really counting the huge government security apparatus that popped up or whether it’s even focusing on the right things.

  3. Dunc says

    I suspect at least part of it is that there’s a lot of people out there who got into a lot of debt solely because they believed that going to college would land them a well-paying job, but who are struggling to make ends meet. They feel ripped off, and seeing someone who didn’t “play by the rules” (as they understood them) succeed only rubs salt into the wound.

  4. sailor1031 says

    “once I prove I have the right skills, I’m almost certainly going to be considered (barring other issues)”

    Possibly, possibly not. It depends. When I was an IT manager we had to stop allowing HR to screen IT candidates because they would screen out all the ones without a degree but allow through all those degreed candidates who could talk a good game (but couldn’t actually do anything). Interestingly – or maybe not – they weren’t looking for IT degrees. Just any old degree would do. I guess since they had no way to evaluate actual knowledge and experience this was one of their primary filters. One of the two best team members I ever had, had failed to make the HR cut and had already been sent a rejection letter when I called to set up an interview. The other was an immigrant from the Czech republic for whom english was a fourth language. Rather than evaluate the candidate, who had of course ‘foreign’ qualifications, HR just rejected him because they couldn’t be bothered to deal with the lack of fluency. So much for their much-vaunted “fucking diversity”……

  5. Nelson Cust says

    For what it’s worth, formal education is not the only way to get educated. I’m nearly 60, and before I received a GED in 2010, I had not even finished high school Since 1998, I have worked for Microsoft, State of Washington, State of Idaho, IBM, Caterpillar, Wellpoint, USAA and many other smaller companies. Other than Microsoft, where I worked as a software tester, all the other positions were as a software developer.

    Disparaging someone because of a lack of formal education indicates that the person doing the dissing may not have got his/her moneys worth for their education!

  6. Mano Singham says

    I agree. I have met far too many people with little formal education who are people whom I respect enormously for the breadth of their knowledge and the depth of their thinking, and far too many highly educated people whose views I despise as shallow and ignorant, to take seriously any claim that formal education should be considered of value except in the area of highly specialized expertise.

  7. Steve LaBonne says

    I would say that this is because we don’t actually have a formal education system. We have a formal credentialling system, and one which is structured in many ways to serve as a brake on social mobility.

  8. jamessweet says

    As lanir and sailor1031 touched on, some of the confusion may be because it’s just kinda “different” in the IT field. Particularly for the type of work that Snowden was doing (and to be clear, he was not a software engineer, he was as near as I can tell essentially a sys admin), a formal education is less important — it’s almost more of a trade, TBH, although a really weird one that requires a special type of mind 🙂 I know quite a few people who dropped out of college and are now reasonably successful in that line of work — though not on classified government programs, admittedly!

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