David Ogilvy on the True Value of Education: A Brilliant Letter of Advice to His 18-Year-Old Nephew
By Maria Popova
“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Nietzsche wrote in his 1873 reflection on the true value of education. The task of education, John Dewey asserted a generation later in his timeless treatise on how we think, is not “to teach every possible item of information [but] to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions.” But in order to reap the rewards of what we call education, we must actively elect the acquisition of those mental habits — for, as Adrienne Rich argued in her spectacular 1977 commencement address, an education is something we claim rather than something we get.
Perhaps the most elegant and compelling case for what we stand to gain when we exert ourselves on claiming an education comes from an unlikely champion: the legendary English businessman and Mad Man-era icon David Ogilvy (June 23, 1911–July 21, 1999).
When Ogilvy’s 18-year-old nephew Harry graduated high school in 1984, his life-path was forked by the competing choices of higher education and immediate foray into the rat race of vocational self-actualization. Conflicted, the boy turned to his uncle for advice. Ogilvy’s response, found in The Unpublished David Ogilvy (public library), is a rhetorical masterpiece and an abiding testament to the ultimate rewards of education for those who pursue it with an earnest and receptive spirit.
You ask me whether you should spend the next three years at university, or get a job. I will give you three different answers. Take your pick.
Answer A. You are ambitious. Your sights are set on going to the top, in business or government. Today’s big corporations cannot be managed by uneducated amateurs. In these high-tech times, they need top bananas who have doctorates in chemistry, physics, engineering, geology, etc.
Even the middle managers are at a disadvantage unless they boast a university degree and an MBA. In the United States, 18 percent of the population has a degree, in Britain, only 7 percent. Eight percent of Americans have graduate degrees, compared with 1 percent of Brits. That more than anything else is why American management outperforms British management.
Same thing in government. When I was your age, we had the best civil service in the world. Today, the French civil servants are better than ours because they are educated for the job in the postgraduate Ecole Nationale d’Administration, while ours go straight from Balliol to Whitehall. The French pros outperform the British amateurs.
Anyway, you are too young to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life. If you spend the next few years at university, you will get to know the world — and yourself — before the time comes to choose your career.
Answer B. Stop frittering away your time in academia. Stop subjecting yourself to the tedium of textbooks and classrooms. Stop cramming for exams before you acquire an incurable hatred for reading.
Escape from the sterile influences of dons, who are nothing more than pickled undergraduates.
The lack of a college degree will only be a slight handicap in your career. In Britain, you can still get to the top without a degree. What industry and government need at the top is not technocrats but leaders. The character traits which make people scholars in their youth are not the traits which make them leaders in later life.
You put up with education for 12 boring years. Enough is enough.
Answer C. Don’t judge the value of higher education in terms of careermanship. Judge it for what it is — a priceless opportunity to furnish your mind and enrich the quality of your life. My father was a failure in business, but he read Horace in the loo until he died, poor but happy.
If you enjoy being a scholar, and like the company of scholars, go to a university. Who knows, you may end your days as a Regius Professor. And bear in mind that British universities are still the best in the world — at the undergraduate level. Lucky you. Winning a Nobel Prize is more satisfying than being elected Chairman of some large corporation or becoming a Permanent Undersecretary in Whitehall.
You have a first-class mind. Stretch it. If you have the opportunity to go to a university, don’t pass it up. You would never forgive yourself.
Tons of love,
Complement this particular fragment of The Unpublished David Ogilvy, which also gave us the legendary ad man’s tips on writing and his insight into the ten character qualities of creative leaders, with Parker Palmer on education as spiritual journey and Anne Lamott on the measure of a great teacher.
Published June 23, 2016