It may come as a surprise that infamous whistleblower and fugitive Edward Snowden never finished high school.
Instead, he went straight to community college, completed a masters program in computer security, and quickly rose up through the ranks of the National Security Agency.
Then in 2013 he leaked documents to the press exposing the government’s top secret mass surveillance program that collected private information about Americans via phone records without their knowledge.
The US charged him with three felonies, and he’s now living in Russia under asylum.
But Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson got Snowden to appear on the September 18 episode of his podcast StarTalk. Snowden programmed a robot that he can control from Russia, and rolled it into Tyson’s New York office at the American Museum of Natural History.
While the two discussed his background, Snowden revealed his biggest regret about not finishing high school.
“I was always fascinated with science and one of the great grievances I have about dropping out of high school early is the fact that I never finished chemistry,” Snowden said during the episode. “I’ve always loved chemistry.”
Snowden said that sometimes dropping out of school is the right decision if you’re already an expert in an area that you really excel in. That’s why say, a gifted software programmer may drop out and start designing full time, or a musical prodigy may decide not to take any calculus classes.
And that’s a good thing because structured curriculum isn’t how we advance the knowledge of the human race, Snowden argued.
“Who teaches the untaught?” Snowden asks during the episode. “Knowledge has to originate from somewhere. There has to be sort of a fountainhead from which it flows, and that can’t be a classroom because the teachers themselves have to have learned it from somewhere.”
That’s why original research, the pursuit of the unknown, and the questioning of accepted conventional wisdom, are so vital, Snowden said.
And Tyson agreed.
“Most people think that scientists scratch their head all night and say ‘Eureka!’ by morning, but no,” Tyson said. “The word that triggers discovery is always ‘That’s funny. Hmm, I don’t know what that is.'”
Still, you may find down the road that you have a glaring hole in your education (like chemistry). Snowden decided to fix the chemistry hole in his education. He even read a metalurgy (the physical and chemical behaviour of metals) textbook — for fun.
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