The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The education of Steven Spielberg. It didn’t involve ivy.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg was a mediocre student whose parents encouraged his passion for film. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Filmmaker Steven Spielberg was a mediocre student whose parents encouraged his passion for film. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

It’s July. Are you soon off to college, disappointed it is not the one you most wanted? Do you regret your less than stellar high school grades and the time you devoted to fun rather than study?

Maybe you’re worrying too much. Consider the case of an obsessed teenager from a troubled family who enrolled at the school now known as California State University at Long Beach in the summer of 1965, after failing to get into his first-choice schools. His name was Steven Allan Spielberg. You may have heard of him. The world-famous filmmaker has become a favorite topic of mine because his story is so at odds with the lessons we teach children about school and success.

Two talented scholars, Stacy Berg Dale of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton economist Alan Krueger, used Spielberg’s name two decades ago to describe a surprising aspect of their research on selective college attendance. They found that students admitted to choosy colleges but who attended less selective schools were doing as well financially 20 years later as were students who attended the selective institutions. The researchers concluded that the character strengths that got them admitted to selective schools were what counted, not the college name on their diploma.

Dale and Krueger were also surprised to find that many applicants rejected by selective schools did as well later in life as students who were accepted and attended. The researchers speculated that such students’ strong sense of purpose made them successful, even if their favorite college said no. They called it the Spielberg effect because they knew the famous director had been rejected by prestigious film schools at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California.

To check the biographic details, I recently bought a copy of Joseph McBride’s 640-page book, “Steven Spielberg: A Biography (Second Edition).” It is disturbing to those of us who put our faith in doing homework and depending on a good college for success.

Exactly why was Spielberg rejected by those film schools? He had an amazing résumé. From age 10, the kid was doing little else but making movies. His 40-minute war film “Escape to Nowhere,” completed when he was 15, won first prize in an Arizona statewide amateur film contest. His 2-hour 15-minute first feature film “Firelight”— a precursor to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — had a synchronized soundtrack and other technical embellishments. The Arizona Republic did a story about it. The movie had a Hollywood-like premiere, with searchlight, at the Phoenix Little Theatre when the writer-director-producer was an 11th-grader. Why didn’t he get into UCLA or USC?

McBride reveals that Spielberg’s grades were just too bad. He had a lot of C’s at Arcadia High School in Phoenix and then at Saratoga High School near San Jose. He hated school. He had dyslexia, then undiagnosed. He only wanted to make films.

His mother, a free spirit with artistic talent, gave him free rein. She “was so tolerant of her son’s lack of interest in school that she often let him stay home, feigning illness, so he could edit his movies,” McBride wrote. His father, although bothered by Steven’s grades, often did his science homework for him. Their impending divorce upset their son.

When the film school rejections arrived, Spielberg had the previous summer begun his life as a fast-rising unpaid gofer at Universal Pictures. Chuck Silvers, the Universal production staffer Spielberg first befriended, asked people he knew at USC if an exception could be made for “this kid who was so unbelievable.” They said no.

Yet he became the Steven Spielberg. The energy and storytelling talent he revealed to his increasingly powerful mentors at Universal made the difference. He dropped out of college and didn’t go back to complete work for his Cal State Long Beach degree until 2002.

How many people achieve success that way? Probably more than we think. Academic credentials are important in America, but knowing what you want is crucial.

Few of us are as precocious as Spielberg, but we eventually see intriguing possibilities. The Spielberg effect is good. At least it will get you up each morning knowing what you want to do that day.

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news