Sunday, May 01, 2011

A Thiel Education

“Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.” – Peter Thiel, Co-Founder of Paypal

Those of us who have been arguing that we are facing an education bubble know what Peter Thiel, whose recently established 20 Under 20 fellowship to teach twenty young people about how to turn their ideas into real businesses I have discussed before, is speaking about. And if you understand, as Thiel does that “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed” (TechCrunch), then we know for a fact that the latter, at least, is in place. As for the former, well, with prices rising well above the inflation rate for decades now, and more and more people like me with overwhelming student loan debt and gross underemployment, and more younger people moving back home because they cannot find jobs, a pretty strong argument for it being overvalued can be made.

But surely knowledge, learning, and education cannot be overvalued, can it? As a Ph.D., I may be biased in this, but I would have to answer, No, those things cannot be overvalued. There is no such thing as too much knowledge, learning, and true education. Especially in a world increasingly dominated by creative workers. But when we talk about an education bubble, we’re not talking about learning, we’re talking about schooling. A more accurate term would perhaps be a “schooling bubble,” for that is something we can certainly have. The problem is that we have mistaken schooling for learning. The advocates of schooling seem to think that schooling is, in and of itself, of value, regardless of what, if anything, you learn. This is supported, unfortunately, by economists who measure “human capital” by whether or not you have a Bachelor’s degree—meaning, if you have a Bachelor’s degree, you have human capital, but if you don’t, you don’t. This is regardless of whether or not you in fact know anything or have any skills to speak of.

As Thiel points out in TechCrunch, people go to college because they expect to be able to get a better job. They are not typically going there to read Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Kafka (as someone who has taught literature, there is little question about the truth of this), and very often they cannot be convinced that they should. In addition, if you are interested in business, you will get an MBA. Yet the reality is that an MBA trains you for little more than middle management. This truth was captured in a joke a friend of mine, an economics major, told me. Q: What does an MBA call an economics major? A: Boss. (My friend, coincidentally, is a V.P. for a major bank—achieved in his late twenties.) Further, it is unlikely you will get a job in your field of study, you are likely to start at the bottom of any corporation that hires you once you do graduate, just as you would without a college degree, and that corporation is going to have to train you anyway, since you haven’t learned anything the corporation needs you to know. Finally, colleges do nothing to prepare you to be an entrepreneur. That, at least, is what Thiel proposes to do with his 20 Under 20 fellowship, something which cannot be provided by more traditional forms of education.

It is true that a university education at its best can teach you well-established skills, structures of known things, and even challenge your thinking. At a university, you can participate in discovery in the sciences, of course, and you can learn what is known so you become aware of the existence of gaps in knowledge—two things necessary for the sciences to advance—but a university education cannot teach you how to be innovative, entrepreneurial, creative. All too often, I have seen formal education kill those very things. I have seen great painters, poets, and fiction writers become technically much better, but conceptually much worse. I once witnessed in a fiction writing class a fellow student revise a story that was powerful in its language and imagery, a true stylistic triumph, and make it tame and typical—all because of the recommended changes of the professor and other students (and despite my overwhelming support to keep the style). Even in creative writing courses creativity is too often stamped out. When I was working on my M.S. in molecular biology, I grew so frustrated at the fact that technology did not exist to do any of the projects I came up with, and that I was encouraged to do something with the technology available rather than try to find a way to do what I wanted, that I eventually decided to drop out and get a M.A. in English (where, as I just noted, I found the same thing in a different form). To remain innovative, you have to retain a rebelliousness that education often crushes. And if you do retain it, you are likely to suffer once you graduate, since too often it is the conformists who get the jobs, not the rebels. One has to battle hard to keep one’s creativity through college, and then, all too often, one finds that fight unrewarded in the end. Unless, of course, one strikes out on one’s own, and becomes an entrepreneur. But that is something a college education leaves you utterly unprepared for.

In the end, it is not the number of years in school which matter. Rather, as Richard Florida observes in The Flight of the Creative Class, “It takes genuine learning—both in and out of our classrooms, and teaching both the fundamentals and more advanced, creative problem solving to build an economy” (33). None of our schools, at any level, do that.

So it should not be surprising that someone like Peter Thiel should see this situation and conclude that something needs to be done. Of course, with it being Peter Thiel, the solution is both correct and controversial. Indeed, it is not surprising that people like Jacob Weisberg (whose idiotic comments I discussed in my earlier post on Thiel's fellowship) in Newsweek have railed against Peter Thiel’s 20 Under 20 fellowship. Of course, one has to get most of the way through the article, through Weisberg attacks on Thiel’s political ideology and lifestyle, to even find out this is the article’s topic. Weisberg’s attitude is no doubt more connected to Thiel's being a libertarian rather than a good, feels-shame-at-his-wealth leftist billionaire—but the ostensible issue, the one that has Weisberg up in arms, is Thiel’s Fellowship. As Weisberg describes it,

The Thiel Fellowship will give entrepreneurs under age 20 a cash award of$100,000 to drop out of school and pursue their business ideas. In announcing the program, Thiel made clear his contempt for U.S. universities, which, like governments, he believes, cost more than they’re worth and get in the way of what really matters in life, namely tech startups.

Oddly, it’s not quite expressed this way at the Thiel Foundation's website. Nowhere does it say anything about "having" to drop out of college. Nor does it preclude anyone going back. Rather, it points out that, through the fellowship, the Foundation will help educate those who win. They will no doubt receive the kind of education entrepreneurs really need—which cannot be achieved at a university. Invention and creativity are two things that cannot be taught at any university, by any professor. It can be encouraged, or crushed, but not taught. And too often, it is crushed.

But Thiel’s libertarianism is not really what’s at issue here. What kind of education do people like Weisberg expect students to get when he argues that those who don’t go to college will “avoid the siren lure of helping others or pursuing knowledge for its own sake.” I had no idea that college was supposed to teach you about “helping others.” And as for “pursuing knowledge for its own sake,” while I value the education I received in the humanities, I'm not so narcissistic as to believe that, therefore, everyone should have my kind and level of education. Unfortunately, too many highly educated people are so narcissistic. Peter Thiel is not. No doubt Thiel, despite having a graduate degree himself, has looked around and noticed a strange truth: very few successful entrepreneurs have college degrees, or at least have college degrees useful to their business ventures. Recognizing a reality outside of himself, he wants to help creative people learn what they need to learn to succeed. That doesn’t sound so bad.

Thus, I celebrate Thiel's Fellowship. It is designed to counter all of these aspects of formal education. With it, ideas will be given the space to grow into innovative products. Thus, it's the sort of thing that will in fact help grow our economy and, thus, improve people's lives. I look forward to more 20 Under 20s, and perhaps even 30 Under 30s and 40 Under 40s. We need more entrepreneurship of the kind provided by those great non-graduates Mark Zuckerberg, Sam Walton, and Bill Gates. Billions of lives have been improved just by these three people alone. Why? Because these people have learning, and not just schooling. They have skills, not certificates. They may not have human capital, but they most certainly have creative capital. It seems that that is what is truly important, something Peter Thiel, with the Thiel Fellowship, shows he understands.
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