Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Institutionalizing Everyone With College

Peter Thiel has an op-ed in the Washington Post about higher education, and I agree with every single sentence of it.

Thiel frames the issue of college in a variety of ways I am sure few people have thought about. For one, he points out that "college" isn't a homogeneous thing, but is heterogeneous in its products. "College is good" is a statement that generalizes college into nothing. College is good for what? To train you as a scientist? Yes. To train you as a poet? That's perhaps more controversial. To train you to become an entrepreneur? Absolutely not.

Thiel suggests that what college primarily does is institutionalize people, training them to be worker bees rather than innovators. If you take business classes, you will learn how to run someone else's business, but you won't learn how to start your own.

Where universities can give value added is in providing a broad liberal education, but that's precisely what they are moving away from. Universities can teach you the languages of certain fields of study, so that you can participate in them -- you can learn math, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, the social sciences -- and perhaps gain something that will allow for a degree of insight for innovation, but the majority of innovation will come within those fields, from those who specialize.

To be an entrepreneur, you have to know enough about the issue, subject, topic, technology, situation in order to notice the opportunities present. While getting various degrees in molecular biology will certainly provide you with such opportunities within molecular biology, there is no major in college that will allow you to discover the opportunities available in eCommerce. And quite frankly, many could perhaps participate more in the scientific order if it were not for the institutional barriers to participation.

Of course, to be an entrepreneur, you not only have to be able to notice gaps, but have the ability to do something about it. I have noticed several gaps, but I don't have the computer programming skills to do anything about what I noticed. And I haven't found anyone as interested in these things to help me. Naturally, if I had the money, I could just hire someone, but entrepreneurs early in their careers rarely have the money to be hiring people. Colleges and trade schools could, at least in theory, provide people with such skills, but if we are honest, many who have such skills are self-taught. Universities are usually behind on the latest technology, including programming. And when you get into college, to always run the risk of becoming institutionalized, of having the innovation driven out of you.

It is for these reasons that Thiel is correct about his final observation:
A Reformation is coming, and its message will be the same as it was 500 years ago: Don’t outsource your future to a big institution. You need to figure it out for yourself.
Our university system is the contemporary Catholic Church. In the same way that the Catholic Church ruled over a medieval guilt culture, our universities rule over our postmodern collective guilt culture. They reinforce those values at every turn. If a Reformation is coming, that means there are further implications for our future culture. In the same way that Catholic guilt culture gave way to responsibility culture, university collective guilt culture will give way to another individualistic culture. New institutions will arise. And I have little doubt that that Reformation will be led by the majority adjuncts out there who are growing increasingly tired of being exploited by the current system. I look forward to that day, when the university system breaks up, its power is crushed, and it has to reform in the face of competition. That will happen when people realize they don't need universities to become educated human beings, and that will happen when they realize universities have ceased producing educated human beings in the first place.
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