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Higher Education – is it worth it?

People like Peter Thiel (PayPal) are suggesting people drop out of school and start companies. Here’s the idea: “Pick the best twenty kids he could find under 20 years of age and pay them $100,000 over two years to leave school and start a company instead.”

Interesting. And as an experiment it is worth pursuing. When I was under 20, I had a few years to burn on exploration and experimentation and I’m sure the applicants for Thiel’s project are no different. Even if they fail, the learning experience of owning your own company is unparalleled in traditional education.

The higher education model is antediluvian, it is no longer aligned with the information and knowledge ecology in which it exists (see Reinventing Knowledge and Reconstructing the University for more detail on this line of thinking). The fatal logic in education-abolisher’s, like Thiel, thinking is that a broken system is an unneeded system. Higher education needs to change. It needs to be more effective, more flexible, more cost-effective, more equitable (in terms of access), and aligned with the knowledge structures and spaces of today’s society. However, as Edgar Morin states (.pdf) the purpose of education is to prepare each individual for “the vital combat for lucidity”. Thiel’s model doesn’t achieve this. When we learn, we are not only fulfilling a responsibility to ourselves but to society and to the future. This learning need not be formal, but it needs to be broad, diverse, and non-utilitarian…i.e. not learning only to achieve a task or get a job but learning in order to increase our capacity for greater future options (or, for that matter, to become a better person).

Two quick points on this:
1. During the height of the “vaccines cause autism” scare, several individuals in our community decided to stop vaccinated their children. Nothing negative happened to their children, largely due to herd immunity. A few selfish individuals suffered no ill consequences of their irresponsibility due to the responsibility of others in their community. Thiel similarly wants to draw on the healthy knowledge ecosystem that exists around him. Likely, the successful candidates of his project will not be returning to agrarian roots, so they will need to interact with people who have knowledge through formal systems. As Vivec Wadhwa notes, “Getting an engineering degree reduces the variance in your career outcomes. You might not get the billions, but you also won’t get into poverty…Try getting a job at Microsoft, Facebook, or Apple if you don’t have a degree. There is almost no chance that you will make it past HR.”

2. I’m not arguing that you have to go to Stanford or an elite university. I’m arguing for the importance of breadth and depth in knowledge in preparing individuals with a broad spectrum of options in a changing economy and society. For now, one way to have this recognized is through a university degree. We know that universities are broken. We know that there are better, more effective ways of learning than in formalized class models. But that’s an indictment of form, not function. Thiel and other education critics try to solve the former by attacking the latter.


  1. Howard wrote:

    Good question George;
    I would like to see universities organize around greater flexibility in learning communities so this does not become an either or question. I noted Terry Evan and Julie Mackey’s article in IRRODL’s Special Issue on Connectivism
    where they say:
    (The) insular view of community, bounded by course curriculum and timelines, is problematic for professional learning and highlights a tension between the underlying philosophical stance and the pedagogies adopted by universities. A central tenet of sociocultural epistemologies is that learning is vitally situated within the context of its development and that “understanding and experience are in constant interaction” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 51). As Lave and Wenger (1991) describe in their theory of social practice, there is a “relational interdependency of agent and world, activity, meaning, cognition, learning, and knowing” (p. 1).

    Friday, April 15, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  2. Tony Searl wrote:

    I’m not sure I read Thiel in Forbes as an “education abolisher” but rather an eduprenuer with a bias against price gouging.

    His angel investment in human capital experiment is barely tokenistic and may spawn the Next Big Thing. But Thiel’s mentor model can’t scale as “losers” who don’t crack Facebook2 or Son Of PayPal fall back on traditional pathways. Or luck. Or the next angel.

    To me the tertiary ROI argument, in a world of emerging options, will be who offers globally acceptable, credential value with who’s values?

    How will developed nations respond to their mostly expensive tertiary advantage being diluted and globalised by still “credentialled” cheaper alternatives?

    Thiel’s scaled mentor model, traditional Ivy league ‘quality’ or increasing access to an acceptable third tier? Maybe tertiary is no longer the poverty preventor Vivec alludes to or the automatic door opener to Apple?

    Unfortunately tertiary utilitarian is just entering its global growth phase and Thiel is looking for rich fodder at an unsustainable societal cost.

    Friday, April 15, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Jeremy wrote:

    Good food for thought. I am currently considering going back to school for a graduate degree. Within two years of receiving my bachelor’s degree in Education I had already started my own company. Seeing success in my first company, I founded a second company with a business partner. I learn so much by doing every day, but I have learned enough to see where/when it is difficult to learn through this informal approach. I have a hunch that some programs might add so much to my abilities, while others may be a waste of time and money. Plus, the credibility that I may receive from the right degree may be worth the time and money I put into the degree.

    Saturday, April 16, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  4. Bill wrote:

    I am also considering going back to school. Knowing what I do now it makes thing alot less complicated. Picking a study program with a practical work component is a must!

    I can see where Theil is coming from, but without any experience or credibilty starting a company is going to be a daunting task. I’m assuming he is going to contribute his experiences to the project to make up for the students inabilities. As a business owner I have started my companies from the ground floor and if I was receiving a Paycheck while I was doing it I wouldn’t have had the motivation to succeed.

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink
  5. Kole Odutola wrote:

    Thanks to you all. The beauty of arriving late at intellectual “parties” is that one gets to listen to what others have said or read what has been written by others. I think all four commentators accept that the present ‘open-gate’ system of higher education is not working. There is a need to try other models. Was there not a time that only those who had things to find out (research)came through the gates or sat at the feet of Masters? I hope the community can be brought back into higher education. Let students take on issues of the communities they live in as part of their 4 year project not just a final year do-it-quickly-venture.

    Sunday, May 8, 2011 at 8:29 pm | Permalink