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.