Just read this NYT piece about the Thiel Fellowship. Some loose, early Saturday morning thoughts:
Peter Thiel misses the point of college. It’s not a pathway to jobs or to riches. It’s a place where young people — not quite kids any more, and not quite yet adults — go to learn, and not just within the four walls of a classroom.
When I was a professor (oh, so long ago), I would explain two things on the first day of class: one, that the course my students were currently sitting in was bullshit; two, the person sitting next to you may help you at some point in your life.
I taught a variety of communications — theory and practical — courses. The knowledge they learned in the class could be learned, as Matt Damon pointed out, in a library for $1.50. What was taught in the classroom was taking the knowledge they were learning from the texts we were reading and try to apply it to life, to try to understand situations before they happened, to try to recognize the wonder and beauty of human interaction and how we communicate.
College is also about the people you meet, the relationships you cultivate.
If you went to college, I’m pretty sure you learned more about psychology, sociology, communications, anthropology living with a complete stranger or having your first serious relationship, learning how to deal with conflict, adjusting to the patterns of someone else’s life. When you take what was applied in the classroom, you become a student of life which can and should help you understand, even just a little bit, how the world around you works.
Professors try to lift the veil of ignorance; especially in the social sciences where we study the most predictably unpredictable thing: humans. Of course, many don’t approach college this way. College is seen as a means to an end: a career. Or college is just an excuse — albeit, a pretty tempting one — to remain for just a few more years, someone without the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Peter Thiel and James O’Neill, the founder of the Thiel Foundation, which provides $100,000 to persuade kids to not go to college and instead focus on building things, ignores all this with talk of, “Not only does college track you into a career with a big company,” he (O’Neill) said, “but for many people, it piles on a huge amount of debt that limits people starting a company or quitting your job to tinker in your garage.”
I cannot talk to the ‘hard’ sciences, which is what the Thiel Fellowship plays to. But I would argue that scientists (maybe even more so because they need money from people to do their research or to build the next great tech company) need to understand how people behave, communicate. Angel investors and venture capitalists have told me that when they look for companies to invest in, they pays more attention to the team than to the actual technology or idea. As one said, “There are tons of great ideas., but great companies are built by great people”. But that’s getting a bit ahead of myself.
Thiel and O’Neill are correct, though, that not everyone should go to college; there are many who would be better off doing something else with their time. I’ve taught these kids — some were just not mature enough to handle the pressures of a college life; others had talents and skills that could, if not change the world, bring something positive into it. But the short of it is, not everyone is a Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, all college dropouts. Or Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Quentin Tarantino, each who did not go to college.
Higher Ed needs to change, there’s no denying that. But asking students to not go in return for the opportunity to build something that may or not happen is shortsighted. An education — whether that of within the four walls of a classroom or a dorm room — is needed for people to not just broaden their horizons, but to make those connections that can help them lead the lives they want to lead outside of the four walls of an office. You make lifelong friends in college, and that’s more important, at least for me.