I will agree with Peter Thiel that education as we know it is hard to justify the inputs versus the outputs, especially the costs of education. I have attended many colleges over the years, graduated from two of them, have an advanced degree and feel good about it. The degree has helped me with employment, but not universally; this is true in some cases, and not true in others. My degree has helped me get academic jobs which I do love to do. The degree has also helped open up some very interesting doors for me that are off my degree path. If it was not for the degree many of the jobs I learned the most from would not have happened.
I learned the most in positions that the degree opened up. But as I run my own interactive media company I also know that I am learning on the job much more than I can learn in the classroom. I still have amazing things to teach that fit into the academic cycles and what we want our students to understand about how companies work, how the world works, where to make money. I am a startup that is at least showing some profit in its third year, but I relied on my business degree and technology degree background to help me build a successful company. A successful company in this instance is one that is profitable.
One of the most foolish things we could do though is to devalue the role of education in society. Society needs an intelligentsia no matter how removed from the needs and wants of daily society. We have seen what happens in societies where the highly educated are no longer valued by society. We end with a society that eventually fails, we have seen this littered throughout history, we have seen what happens when education is also limited to a small minority and is not equally shared. We know this already, and this is what makes Peter’s idea that 20 under 20 will save the world, but is it right? Or is it a siren song that carries with it negative consequences that we have seen throughout the last 2000 years.
Public education is one of the greatest gifts we have as a society, regardless of how well it is doing, what is structurally wrong with it, what we need to change, it is a system that has brought us as a nation to where we are today for all our faults. Would the internet exist if it was not for academics?
Yes, 20 under 20 is a good idea, it works, and it opens opportunity. We have seen the success stories of people who drop out of the Ivy League and start companies, often amazingly successful companies. But if you look at the numbers of dropouts who make it big, the reality is not so much that a few have done this, but the risks we take when we use that as the touchstone to say that education is overrated. Quite possibly that fraction of a percentage of make this transition successfully is a good thing to hold up, but we cannot condemn or devalue something that works as the only gateway to positions who’s minimum qualifications are “a bachelor’s degree”.
Rather if we are going to say that the degree is not important, then we need a way to quantify and reward people who work on their skills all the time. Employers would need to agree that the degree is worthless and remove it from job requirements. We would have to revision society to accommodate the lack of value that Peter Thiel seems to place on the education system. We also need to realize that not everyone is an entrepreneur, or has the desire, drive, and resources to make a startup happen. My understanding of the startup community is that they are a singularly driven group of people with marketable ideas. Not all startups take off; many die in infancy, regardless of what the founder wants.
Peter is advancing the “educational bubble” theory in my opinion via “wishful thinking”, he wishes the world was one way, and is willing to back it up with his money. The sad reality of this though is that the siren song of “drop out, tune in, turn on” has been tried before with an entire lost generation of people. If Peter is the new Pied Piper of the 1960’s refrain, with a few modern twists that is ok. But sadly, the rest of nations business, companies, corporations and government agencies will have to catch up with him, or still keep the minimum job requirements “Must have a Bachelor’s Degree”.