Peter Thiel couldn’t pay me enough to quit education

scholar postcard IMG_0905
Image by tlr3automaton via Flickr

Today I read a Slate article about how billionaire and college drop-out Peter Thiel wants to pay students $100,000 to drop out of college themselves. Supportive blogs and sites like GOOD claim he’s not asking kids to drop out but to “stop out” (whatever that means) because, as Thiel and like-minded moguls believe, education stifles entrepreneurship by mass-producing “an army of college-educated, non-creative thinkers.”

Non-creative thinkers? I teach creativity for a living!

Of course, I’ve heard this argument before, including from people very close to me, who have claimed that college is a brainwashing institution, teaching students not HOW to think but WHAT to think. The best I can do is tell them, “Not in my classroom.” When students come to me and ask what topic they “should” write about for their essays, my immediate answer has always been, “You tell me.” I have never been interested in the “right” answer or the “correct” way to do things, but in the way things work and how people put ideas together. Perhaps that’s what Thiel is arguing, too, but I think he’s going about it in the wrong way. I’m not a fan of this expression, but here it feels appropriate: Thiel wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I believe that education is what we make it. In that, I suppose I partly agree with Thiel and some of the anti-educational institution commenters on the article: You cannot simply sit in a room and wait for validation from a paid babysitter. There are plenty of students who enter a classroom they are either over-prepared for or too intelligent for, and they wind up bored out of their skulls and sorely disillusioned with education in general. “Hell,” they think, “I could teach this class.” And they might be right. They’re right, too, that their presence in that room, simply to fulfill a course requirement or jump through what they perceive as an arbitrary hoop, is potentially a waste of their intellectual resources. I was one of those students, and I wound up skipping some of the courses I now teach because I placed out of them through advanced testing. My younger brother, too, was one of those students, and he gave a big middle finger to our high school when he decided to take his GED and test out of school (he finished school well ahead of his classmates). I’ve taught such students before, the ones who sleep in class and still make As, or the students who stay awake in class only to occupy their minds by tormenting me, derailing my planned curricula with off-topic questions and knowing I can’t ignore them because the questions are good ones. I know what it’s like.

Me at the Adler Planetarium, in the "lecturer" position of an exhibit on the history of university education, May 2007.

But when I was bored — in high school, even sometimes in college — I diverted my mind not with less education but with more education. Like Thiel, I value the Lincoln-esque ideal of self-education, so between the classes I took and the hoops I jumped through, I used my campus resources (the library, my professors’ office hours, lectures from visiting speakers, opportunities in journalism) to learn a little extra on the side, and therefore I was never really bored. Because I was willing to invest myself in my education, I wound up learning more than I was taught.

But I know, too, that without those resources, and more importantly without the guidance of several dedicated teachers who recognized and nurtured my thirst for education, I would never have managed alone what I learned through my years in college. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons I went into teaching: it gives me the means by which to remain engaged in an educational environment; it allows me continued access to those resources I so valued in college.

Now, when I see students falling asleep in class because they believe they could teach the material themselves, I invite them to do just that. When I encounter students who try to divert the class discussions to topics that better interest them, I ask them to research their interests between classes and then I invite them to my office to carry on that discussion. And the students who accept those invitations to make their education their own, to take some degree of control over what they learn and how they learn it, wind up learning far more than even they thought possible.

Because the problem isn’t in education, but in what we do with it.

I once took a Religious Motifs in Literature course from a Presbyterian minister and doctor of divinity. In the first week of classes, most of the students “rebelled” against the very nature of the course — as the classroom discussion unfolded, several students explained that they openly loathed religion and all it stood for, because religion was corrupt, corrosive, debauched, hypocritical, and ultimately just as fictional as the novels we would be reading in class. My professor went purple with the effort of containing his rage, and those students who’d spoken out held their breath not with anxiety but with a kind of pride and a giddy anticipation of the delusional tirade they were sure they’d incited. But instead, my professor took a deep breath, shook his head, and returned to a relatively normal shade, and he explained that he wasn’t angry that they didn’t like religion — he was angry that they’d misdirected their criticism.

“You’re confusing religious institutions for the religion itself,” he said, forcefully but calmly. “You want to be mad at your church, at your congregation, that’s fine. You probably should be. I get plenty mad at the Presbyterian Church, USA and I do a lot of yelling and arguing in Synod. But don’t confuse the problems with an institution with the problems of the faith itself. There are plenty of churches that don’t practice what they preach, and there are too many people, I think, who misinterpret their own religion. But you can dismiss the misinterpretations without dismissing the whole religion.”

2nd half of 14th century
"Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia," (Henricus of Germany in front of his students), by Laurentius de Voltolina, 2nd half of 14th century. (Image via Wikipedia)

I feel much the same way about the state of modern American education, especially higher education. Many of our institutions have become corrupt, they have sold out to money or to private interests, they have forgotten their mission. Not all of them, not even most of them, but too many of them. I agree. But that does not diminish the value of education itself. What it does is highlight the increasing need for education. We have built ourselves a false dichotomy in our cultural idioms so that we believe we must either “beat `em or join `em.” But the truth is, we beat them BY joining them. One of the great things about the education system is that it has always found within itself the ability to change, to progress. Thiel says to hell with traditional education? I say great: Bring that attitude to the table and show us new ways to do things. He says the system is broken? I say get in here and fix it. He thinks he knows better? I sure as hell hope he does, but we won’t get to benefit from that unless he’s willing to share it.

Instead, he seeks to rob not just himself but a whole generation of the opportunities that education affords. He has made the mistake that so many people today make of equating success with dollar signs, of supplanting intellect and wisdom with force and power.

So what is the value of our education, if not the earning power it provides us? I once asked a class this question, and they said something Thiel would like: “We’re here to get better paying jobs. Our diploma gives us a shot at more money in the future.”

We were discussing a recent editorial in the student newspaper in which a student had complained about the performance of her teachers. And I’m using “performance” in the theatrical sense. The editorial’s author claimed that if students failed a class, it was the teacher’s fault, and that because students invested significant sums of money in the university, they were entitled, like any customer, to expect a return on that investment.

I asked my students, “Is that how you view the university? Like a vending machine? You put money in and push a few buttons and get a diploma, just like that?”

Several students said, “Well, yeah.”

And I said, “If all you want is a piece a paper, you’re seriously overpaying. I can make you a diploma right now, on some pretty fancy paper, for about five dollars.”

But one student explained it with a different equation: They were investing large tuition sums in order to reap large salaries from their “better jobs.” They expected, financially, to get out of their education whatever they put into it, with interest.

And I said, “Well there I think I might agree with you, but not in the way you’re thinking. I think you do get out of education what you put into it, which is why those of you who fail to invest anything — not your time, not your effort, not your intellect — those of you who feel like you can just sit here and sleep and not turn in assignments or engage in classroom discussions? You’re going to get exactly what you put into it. If you fail to invest in your education, you can expect to fail at your education. And you’re probably not going to be very appealing on the job market, either.”

Adam Smith; engraving
Adam Smith, "father of capitalism," went through the university system and was a highly educated man. (Image via Wikipedia)

Thiel wants to give this generation a handout, a $100,000 excuse to give up on their education. What he’ll reap is a generation not of innovators and entrepreneurs but of people who expect everything to be handed to them that easily. He is a money-minded economic Darwinist, but I think that if economic Darwinism is right (and I don’t), Thiel is going to find himself on the losing end of it. His generation will get rich, some of them, and a few will probably stay rich, and they might even be able to delude themselves into a kind of happiness, or at least bought satisfaction. Meanwhile, my students will become smart enough and self-sufficient enough to take on the world bravely, empty-handed, and they’ll wind up with both intellectual and actual wealth. They will have earned wisdom, and more power to them.


4 thoughts on “Peter Thiel couldn’t pay me enough to quit education

  1. I totally agree when you say you get out of education what you put into it. I myself have gone the entrepreneur route. I teach myself what I want to know and what I feel like I should know. Plenty of people bust their asses off and fall into debt when going to college. They graduate and pursue their career only to find out it’s harder to find a job than they thought it would be. For example, my sister dedicated herself to education and school since kindergarten. She always dreamt of being a school teacher. She graduated with a perfect GPA and top of her class. Right after college she went on to finding a job and had the hardest time. She had to start working at a crappy minimum wage job until she found an educational career. When she did find a job she was the best damn teacher to ever work at the school. Always getting complimented on her teaching methods and how all her students went from D’s and F’s to A’s and B’s. 2 years after dedicating herself to her students and job she was let go due to cuts. While old ass teachers who could care less about their students and just work until retirement were kept because of their seniority and so many years working at the school. Many people can relate to this with any career that they decide to follow. Education is very important but the truth is money keeps the world moving. You could be the smartest person ever but if you can’t find a job and you don’t make money you can’t be happy. Todays media has made it very clear that with no money comes no happiness. Sure you could be poor and have an amazing family that’ll bring happiness but in the back of the parents mind they would love to provide their children with stuff they cant have. Being book smart is great but people also need to be street smart or they’ll get fucked over sooner or later. Why spend so much money on an education when in the end you might not have a job. You start your own business and you have a job for sure. Of course you’ll have to educate yourself if you’d like to run a successful business. Why work a 9-5 where you have an asshole of a boss breathing down on you and never truly appreciating your hard work when you could be your own boss, dedicate yourself to your business, and making what you want of it. You have a nice argument and I enjoyed reading your blog so I had to give you some feedback

    1. Thanks for the reply, Jesus!

      I agree with some of the problems you point out. My mother is a school teacher (soon to retire), and both my in-laws were life-long educators (both retired), so I know how rough and poorly paid that area of teaching is. But if you’re right about money bringing happiness (and I’m not sure that equation works as simply as we’d like it to), then what you’re pointing to is a desperate need to increase our funding for education and the pay scales for teachers across the board. And you’re right that the cost for education is astronomical and, in many cases, unwarranted–I deplore the cost of tuition these days. But this, too, is merely an indicator of how much better we need to publicly fund our colleges and universities. The rising cost of tuition is in direct proportion to the collapse in state and federal funding: the more our colleges and universities are forced to operate like businesses rather than institutions of learning, the more they’re going to increase their costs and behave like for-profit corporations. These are problems we absolutely must fix.

      That said, I do agree–and perhaps should have included in the original post–that no one is required to go to college. Higher education is tremendously beneficial for anyone who chooses to be there, and I’m in that camp of educators who believes everyone should at least give it a shot, but I have no beef with anyone who chooses a different path through life. My grandfather, for instance, left school at 16 to help support his family, and he was successful enough that he was able to retire early from his career as a merchant mariner, having acheived the rank of captain and operated his own vessels for a time. At 90, he remains powerfully alert and highly intelligent. He, too, values education tremendously even though he never had a chance to formally participate in “book learning,” but I can’t imagine that he regrets his own path in life.

  2. My word-hoard is running low, so this will be shorter than your excellent post deserves:

    I think “You get out of it what you put into it” should be the motto of every college & university in the country. That, for me, is the difference between high school & college: the student decides how hard to push him/herself. Hopefully this difference will remain, despite some in-loco-parentis stuff I see happening that makes me think we are fulfilling, in all the worst ways, students’ expectations that college is just more of the same experience they had in high school.

    1. Re: some in-loco-parentis stuff I see happening that makes me think we are fulfilling, in all the worst ways, students’ expectations that college is just more of the same experience they had in high school.

      Exactly! It’s a strange phenomenon, actually, because it’s hard to determine where such an expectation comes from. We might be not only fulfilling the expectation but also creating it.

      I’m tempted to say that each successive generation of students has felt more entitled and has been subjected to more hand-holding than previous generations, so that recent classes of students have come to college with the unrealistic expectation that such entitlement and hand-holding will continue. But that’s a pretty reductive view and doesn’t do our students much credit. Sadly, I think they have been led to this expectation both coming and going, meaning that while they certainly have been brought up in an environment of entitlement*, they also just as certainly have been offered that expectation from someone at our end of the educational journey.

      Anecdotally, I know such an attitude has existed among both my own students and their parents for at least the decade I’ve been teaching, though I seem to remember that, when I was a freshman some 15 years ago, much of the hand-holding and parental surrogacy that went on was initiated by the college itself (in campus life as well as in the classroom–I was an RA in college as well as a fairly aggressive editor of the student newspaper on a very small campus, so I was privy to more of the inner workings of administrative decision-making than many of my classmates), which begs the question: was the campus responding to external pressure from students and parents, or were they for some reason fostering this attitude as a kind of preemptive measure? (My understanding at the time was both, though it was more of the latter than the former.)

      All of which is to say (again, anectodally) that we in higher ed are as much to blame for these absurd expectations as the students are.


      * I’m overgeneralizing about this sense of “entitlement” to the point of discounting the very un-“entitled” perspectives of our more disadvantaged/disenfranchised students, who certainly know not to take anything for granted, as well as those very hard-working students from more privileged backgrounds who understand that they should not to take their privilege for granted. But there are recent studies suggesting this is a widespread attitude transcending racial, cultural, and socio-economic (and even generational!) demographics. I refer, just for a cursory glance, to the several news articles and academic books referenced in Andria Woodell’s blog post “Thoughts on the ‘Entitlement Generation‘” from last year.

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