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.
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.”
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.”
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.