…College is…a Waste of Time?

So says a 19 year-old recipient of the Thiel Fellowship. This is the $100,000 award given to 20 promising entrepreneurs (who promise to leave college to pursue their submitted business plans) by Peter Thiel, early Facebook investor and venture capitalist.

I just can’t help thinking this statement of his is incredibly short-sighted. (And not just because the proclamations I made as a 19 year-old seem trite at best and horrifyingly, shockingly off-base at worst.) And this comes on the heels of many recently published articles commenting on a report that indicated which college majors were the money-makers and which should be avoided.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a (somewhat reluctant) member of academia. I am working on my dissertation at an Ivy League university in a doctoral program that I am on track to complete ahead of schedule – I mention this because I am someone who has decided to dedicate her life to the idea of discovery, of new learning, of exploration, and someone who has learned the ins and outs of elite academic institutions and is living with both the immense frustration I sometimes feel with its system as well as the immense gratitude I feel towards an environment that values intellectual curiosity and new ways of examining old problems. This quest is sanctioned, yes. I have undertaken my greatest feat as a young adult as part of a greater organization – but this decision isn’t what I would describe as ‘safe’ or an escape from what some critics say is the real world (I’ve worked full-time in the healthcare industry and in education as well, I am no stranger to what is often deemed “real work” and I have to say that most of the time it was easier than the course of doctoral study in both stress and workload).

The idea behind academia, the purpose of the structure and bureaucracy (despite the undeniable frustration and aggravation it admittedly often causes) – is that the discoveries we make and the work we do is designed in a way to note statistical significance and impact. To give it meaning in the greater social context. Does this mean work done outside of academia is not equally worthy? Absolutely not. But what it does mean is that the research done to determine the ways we measure the success of programs and interventions, the ways we measure the impact of education plans, the way we evaluate policies and their effects on communities, the way we discover how viruses grow and divide, the way we learn about bacteria, what we know about reproduction (in my world specifically, the way we calculate the number of women who access and use reproductive health services and the way we assess their reasons for doing so) is done in large part by universities or people who are affiliated with them, done by those who have published years of work that has been systematically evaluated by tens of other experts legitimizing the findings.

College, but graduate school more importantly (which requires a college degree…), not only gave me a great group of friends and a stack of classics. I remember moments throughout both when I was conscious of my way of thinking actually changing. I remember being aware, when challenged by a professor who was at the top of her field, of my brain actually stretching, of thinking “I literally have never thought of this problem in this way before.” College, and a liberal arts education in particular, were designed to change the way we think. Alter our perspective. Challenge beliefs or assumptions we may have had for the previous two decades, whether that challenge is prompted in the classroom by a professor or in a dorm room by a fellow 19 year-old. Shift our understanding so we have greater empathy, a more sophisticated understanding of circumstance, an appreciation for nuance – all of which create individuals capable of and skilled at starting businesses, working creatively and collaboratively, changing the world. Can good bosses challenge your thinking? Yes. Is their goal behind this the same? I would argue no. I would argue that their goal is to increase the profit margin, and so the depth of that challenge is likely going to be a bit more shallow.

The goal of higher education was to create a society that was open to dialogue, that put a premium on diversity of thought and belief, that valued thinking and the thought process. This kind of training in complex thinking actually does generate innovation – but college isn’t about instant gratification, as Mr. Stephens thinks it should be.

The goal of higher education, in short, when it was established, was not fundamentally to make one wealthy. So to argue that the reason one should leave academia because it does not automatically reward one with wealth is to negate higher education’s true purpose. And in denying this, it also claims that what college does in fact champion – learning to think and analyze and ultimately independently challenge oneself for the rest of one’s life – does not foster and support innovation, which is actually a direct result of one who has been thusly challenged.

I also have to say – while I admire the 19 year-olds who have articulated business plans that a Silicon Valley entrepreneur has deemed worthy, I can’t say that I’ve met or heard of many late adolescents who have been able to shock the world into submission with their business savvy. While I suppose it’s…possible that Thiel has found the 20 young ones who would prove me wrong, I have to say that…well, I doubt it. And the reasons for this include not only what I articulated above – that college fosters the development of independent thinking, encourages one to explore their unique interests in an environment that exists to guide these burgeoning passions in the right direction, and, most importantly, fosters an appreciation for, understanding, and respect of the exploration and passions of those in their community and of their generation, regardless of aligning interests – but also that with age bring experience. College in and of itself gets better as the years go on, and as a 19 year-old, I imagine that when Dale Stephens quit, he had made it through maybe two years, but more likely one – a year likely filled with general education requirements and difficult adjustments. I would also add that these adjustments, as difficult and frustrating they may be, also aid in one’s personal development. Learning that some professors may not challenge you as much as you like, some classmates may not share your interests and may in fact drive you crazy, some courses may seem boring and rote – these are all stepping stones on the way to finding out what subject matter truly does interest you, what classmates will go on to be your lifelong intellectual matches, what professors will continue to challenge your mindset and perspective and push you towards greater self-discovery. Additionally, learning to cope with and process disappointment and setback, and increasing one’s patience, are a pretty essential part of becoming an adult. There are young, brilliant, incredibly admirable thinkers throughout history, that is not debatable. But those who are older inevitably have had more experiences that contribute to their understanding of not only business, but the world in general.

And with this last thought in mind, I can’t do much but brush aside Mr. Stephen’s comments. Perhaps he’ll understand when he’s older.

Additionally, as someone who is constantly scouring the landscapes for gender discrepancies and disparities, I would note that only two of the Thiel fellows are women. That is some staggeringly poor representation, Mr. Thiel.

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