The Mythology of University Dropout Narratives

Will my son go to university in 2035?

July 27, 2017

Our son is now 7 and a half weeks old. When he was 5 weeks old I read an article in the Guardian with the clickbait title “Dropping out of university was the best career decision I ever made.”

These types of articles, posts, books, interviews, etc. are not new. However, as a new parent, I'm keen on understanding the backstory of these types of dropout narratives.

For example, what was it like financially for Thea De Gallier, the author of the Guardian article, after she dropped out of university? It's none of my business really, but if you're going to create the narrative that dropping out was a good decision, it's probably more honest than not to include a bit of background on socioeconomic status. It's a lot easier to drop out and “make it” if your road through life has been a bit more gilded than others. I'm not saying that this was/is De Gallier's path, but it seems like the dropout crowd has almost always benefitted from having a family history laced with a fair amount of wealth and resources that are generally omitted from the dropout story.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the university dropout myth comes from Peter Thiel and the Thiel Fellowship. Thiel's program “awards $100,000 to 20 people under the age of 20 in order to spur them to drop out of college and create their own ventures.” While it's nice that Thiel is urging people to “skip college,” what's missing in his hyperbolic anti-university push is that Thiel has two degrees from Stanford University.

Here's the thing: it's really easy (and super disingenuous) to push the “university dropout” rhetoric when you're successful. Thiel is a billionaire. When he says "drop out of college or better yet don't even go,” he is conveniently leaving out the fact that he has directly benefitted from his higher education experience.

In 2013, one of the first Thiel Fellows, Dale J. Stephens sent me a copy of his book “Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will.” To be honest, I didn't make it very far into the book before I chucked it in the bin. It reeked of unacknowledged advantage.

I was curious about Stephens' background. A quick search led me to an article by Lisa Balbone, Stephens' mother: “A Mother’s Tips: How to Raise a Thiel Fellow.” It's an interesting read for sure, but it conveniently forgets to mention that (according to her LinkedIn profile) Balbone has a degree from Duke University and a teaching credential from Sonoma State University. That's the context that matters. Stephens may say that college isn't necessary, but his mother sure seemed to think that it was...and I bet her university experience had a direct connection to her son's success.

Between us, my wife and I have attended 4 universities and 1 community college. Our parents are all university educated. Our educational background will have an effect on our son's decisions in 2035. Whether or not he decides to go to university is his choice. However, it matters that his family history is full of higher education experiences.

It's the missing context that unwraps the false narratives perpetuated by the multitude of university dropout stories. It's important to acknowledge parental/familial history in terms of university experience. Otherwise, these stories are just myths that perpetuate a false story that is more damaging than helpful.


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