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The Lone Genius v. College
October 9, 2012 - 8:06am
Much media attention has recently been given to the Thiel Fellowships, an effort described by The New York Times as “one of the most unusual experiments in higher education today.”
With this program, entrepreneur and billionaire Peter Thiel is testing the idea that genius emerges without higher education at all, that resources are all that the best and brightest need to succeed.
Thiel grants up to $100,000 grants to young people to forego college and, instead, begin work immediately on their scientific and technical ideas.
Thiel calls these recipients “the next generation of tech visionaries.” And, indeed, they are extremely bright 18-to-20-year-olds.
Instead of attending (or continuing) college, the fellows work immediately on their projects. Examples of some of their projects include developing mobility aids for physically disabled people, creating apps for smartphones, advancing space industry technologies, building advanced rotating solar panels, and designing a more powerful and efficient motor for electric vehicles.
Thiel Fellowships are no doubt an important experiment, and Thiel has a knack for marketing that has helped to bring the important question of the value of a college education into focus. Perhaps some of these young folk will start the next Apple, or discover cold fusion.
But -- in these critical years for their development as persons -- will these young people spend time thinking about the meaning of their lives, about their moral obligations to fellow human beings? Will they learn to connect with friends and teachers who care for them for reasons other than their abilities as entrepreneurs?
Will they discover the exuberant joy of human expression in, say, Beethoven's Ninth, because they were learning for the pure pleasure of learning (Not to mention the exuberant joy of an all-night discussion of politics, religion, and, say, football fueled by Red Bull?)

Will they learn that a core value of leadership is the ability to make hard choices?
College is about far more than a job, important as that goal is. Yes, college students discover what they want to do in life, and we must be deliberate in helping them make that discovery.
But they also discover who they are, and who they want to be. And these are the most important questions of a college education.
No doubt the world needs more Mark Zuckerbergs, who will have fascinating careers and emerge as titans of 21st century industry.
As my friend Robert Kunath, a historian at Illinois College, notes, ‘Thiel is really trying to fund lone geniuses, but the overwhelming majority of young people need to learn broadly applicable skills that will serve them in multiple careers, and the dispositions of teamwork, responsibility, and civic-mindedness that will connect them to their colleagues and their communities, not isolate them from a world that has never been more interconnected.”
Our greatest need is for more young people who will lead meaningful lives — including excellent careers — in which they give back to this struggling world all that they have been given and more.
Jeff Abernathy
President, Alma College


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