Frustrated by how the academic establishment churned out drones who would serve the interest of a materialistic, militaristic, and highly bureaucratized American society in the late 20th century, Timothy Leary (1920-1996), a one-time — no doubt eccentric — psychology professor at Harvard University, encouraged young students to "turn on, tune in, [and] drop out." Cultivating what was truly meaningful, for Leary, could not be attained within the oppressively stultifying ethos of the modern university.
Although not in the same "state of mind" (pun intended) as Leary, Peter Thiel, a millionaire venture capitalist who made his fortune as co-founder of PayPal, has challenged the despotic notion that the college diploma must be the prerequisite for success in the world of capitalism. Many entrepreneurs, especially those in the high-tech information industry (e.g., Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg), have found their time in academe a supreme waste of time. Why, so the thinking goes, should highly motivated and hard-working individuals bury themselves in debt when they could just as easily learn on their own without take time away from making loads of money? Although not a member of what I’ll call the "billionaire dropout club," Thiel has capitalized on these examples by offering the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, a “no-strings attached” $100,000 grant for young people to drop out of college in order to devote their energy to their own entrepreneurial dreams.
On the one hand, Thiel is an inspiring — albeit troubling, at least for academics — alternative. Despite the overall data suggesting that those with a B.A. are more likely to earn a comfortable living, we must understand that a degree from any institution of higher learning is no magical guarantee of making oodles of money. Both parents and students continue to gobble up one of the worst ideologies since the geocentric theory or trickle-down economics — namely that high school graduates must go to college in order to get a good (read: high-paying) job. Every semester I remind the freshman undergraduates at the private college where I teach that a B.A. degree is not necessarily needed to get a job or to get rich. Experiences abound refuting this supposed iron law of nature. At the same time, dropping out of school to follow the example of others is no guarantee of success either. We can appreciate Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, and Thiel as representative samples for why college education is unnecessary, but we also need to consider that following their lead may not pay off any more than an undergraduate degree would.
Another false ideology that needs to be exposed is the notion that a major must have its mirrored companion in the job market. If it doesn’t pay, then it’s not worth pursuing. And what "pays," we readily assume, is related directly to making money. Majors within the humanities are not valued largely because there is no explicit payoff. Yet such degrees provide a plethora of lucrative opportunities in presumably non-humanities vocations. Interestingly, Thiel earned a baccalaureate degree in philosophy and a doctorate in law from Stanford University — not the type of degrees you’d expect from this highly successful entrepreneur. (I'd suspect that a portion of Thiel's millions included a dime for every time he had to answer the question, "What are you going to do with a philosophy major?") How did his education at Stanford prepare him for success, and could a degree in areas outside information science — philosophy, history, or English, for instance — aid those intent on entering such a world? An English student will be equipped with the critical tools necessary to read and articulate a variety of "texts." A history graduate will be able to understand the machinery of an institution or company and find ways to make it work in a more efficient manner. Imagine how poetry, which requires advanced analytic thinking, could aid a business proposal. HR managers value those who can understand and communicate effectively.
While appreciating Thiel's intent, I'm not one to think that the academy is beyond redemption, but it certainly needs an attitude adjustment. It's not that going to college to get a job is a bad thing, but it must not be the only or even central reason for doing so. Both Thiel and contemporary institutions of higher learning, blindly following the dictates of the market, have forgotten the telos of a liberal arts education — namely, to cultivate critical and creative citizens. A more liberal education is neither specialized, monetarily focused, individualistic, nor does it have an a priori seat in the business world waiting to be filled; rather, in seeking to find camaraderie between quantitative (math and sciences) and qualitative studies (especially in the humanities), it prepares students to see the liberating and transforming effects of critical thinking and the exciting possibilities of creative doing for the benefit of society. Such an education trains students to think how and what to do in order to live. In the current academic context, however, students simply learn to do, not to think.
Concurrently, a liberal arts education acknowledges, with a confidence akin to Nietzsche’s ubermensch, that it is never useless. On an existential level, what good is making massive amounts of money without knowing oneself and the society in which one lives? Such a life, to borrow from Thoreau, is one of "quiet desperation." A curriculum having less to do with finding that one "perfect" job and more with the training of students to face boldly and creatively the unknowns of life is a much better education. Vocationally speaking, if a liberal education is focused on deeply engaged critical thinking as well as creative doing (what should be common to all disciplines), then it is broad enough to open up more opportunities than a specialized major would.
Unfortunately, Thiel is not working to correct the problem of higher education — and indeed there is a problem. And it’s interesting how aloof he is to irony. His program is not really a matter of dropping out, but of transferring. The 20U20 fellowship has all the trappings of what most colleges and universities would offer to competitive undergraduates: a scholarship (a bit more than the average, granted) given to a student to work with well-trained professionals (let’s call them “professors”) in order to graduate with a (paperless) degree from the "Thiel School of Entrepreneurialism." What does his program tell us about being human? How does it help us relate to our fellow man, our world (both physically and metaphysically)?
Of course, we need to hold off on making a final judgment about Thiel’s agenda until we can evaluate its "curriculum," which will certainly evolve. Yet one thing is certain: As in the case of most institutions of higher learning, Thiel fails to appreciate how higher education, especially one devoted to the liberal arts, can offer a way for students to understand their humanity and their place in the world in order to cultivate, if the student is willing, a desire to nurture a better life for all.
Ryan McIlhenny is associate professor of history and liberal studies at Providence Christian College, in Pasadena, California.
In a recent Wall Street Journal interview about college costs and online learning, Stanford University President John Hennessy said, "What I told my colleagues is there’s a tsunami coming. I can’t tell you exactly how it’s going to break, but my goal is to try to surf it, not to just stand there." Stanford and other elite institutions, such as Harvard and Carnegie Mellon Universities, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are not sitting back and waiting for technology to disrupt higher education — they are out there experimenting with both delivery formats and cost. They are part of the change. This is why they are elite. They boldly anticipate. And they have the wealth, confidence and the unassailable market niche to do so.
But are they looking in the right place for that tsunami? I would argue “no!” Much of their current effort is directed at experimenting with online learning. This is a necessary component of the massive change that potentially will reconfigure higher education in the United States. Princeton and Stanford Universities and the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania have combined to form Coursera, offering free selected courses to the public. Harvard and MIT have announced a new nonprofit partnership, known as edX, to do the same. Carnegie Mellon is offering its Open Learning Initiative (OLI) to the public.
But all of these efforts are not the tsunami. Open online learning is merely a tool that adds variety to how education is delivered. And many 18-21-year-olds and their families still believe — despite the rhetoric to the contrary — that a college education is as much about maturing in a residential setting as it is about learning or getting a job.
No, online learning may be part of the current, but the tsunami itself will be something different. The tsunami will come from a notion as old and as distinctive as American education itself. The notion about which I speak is that education takes place not just in the classroom — and now through a computer, iPad or smart phone screen — but literally "everywhere, anywhere, anytime."
Yes, education happens in schools and colleges, but it happens also in the home, on the job, at places of worship and through individual initiative. Education also is never finished. A degree offered decades ago — even a few years ago — is obsolete with respect to up-to-date factual knowledge (critical-thinking skills, leadership skills in a residential setting and historical knowledge stay relevant, however). The "anytime" in a distinctively American education means that there is an imperative to amass knowledge through a lifetime and demonstrate acquisition.
Now, imagine that a highly respected, unassailable institution or set of institutions offers a set of completion exams at the bachelor’s level to anyone everywhere, anywhere, anytime. One need only look at the GED, or to some extent the Western Governors University, to say this is possible. Of course, a GED probably doesn’t have the "prestige" of a regularly earned degree and the WGU is still a new model. But we are talking here about what is possible over time with experimentation, improved technologies and unrelenting public pressure to offer an undergraduate education at a more reasonable price than currently predicted.
Necessity clearly still drives invention. Imagine that this move is made by those extremely prestigious research universities currently at initial stages of experimentation with online learning, open access and the rewarding of certificates. Imagine that these universities find a way to equal a high level of academic achievement online to that on their residential campuses, are secure in knowing that there will be always sufficient students who wish a traditional residential experience at their respective campus, and convince their alumni and the public that their coursework on campus and online is academically equivalent as far as the transfer of knowledge is concerned. Would they ultimately leave money on the table in times of ever increasing financial constraint and unrelenting demand to fund pioneering research? Would they restrain from total market dominance?
Imagine the moment when these completion exams permit a person to assemble learning from a variety of academic institutions and life experiences to complete a degree. At that moment, the monopoly of institutions over source and cost loosens, and the student gains control of how knowledge is to be gained and at what price. At that moment, the sources of learning are severed from credentialing. At that moment, American higher education is radically changed.
A tsunami is in the making, but it will encounter a wall of resistance in yet another defining characteristic of American higher education — a 24/7 residential learning and living experience that aims not just to transfer knowledge to 18-21-year-old students, but also to guide their maturation into citizenship. This pushback will be located squarely in the historically prestigious liberal arts colleges and in those institutions like the Ivies and the major research universities confident in securing undergraduates regardless of alternative developments because they have the wealth to afford what always was. But this wall of resistance is not very deep when it comes to all students. All the governors and other policy makers embracing WGU and other forms of recognition for prior learning as well as online learning seem to be quite willing to give up that residential experience, at least for other people’s children.
This residential learning is often inefficient, costly and repetitive, and that is because many developing young people are emotionally and intellectually unpredictable during undergraduate years. The mission for much of 18-21-year-old undergraduate education is to move these students to another level of maturity and corresponding engagement. It is a worthy pursuit. It is education for democracy.
The tsunami is close to shore. The warning siren is sounding. But the outcome is not evident. A barrier — albeit increasingly thin -- formed by commitment to undergraduate residential education for democracy confronts a wave of convenience and necessity defined by centralized credentialing, dispersed sourcing of knowledge and learner-controlled pricing. This is the wave to surf and the shoreline to protect.
William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College.