Peter Thiel's Questions

It's easy for academics to scoff at the entrepreneur who tells students they don't need college degrees, but he's raising important issues (even if he isn't offering the right solutions), writes Ryan McIlhenny.

June 14, 2012

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. 


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