“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
You may have read an opinion piece by Peter Thiel that lambasts the traditional four year college (“Thinking too highly of higher ed”) calling it an elitist tournament that “bankrupts the losers and turns the winners into conformists.” Some years ago Mr. Thiel famously offered students $100,000 to drop out of college to start a company; since then he has been trying to hasten and also championing the demise of traditional education. On the other side of the argument, Vivek Wadhwa penned an Op-ed, also in the Washington Post, defending college education as we know it today (“In defense of college: What Peter Thiel gets wrong, once again”). He cites numerous studies about how college educated workers earn many times more than their peers without degrees. He purports that Mr. Thiel’s formula would lead us in a race to the bottom.
The problem is that both men are completely wrong.
The issue lies in this same absolutism that we seem to have generally embraced as a society. It comes in large part from a totally broken political system in Washington. One that has permeated into the media; with pundits from both sides having raucous debates on every issue, always with black and white viewpoints and never agreeing on anything at all. Sure, it is great for ratings because it is much more fun to watch but it is lousy for progress and keeping America competitive for the next century – which will require collaboration and ideas from all sides of the political and individual spectrum. The same seems to hold true for debates in the business world today. Whether it is the abhorrent behaviour of an Uber senior manager or the growing cacophony of women claiming that Bill Cosby drugged and raped them, we inevitably have two sides emerge, both firmly entrenched in their positions and refusing to budge. Both citing anecdotal and statistical evidence to make their individual cases. The end result is that we never reach consensus and most times the perpetrators walk away without facing any real consequences for their actions (other than a social media battering or outpouring of support). The net result is that we learn nothing and nothing changes.
In fact, it feels like compromise has become a bad word. To suggest it is deemed as a sign of weakness rather than seen as a positive way to find a better solution - one that takes into account both viewpoints and finds the BEST path forward. Here, I stress the best path and not the one of least resistance or one that appeals to the lowest common denominator, by trying to satisfy all sides. The point is that nobody has a monopoly on great ideas – democrat, lesbian, republican, entrepreneur, African American, corporate executive, short, tall, illegal immigrant or college professor – we need to take the best ideas from across the spectrum to find the most innovative solutions to the problems we face today. Having a position, and getting entrenched without being able to listen to those who oppose our position will never allow us to make progress. Also, consider that many entrenched positions are driven by purely political ideology versus substantive data or genuine objectivity.
In this instance I would suggest that each man has merits to his arguments, but neither is right on the merits of his alone. If we were to combine their contentions, we might start with the premise that the education system in the US is broken. Granted, pre-college education seems much more broken than higher education, but this is in large part due to the fact that it has received far more attention and been the focus of both political parties and many interest groups. However, when parents stop having a second child purely because of the cost of a private school and the ability to send a second kid to a top tier college would be cost-prohibitive, I would say we have a problem that needs to be fixed.
Mr. Thiel is right when he states that the education system today designed to make us all conform. From the first time we step into a classroom we begin the process of removing creative, independent thought and courageous risk-taking behaviour from our wild and imaginative little minds. We are taught to act, speak and think in a certain way rather than to explore our imaginations in ways that expand our little boundaries without ever suppressing bold and unconventional thinking. On the other hand Mr. Wadhwa is also right when he argues that we learn invaluable real world skills in college, beyond what comes out of a textbook. It is in college that we are away from our parents and fending for ourselves for the first time. Sharing a room and learning to negotiate, resolve differences and get along with perfect strangers. It is the first time many of us have had to step outside our little bubble and deal with people with whom we may have nothing in common. We also taste untethered freedom for the first time, and need to learn how to balance it with studies. We learn to deal with professors, select classes, make a schedule and figure out how to be accepted into various social circles. Most importantly it gives us time to figure out how to become adults before we have to face big bad world of responsibilities and mortgages.
I would also go further and say that college, in the traditional four year format is not for everyone, but we cannot simply write it off as completely redundant for this reason alone, as Mr. Thiel suggests we do. What I am saying is that the premise of pre-college education should be based on teaching us valuable inter-personal skills to help us survive, but also ensure that our curious little minds get the opportunity to explore a world we did not know existed and barely imagined; from mathematics to woodwork and Shakespeare to swimming – we should stop trying to box kids into neat little squares and expect them all to become monochromatic adults. Based on this premise, if we were to re-think higher education in the same vein then we would imagine a world where it consisted of various different types of courses based on passions that have peaked during the early school formative years. We could have some kids coming out of school wanting to become mechanics, woodworkers or electricians and they can attend a two or five year specialized skills based training program that would involve job placements. Equally, we may have a bunch passionate about law, engineering or business. And finally we may have another set of people who have no idea what they want to be and attend a newly designed curriculum that exposes them to everything from business to the arts, and a host of other things.
The point is that if we can get Mr. Wadhwa and Mr. Thiel to sit down and start to envision new ideas and ways to get kids ready for this brave new world then we will likely end up with an amazing starting roadmap to fix our broken system. But as long as they refuse to acknowledge the realities, positive and negative, and remain invested in protecting or tearing down their status quo, our kids will continue to suffer and nothing will change.