Now that the Thiel Fellows have been announced the media has been pouncing. If you don’t know, Peter Thiel is giving a bunch of bright-young-things some money to drop out of college (or not go to college). Here are the details:
As the first members of the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, the Fellows will pursue innovative scientific and technical projects, learn entrepreneurship, and begin to build the technology companies of tomorrow. During their two-year tenure, each Fellow will receive $100,000 from the Thiel Foundation as well as mentorship from the Foundation’s network of tech entrepreneurs and innovators. The project areas for this class of fellows include biotech, career development, economics and finance, education, energy, information technology, mobility, robotics, and space.
The media has expressed polite and impolite skepticism of the idea of not going the college route. They point out, correctly, that those who are college graduates have much higher earning power. If you think college is a waste of time, try getting a high paying job outside of manufacturing or high-risk labor. Since this is a site where I can express my own personal perspective, let me drop the mask of objective reportage and shift toward candor: the criticisms are just plain stupid. As Thiel notes it isn’t as if these kids are signing away their one shot at getting a bachelor’s degree. They’re taking two years off. Secondarily, take a look at the biographies of the kids which Thiel has given the Fellowships to. These are by definition exactly the kind of individuals for whom college is pure signal which adds marginal substance. A college degree has an enormous value add to the median individual who is college material. A college degree has an enormous value even to those people who are bright enough to gain admission to selective universities. But there are some people for whom college is just a hoop they have to jump, not a necessary step up the ladder of their lives.
Most bright young people should go to college, and perhaps to post-graduate studies. We need professionals and other assorted types. A civil engineer doesn’t need to be the most inventive and heterodox thinker in the world. They just need to be smart enough to execute the task assigned, and adapt on the fly when needed. We need civil engineers. No one denies that. But a world with only civil engineers would be a grayer and poorer one (I mean poorer in both an aesthetic and economic sense). The vast majority of humans are destined to operate the complex dynamic machine which we term civilization. But a very very small minority change the very terms of what we term civilization. These are exactly the people who gain nothing substantive from college.
If Peter Thiel allocated 100 million dollars and funded 1,000 fellows, it wouldn’t change the functioning of the machinery of civilization at all. There are millions of engineers in the United States alone. And consider that despite the tragedy of “lost generations,” mass wars which culled huge swaths of the youth in the past few centuries did not result in a collapse of civilization.
So will Thiel’s fellows make a difference? They’re obviously really bright, but the reality is that most people who aspire to be the next Isaac Newton or James Watt won’t be, because there’s a lot of luck and happenstance involved. But what I appreciate about this sort of project is that it sends a message that there is social and cultural value in being an oddball who doesn’t aspire to be a prominent and licensed professional, let alone a banker at Goldman Sachs. And if you change your mind, life expectancy has shot up over the past century. Why not make use of those extra years as a little experimental slack?
Addendum: And just to be clear, personally I really value institutional educational frameworks a lot for myself (which is reflect in the choices I’ve made). But I’m not every human being, and I’ve met people who are bright and creative who I can see not flourishing in a conventional university environment. That doesn’t make them monsters. They’re just…different. There is no shame in that.