Let a thousand Thiel fellows bloom!

By Razib Khan | May 25, 2011 11:34 pm

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Psychology

Comments (14)

  1. John

    I hate to be cynical but there are some things which people actually learn in college. You know, science and stuff like that.
    While I can see a Thiel fellow starting a web company I can hardly see anyone being successful in e.g., creating a biotech without either a lot of advanced knowledge or a lot of money. Advanced knowledge is pretty hard to get by studying by oneself. There is type of apprenticeship in learning how to think about the problems.
    While theoretically, someone could raise a lot of money to throw at a problem this would beg the question of why people would give someone with little added value this amount of money. Generally a track record or a breakthrough is needed before raising the serious money.
    That said I would undoubtedly hire most of these fellows to work for me, I just wouldn’t allow them to do anything like what their stated objective are.
    Bottom line, if they want to get a well-paying job the fellowship won’t help them since they could undoubtedly get one already. If they want to achieve the objective which they claim it strongly depends on what field they are in. For the internet stuff which can be done on a shoestring the fellowship can actually be useful but for any serious scientific endeavor you will need more.
    Full disclosure: I hold a STEM PHd and I know two of the fellows (and they are not oddballs or misfits at all).

  2. Julian O'Dea

    Interesting. They are bright but I don’t see anything very novel among their interests. Internet applications; robots (a real old chestnut!); aids for the disabled; bioengineering. What is radically new here?

    The thing which did surprise me was that there has been no obvious attempt to ensure “gender diversity”. Refreshing.

  3. Charles Nydorf

    The current academic scene demands so much homework that two years off just to hang out in libraries would be a vast improvement.

  4. Nathan M

    It just exposes what a fraud the so-called “profession” of journalism is. Gumshoe reporters used to be blue collar. Now they spend four years in J-school learning the craft of writing in a specific style. Although the signal-to-noise ratio among blogs is pretty low in general, there are some real gems out there. It must sting for the dinosaur media companies to get scooped by bloggers who do this for fun. You do better reporting (plus commentary) than any full-time, credentialed reporter on the science beat.

  5. Violet

    Hear, hear! The most objective assessment of civil engineers by Razib. Finally, he is rational about civil engineers too.

  6. lotuspixie

    Also, at least 10 of these kids (based on their blurbs) have already either graduated from college or attended college, making the criticisms even more stupid.

  7. Chris T

    They point out, correctly, that those who are college graduates have much higher earning power.

    The rising tuition costs are threatening to wipe out any premium provided by a college degree for many majors. Going to college for the love of learning is a nice thought, but for the amount of money one increasingly has to pay, it had better provide a good economic return. You can’t eat books.

  8. John Emerson

    A lot of what John says boils down to the fact that bioscience is very capital intensive.

    It’s not that uncommon for people to reach the top of their field with rather minimal formal schooling, or to breeze through school without ever having to work much while teaching their supposed teachers things. They aren’t necessarily transcendent geniuses, just self-motivated people who have a capacity for educating themselves.

  9. The actual value added of a college degree as a result of the education received, as opposed to sorting effects, certainly varies.

    Few people who start engineering programs would be able to do their jobs in 21st century America without the knowledge that they acquire in their college eductions. Most people who are professional athletes and entertainers or journalists or creative writers and artist could do just fine without the kind of educational experiences that a conventional college education is designed to offer. I don’t know if it is still true today, but when I was in college, the IT world used to be one where actually programming and IT skills that colleges don’t teach had immense economic value and it made all sorts of economic sense to drop out of college to take a job in that field.

    Substantial formal higher education in business is indispensible, for better or for worse, for someone intent on joining the large institution dominated world of investment banking. But in the dog eat dog world of start up business ventures, no one cares if you’re a dog – what you know and can do that is relevant to the business matters, but a huge chunk of the instruction received in an undergraduate business program or an M.B.A. is irrelevant.

    There is a very credible argument to be made that while smarts are important for elementary education, that elementary education instruction in college has pretty modest benefit. I’m not totally convinced of that, but there is a reasonable argument to that effect to be made, and a reasonable argument that the status quo is not attracting people as smart as it might hope to attract to that profession.

    Lots of jobs requiring reasonable together halfway intelligent people like book keeping and paralegal work where at least a two year college degree is often expected in the United States were routinely done by sixteen year old high school dropouts in New Zealand, where dropping out of high school did not carry the same stigma that it does in the United States.

    Interestingly, those careers where credentials matter least tend to be those where the results of your efforts can be most directly evaluated (e.g. real estate sales and development), while those where they matter most tend to be in large institutions where each individual’s contribution is least direct and proxies for competence are necessary.

    The most explosive issue in the sorting v. value added piece when it comes to college educations is the value of a liberal arts education. Clearly, many institutions (e.g. investment banks, businesses looking for management trainees, management consulting firms, law schools, medical schools) use a liberal arts degree as a sorting tool to weed out people who have low IQs, who utterly lack self-discipline and grit, or who lack the social class markers that come from having been a well read liberal arts graduate.

    But, the liberal arts curriculum was designed to create clergy, professors and landed aristocrats, and it isn’t obvious that it is optimal when put to other purposes. Yes, critical thinking and wide humanist knowledge has value that can be life long. But it can also be just a hoop to jump through.

    If the Thiel scholarship succeeds in helping to identify credible life paths for capable people that don’t involve an immediate sojourn in academia, and to focus higher educational institutions on showing that they add value rather than merely offering sorting credientials so much the better.

  10. James G. Merickel

    If you ask me, this may well be judged the most significant single ‘scholarship’ the world has known, and rather soon. Colleges at the undergraduate level in most subject areas (particularly colleges and universities with a geographic base (not internet ones)) are already or will soon be virtual anachronisms and are certainly remarkably overpriced at present. What our post-modern society should be striving for is people in the undergraduate age group to begin a process of qualifying for advanced degrees without the ‘benefit’ of undergraduate school while also discovering who they are in ways that traditional undergraduate schools are as apt to interfere with as assist. These large institutions–again, at the undergraduate level–should be moving toward being very fancy highschools instead of serving their current uses as second families for immature people with often very poor highschool backgrounds. Taking this direction would (will) eventually (perhaps soon) result in the educational level of those at the normal age to enter college to improve dramatically, and the in-many-ways largely non-integrative undergraduate experience that now exists could be better substituted for with a cooperative autodidacticism having a limited focus on credentialization and a greater one on true learning.
    Most undergraduate-level work in most subject areas does not require the student to be at a specific (say, laboratory) location, and the sense that one is still preparing to earn money by learning and/or credentialing oneself would be better substituted for by time devoted to learning for its own sake accompanied by actual paid or volunteer work and/or work internships. The fact that highschool education in the United States is a mess helps to support this argument for the reason given that the facilities could be used to fix this. The only thing wrong with the Thiel scholarships is the implicit idea that skipping or perhaps abbreviating undergraduate school should only be for those who would breeze through it anyway.

  11. A late-night conversation with friends prompted me to write a post for our members on the cost of college and whether the expense makes sense for all people. While researching the topic I found your post, and may I just say that I appreciate people who realize that there are multiple paths to success. I’m glad Thiel is supporting those who are taking an uncommon route.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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