Stanford Law Graduate, Peter Thiel, again Harping on Higher Education

It’s no surpise that Peter Thiel advocates for dropping out of college.  Back in 2011 his extreme viewpoint garnered national media attention.  Unfortunately his reasoning is no clearer today than it was three years ago.  Peter lives in the Silicon Valley bubble, (or what sci-fi author, Kim Stanley Robinson, calls the Silicon Valley Fantasy Trip in today’s interview) where the final measurement for everything is financial, and it’s all about whether you got in on the next big tech company.

Peter has achieved some phenomenal financial success, and I’m enjoying some of the ideas in his new book, Zero to One.  But his rants against higher education, inlcuding the one he penned for the Washington Post last Friday, Thinking too highly of higher ed, are arrogant and misguiding.

We're all familiar with the argument that college is not for everyone.  In my case, it was that high school and college were not for everyone.  Out of my freshman class of thirty, only eleven graduated:  I came from a small rural town in Southern Utah.  Out of my graduating class of eleven, I was one of two who went on to college.  Those who dropped out went into construction or truck driving or home making.  Those who graduated high school but didn’t go on to college haven’t fared much better.  One high school graduate joined the military, was posted in Iraq, then went back home to pursue the romantic but back breaking work of being a cowboy.  Most all of my original freshman class are living in poverty with a way too many young mouths to feed.  In our town, we heard the argument constantly that “school is not for everyone.”


Peter is obviously targeting upper middle class suburban/urban America with his opinion pieces.  The America that he grew up in.  He’s talking about kids with parents who never hesitate whether to pay for their college education, and have the funds to do so.  Kids whose parents are doctors, and politicians, engineers, and accountants--college graduates themselves.  Kids who grow up with good high schools and great access to science labs and AP classes. 

Peter refers to President Obama’s recent statements that, basically, college is the new high school.  To thrive in our increasingly tech dominated economy, a young person must go to college, the president has reasoned.  This disturbs Peter.  But for the wrong reasons.  Peter thinks that we are straight jacketing young people and “funneling [them] into a tournament that bankrupts the losers and turns the winners into conformists.”  

I say for the wrong reasons because many of us have been disturbed that the president justifies things that are good to do in and of themselves with financial gain.  He’s a politician, and this argument has appeal with the Republicans and fiscally conservative Independents.  Remember the SOTU Address where Obama was justifying government investment in science with the example that every dollar invested in sequencing the first human genome yielded $140 to our economy?

As if we did the Human Genome Project solely to make money.   Sadly, gone are the days when a president argues that we go to the moon for the challenge of the endeavor itself.

An excerpt from John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech:

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Peter's skepticism goes beyond claiming that college creates "winners and losers."  According to him, even the winners are losers.  

In 2011, he established the Thiel Fellowship, what he might consider his control group in an experiment to prove his thesis.   This is a program that awards 20 kids under 20 with $100K each over two years to strike out on their own.    The requirement to participate?  That they drop out of school.   But what does this prove other than the fact that seventeen year olds will take money.  Shouldn't the experiment be done without offering the $100K?  Talk about winners and losers.

All the hard work at Harvard is done by admissions, writes Peter.   Does that mean all the hard work done at the Thiel Fellowship is done by the recruiters?     Couldn't the 20 under 20 just as easily be a select group taken under the wing of some university professor and given fellowships?   A brief look at some of the videos worshipfully prepared by Wired Magazine about these fellows will show that they live together in one house, just as in a dorm.  In fact, one of the fellows jokes that he is “going from one sorority to another.”  For Thiel, everything, including Harvard University, is a software program.  Once you write the code, there’s no more work.  Does he really think that no one, none of the students, none of the teachers at a university work hard?  

A lot of money can make a man foollhardy.  I once chatted with the richest man in Utah, a Mormon, who was determined to prove with DNA testing that the Native Americans came directly from Israel, thus proving The Book of Mormon.  This, despite growing evidence to the contrary coming from many directions.  And this from the guy with 60 patents to his name, mostly medical, one of which was for the disposable venous catheter.

Peter’s assumptions are all dominated by money.  He structures this latest opinion piece explicitly around financial terms.  First, is college a good investment, he asks.  Second, is college mostly about consumption?   Oh, it's an insurance.   Or is it about a competitive tournament-style economy?  Or is it a financial bubble that has replaced the housing bubble?

You're the one in the bubble, Peter.

If I hadn’t gone to college, not only would I probably be mining shale gas in North Dakota right  now (construction was good in Southern Utah until it suddenly was not), I’d be a closeted gay creationist with a dozen kids and a headache every time I thought about reading a book.

Beyond the fact that Peter doesn’t see any value in going to college other than to better oneself financially, he doesn’t even acknowledge his own college experience.  Does he think he’d have more money today if he hadn’t got his two degrees at Stanford--one in philosophy and the other in law?  Does his radical view reflect some ambivalence with his own education?  

When you look at the advancements in the life science industry--the discovery of the double helix, the use of recombinant DNA, the devlopment of automated sequencing--they happened in the academic setting where students took part.  Craig Venter, George Church, Lee Hood, Ron Davis all came into their own on campus.

Peter’s short list of examples for his “drop out” philosophy include no scientists, no biologists or doctors who have won the Nobel prize, no artists or politicians, no philosophers or intellectuals--no, it’s a short, familiar list: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg.  These are the names that will keep all American children inspired to drop out of college and cheat their future.  They are the Luthers of the new “Reformation” Peter foresees.  Wait, that doesn't work.  Luther was a university professor.  

And what about Peter’s point that as soon as a university begins teaching a subject, it’s already outdated?  In fact, I remember several professors in college reminding us of this very idea in regard to science and technology.  But what about those subjects that don’t go outdated so quickly?  I studied English literature and music.   All of the English in Thiel’s piece has been around for some time.  His grammar is nothing but standard.  There aren’t even any innovative or disruptive punctuation marks:?.!

Finally, if Ivy League universities are good, concedes Peter, let's franchise them.  I didn't attend an Ivy League school, but I spent a term at Cambridge University in England.  I resided at Trinity College, the same old structure built by Henry VIII that housed Newton and Tennyson.   At Cambridge, each student has a mentor who lives in the same college.  It's a tradition that has evolved over half a millenium and produced the likes of Charles Darwin, John Maynard Keynes, Stephen Hawking, Ludwig Wittgenstien, and John Oliver.  The idea of franchising this tradition is akin to duplicating the Grand Canyon on one of Peter's floating islands.

Peter has said elsewhere that he’s not talking about doing away with college altogether.  Whew!  You can relax Cambridge, Stanford, Oxford, Harvard.  Peter says you can stay around.  No, he’s just against a “one size fits all.”   School, or life, is like a suit.  You can get your own size.  

Thanks for telling us, Peter.  We learned that back in college.