Maybe it’s just me. It’s gotta be me, right?

Yesterday my family watched a CNBC program on an interesting project called the 20 Under 20 Fellowship sponsored by the Thiel Foundation, a creation of Peter Thiel, one of the masterminds (or at least most visible beneficiaries) of Facebook (I’m not linking to that; you just came from there).  On its face, the entire thing looked like a laudable, even exemplary idea: take the entrepreneurial explosiveness of teenagers and use it to fuel new ideas and companies, with the inventors/thinkers themselves as the driving force.  The twenty winners get a whole range of prizes and perks, from networking with the Silicon Valley elite to investment capital to $100,000 in cash.  They get to work full time on their dream for the next two years, at least.  Which means, of course, that they can’t be going to school.

Ay, as Hamlet would say, there’s the rub.

This Fellowship has gotten some ugly, vitriolic criticism from people that apparently think the program amounts to contributing to the delinquency of a minor.  There were, on the show we watched, several people, parents, some of the kids, and others, that were not just skeptical but downright hostile.  “Nothing can ever replace a degree,” one of them said.  “I’m really not happy about so-and-so dropping out of college.  That’s a pretty big sacrifice,” said another.

Excuse me?

Background and biases: I am a teacher of history and politics (and music!) at two private schools.  I have a B.A. in Classical Civilization/Roman History.  My father has a Masters in Education from Stanford and a B.A. in History from Columbia, and teaches government and politics at two local universities.  My mother still teaches sixth grade at the age of 72.  We are as pro-education a family as one could find.

I think the quality of education in the United States is fairly good, considering the massive bureaucracy that has accreted around it.  Our universities are still excellent, especially the graduate programs, as evidenced by the fact that the entire world sends its best students here whenever possible.  The entire system costs too much, however.  Cartoonishly too much.  I also believe that the purpose of education has been buried so deep that it will be next-to-impossible to exhume, as this show demonstrated to me forcefully.

What is the purpose of an education?  If I were to ask this in survey form, and provide several possible answers from “to give one options in life” to “to get a good job”, what we would see is 85% of the latter answer.  It is the boldly stated purpose of American education to qualify our kids to get a job.  Once, the idea was that an education was the purpose of life itself, the entire reason for our being on this earth in the first place.  No matter what your religion, you can’t think you’re going to take anything else with you when you die, can you?  Now, though, learning to think, to analyze, to appreciate, is just an adjunct to schooling.  What matters is a) the grade and b) the job at the end.

Two problems, right away: 1) “grade” by its own definition is supposed to be used as a unit of separation into good, bad and ugly, and 2) there aren’t any jobs.

This leads to some interesting results (I really am coming back to the 20 Under 20 Fellowship).  Eventually, since the only things that matter are the grades and the job, you get grade inflation, where every student is an A student (and where anything less than an A might as well be an F), meaning that, as Dash says in The Incredibles, since everyone is special, no one is.  The other thing that happens is that kids get to the end of the pipeline and have to spend summer Occupying Wall Street, because they can’t get a job, and they’ve apparently been taught that it was their right to have one.  Someone should be forced to give them one.  Look, I have a degree in Comparative Literature from Brown.  You must employ me, despite the fact that I can do no useful work.

How, when there are four B.A.s on every streetcorner, does one then secure one of those jobs out there?  One must differentiate oneself.  As the current thinking goes, two ways to do this, one of them useless and one destructive.  First, get perfect grades (useless).  That doesn’t work, because that’s what everyone else is doing, and frankly, the hiring manager at Deloitte doesn’t care if you were sixth in your class at Princeton or sixtieth.  You’re massively overqualified and shockingly underexperienced regardless.  Second, get more education.  Get a Masters.  It will take an MBA to get a job as a night shift manager at Wendy’s, one of these days.  The reason this is destructive is the huge amount of debt ordinarily required to get one of these even-shinier pieces of paper.  Student debt of $250,000 to $400,000 (which many of these kids admit they are facing) cannot be justified by ANY possible salary.

So here we are, and along comes this fellow that proposes something different.  Why not, he asks, take a great idea that could be productive right now, and do something with it right now?  What is the purpose of an education?  If it’s to get a job, why not get a job right now?

Parents and educators, at least the ones that were quoted in the program, cannot see this.  They still appear to think that one must use one of the destructive or useless paths through the educational system.

But of course this is nonsense.  Most people, even most really smart people, won’t work in their field of study their whole careers.  Liberal arts majors, like me, become disoriented if they work in their field of study for ANY of their career.  And did I mention that there are no jobs?  For new college graduates, by far the best possible job security is not the degree, but the ability – and above all the willingness – to make a job for themselves.  To innovate, to create, to produce.  Not to Occupy.

This really is an option.  I’m serious.  It’s possible to start a business, although I do have to say it’s a lot harder than it ever has been, even during the Great Depression, when economic hardship wasn’t compounded by fanatical zoning and other regulatory Nazis.  The ability to start a business is the best job security there is.  It’s not close.  It’s not debatable.

But Heaven forbid a kid should get some hands-on tutoring in that from someone that made a billion dollars at it.  Much better to be taking classes in theoretical physics from a professor that has never had a job outside the friendly walls of the Physics Building.  Right?  Um.

I should also point out something one of the kids said, which is that once you have seventy or a hundred grand in student loan debt, you can’t start a business.  You can’t go to work for a startup.  These kids may have in their heads a cure for cancer, and we’re telling them they better stay locked in a system that practically guarantees the they’ll never get it out of their heads and into practice.  I hear this and I wonder if we don’t deserve all the misery we’re getting.

I have an advantage in adopting a variable way of thinking about an educational path.  I left college for two years.  I didn’t go start a business, and nobody gave me a hundred grand, and I didn’t hobnob with Silicon Valley entrepreneur millionaires, so my experience wasn’t terrible analogous to what these kids will have, but the two years I spent – on my own dime – living in communist Hungary and eating wienies roasted on a fork over the gas stove was pretty educational all the same.  I have to say this: of all the education I ever received, the cheapest and most practical was the two years I spent in Hungary.   Nothing that I learned in college came close.  Nothing I learned in high school came close.  The best education I ever received was not in a school.

Oh, and this: they took me back.  No, really.  When I was done with my two years overseas, the university readmitted me and then threw about a year’s worth of credit at me for being trilingual all of a sudden.  My father lost three academic years at Columbia slogging around the hills and vales of France (according to him, best thing he ever did educationally).  Columbia took him back.  Not one of these kids is going to have a momentary difficulty getting a degree should that become a necessity, or even interesting.  You can get back on the train.  People do it all the time.  There’s not even the smallest chance that a kid that wins this prize is going to lose anything – ANYTHING – by doing this fellowship for two years.

These kids have an irreplaceable opportunity to do something amazing.  For instance, one of these kids built a fusion reactor in the garage and became the youngest person ever to achieve nuclear fusion, at sixteen.  This kid cannot, he MUST not, be allowed to think that he has to go to class for a predetermined amount of time to become something, that he will be a failure if nobody hands him a piece of paper that he will put in a box in the attic and never see again until he moves from one house to another.  These kids have ideas that can make tens of thousands – millions – of people better off right now.  By all means, in a world that is drowning in hopelessness and misery, let’s make sure none of those ideas get any airtime, at least not until the kids have had a chance to take Art History 102.

I believe in a lifetime education.  I do not believe that I have to get it at an accredited university.  I begin to believe that I CANNOT get it at an accredited university.

There is a new baseline in the US economy, and we are on it.  This is average.  This is normal.  Barring the truly unlikely willingness of the US electorate to bite the fiscal bullet, we are not going back to the way things were.  The only way for the teen of today to make sure he’s got productive work to do is to do productive work, job or not, as much as possible.  To me, the 20 Under 20 Fellowship is one of the most creative ways to teach that.

Education in the US has several problems, and they are going to be difficult to overcome.  There is more student loan debt in the US than credit card debt.  The value of a college education and the cost of it are rapidly losing touch one with another.  Driving this is the maniacal insistence on a degree as the base qualification for citizenship, almost, in the American polity.  It has to stop.  Shortly, of its own weight, it will stop.  It won’t be pretty when it does.

I applaud Peter Thiel, himself a refugee from the educational conveyor-belt, for trying something new in the midst of a system increasingly broken.  I wish him the best, and hope that from this Fellowship come some of the most world-changing ideas ever put into practice.  If the concept itself has started a discussion about what is truly important in an education, then it’s off to a good start.

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