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Pedagogy 2.0: Rhodes Less Traveled

As to the age-old student question, “what’s the point of learning this?” my mentor and Yale President, A. Bartlett Giamatti, replied that “it may not make you richer, but it will definitely make you richer inside.” Evidently Peter Thiel thinks differently. With a net worth of over 1.6 billion dollars, the PayPal co-Founder has developed a fellowship for students to forgo a traditional college education so they can focus on their entrepreneurial projects.

Giamatti once told a select group of “History, the Arts and Letters” students that when he awakens to the sunrise, he feels a pervasive connection to human experience through the observation of “the rosy fingers of dawn,” as Homer phrased it. Indeed, I consider myself very fortunate to have been among that close circle of disciples touched by Giamatti’s wisdom, not to mention the erudition of thinkers from Heraclitus to Schopenhauer.

But how did I get there? Luckily, I was the recipient of a “Westinghouse Science Talent Search” award that opened doors to the Ivy League school of my choice. In contrast, Peter Thiel’s fellowship underwrites students to “leave institutions including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University, to work with a network of more than 100 Silicon Valley mentors and further develop their ideas in areas such as biotechnology, education, and energy,” according to Ben Wieder in The Chronicle of Higher Education. As you will see in their video below, “The Thiel Fellowship gives rising tech entrepreneurs under 20 years old $100,000 each to skip college and start changing the world.”

Watch this video at YouTube.

Jim O’Neill, Thiel Fellowship co-founder states that “we focused on the problem – what is preventing lots of visionary people from going into technology? And the answer we agreed on was student debt.” Many consider this offer a parent’s worst nightmare; telling kids to drop out of school. O’Neill counters that “we are telling professors and college administrators that people don’t have to buy their product.”

Thiel Fellow Gary Kurek notes that “college puts me down a linear path of thinking, vs. learning from experience through something like the Thiel Fellowship. I could learn faster and more effectively, something that really can’t be matched.” Another Thiel Fellowship recipient, Sujay Thuyle, who stopped out of Harvard University, proposes that “the value of running with an idea while it’s hot…far outweighs the benefits of that college degree right now.”

It’s easy to forget, if you live in an ivory tower, but people around the world still face major problems – death, disease, war, poverty, energy – and there are also great solutions that are sitting around in people’s heads, in daydreams.

—Jim O’Neill, Thiel Fellowship Co-Founder

Thiel’s larger goal is to engender a discussion about the value of a college degree in today’s global marketplace. He contends that higher education is the next bubble that will follow a path similar to that of the recent real-estate bubble. Thiel believes that a traditional education pressures students to pursue “lower-risk trajectories” that have led to the relative lack of game-changing innovation in the United States today.

Watch Theil Fellows speak about their decisions in the following clips and decide for yourself whether they are making a good life choice.

Watch this video at YouTube.

We envision that one day a patient can walk into a doctor’s office, sit down, get their genome sequenced entirely...we can do some analysis on what sort of mutations they have and our device will actually print out a treatment while they are sitting there.

—20 Under 20 Thiel Fellow Paul Sebexen

Watch this video at YouTube.

If you think about all the devices that you interact with on a daily basis, your washing machine, parking meter, all these other devices that have very little connectivity…we can create an ecosystem of devices that are personalized to your taste.

—20 Under 20 Thiel Fellow Ritik Malhotra

Watch this video at YouTube.

There is one fact that never fails to infuriate me. That fact is that every day 150,000 people die of a disease that we ignore...the amazing thing about now is that we’ve got the toolkit to fight aging, to really cure age-related disease.

—20 Under 20 Thiel Fellow Laura Deming

Some feel that the Thiel Fellowship is off the mark. Blogger Jack McDermott believes that it glorifies an opposition to mainstream education, overinflates the value of young entrepreneurs and under-appreciates the college experience. He writes that:

Peter Thiel outwardly combats higher education and draws the largest possible implications from its supposed failures. However, by targeting mainstream higher education as the problem, the Thiel Fellowship frames itself as the solution. In my judgment, this is just wrong. It is an inaccurate and bloated stance…

According to Slate columnist Jacob Weisberg:

Thiel made clear his contempt for American universities which, like governments, he believes, cost more than they're worth and hinder what really matters in life…it's puerile libertarianism, infused with futurist fantasy. Both his entrepreneurship and his philanthropy have been animated by techno-utopianism… [Thiel’s] belief system is based on unapologetic selfishness and economic Darwinism.

In contrast, the Thiel Fellowship sees itself as re-inventing higher education by helping students experience the path to discovery, rather than merely reading about it. They describe it as follows:

Thiel Fellows are given a no-strings-attached grant of $100,000 to skip college and focus on their work, their research, and their self-education. They are mentored by our network of visionary thinkers, investors, scientists, and entrepreneurs, who provide guidance and business connections that can’t be replicated in any classroom. Rather than just studying, you’re doing.

What do you think? Could this be the first glimmer of education 2.0 or simply the narcissistic worldview of a successful capitalist? Should higher education guide students to develop competence, manage emotions, move through autonomy toward interdependence, develop mature interpersonal relationships, establish identity and develop integrity, as Chickering contends, or, as the Thiel Foundation suggests, provide a platform from which students can pursue their abiding interests? Let us know by sharing your thoughts in the blog below.