“Where Did Shakespeare Take His Courses in Creative Writing?”

Jacob Weisberg, Slate columnist and compiler of the Bushisms, is having what they commonly refer to as a royal conniption fit.

If you’ve seen The Social Network, you may have caught a passing glimpse of Peter Thiel. Thiel was the first outside investor in Facebook, putting up $500,000 to finance the site’s original expansion in 2004. In the film’s version of events, he connives with Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, to deprive Mark Zuckerberg’s friend Eduardo Saverin of his 30 percent stake in the company. Though the character based on Thiel appears on-screen only briefly, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay demolishes the German-born venture-capitalist in a single line: “We’re in the offices of a guy whose hero is Gordon Gekko.”
…Thiel’s latest crusade is his worst yet, and more troubling than the possibility of an unfrozen caveman venture capitalist awaking in the 22nd century and demanding his space capsule. The Thiel Fellowship will pay would-be entrepreneurs under 20 $100,000 in cash to drop out of school. In announcing the program, 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, namely starting tech companies. His scholarships are meant as an escape hatch from these insufficiently capitalist institutions of higher learning.

Where to start with this nasty idea? A basic feature of the venture capitalist’s worldview is its narcissism, and with that comes the desire to clone oneself–perhaps literally in Thiel’s case. Thus Thiel fellows will have the opportunity to emulate their sponsor by halting their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood, maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible, and thereby avoid the siren lure of helping others or contributing to the advances in basic science that have made the great tech fortunes possible. Thiel’s program is premised on the idea that America suffers from a deficiency of entrepreneurship. In fact, we may be on the verge of the opposite, a world in which too many weak ideas find funding and every kid dreams of being the next Mark Zuckerberg. This threatens to turn the risk-taking startup model into a white boy’s version of the NBA, diverting a generation of young people from the love of knowledge for its own sake and respect for middle-class values.

Well, where to start with Weisberg’s “where-to-start”? I’m somewhat personally offended by the insinuation that a desire to clone oneself is, by its own qualities and due to absolutely nothing else, some kind of evil thing. We should, as people, like ourselves should we not? You should expect that if a person is mentally and emotionally healthy, and somehow “cloned” as it were, he should be able to get along with himself right?

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Maybe this is what we’re all arguing about. Maybe this is our “Whoah, the Emperor is buck-ass naked!” moment right here. Maybe liberals like Weisberg are people who wouldn’t and couldn’t be their own best friends — and they know it.

I’m also put off by the idea that offering an alternate educational path is something that can be fairly compared to…how does Weisberg say it? “Halting their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood, maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible, and thereby avoid the siren lure of helping others or contributing to the advances in basic science that have made the great tech fortunes possible.” What is it that gets under my skin about this? Ah…I know what it is. The pure, brazen, proud-to-be-there ignorance. Weisberg, your first semester lesson is that the “advances in basic science that have made great tech fortunes possible” were, for the most part, made by those who maintained “a narrow-minded focus on getting rich.” You may not like it, but it’s true. I’ll not bother with putting anything else in this semester’s lesson plan, I’m sure it’ll take you quite a while to wrap your mind around this one.

We owe a hat tip to our blogger friend Professor Mondo for this one, who has a salient way of making up the point. Uh, and that’s from inside the ivy-covered walls, for what it’s worth…

Oddly enough for someone in my line of work, I try not to overestimate the value of higher education. Don’t get me wrong – I think higher ed is a wonderful thing, and I’d like to think that what I do makes people’s lives better. But at the same time, I’m not crazy enough to think that college is the only route to a happy, productive life, and in fact, I’ve met my share of students who would be much happier pursuing their dreams in some other setting. As I tell my creative writing students:

Quick! Where did Shakespeare take his courses in Creative Writing? OK, how about Charles Dickens? Mark Twain? Mickey Spillane?

In many ways, a college degree serves as a sort of measure of ethos, an indicator that someone can follow directions and overcome certain obstacles. But the idea of college-as-credentialing-device is nothing new, and in fact it’s one of the assumptions underlying what many folks are calling the higher education bubble. Lots of people find themselves in college not because they particularly care about what they can learn there, but because it’s a hoop through which they’re expected to jump.

Bingo. This is the problem. And when you work in a high tech field, and the task falls on you to hire your replacement, it rises up and stares you right in the face. It isn’t pretty.

Here is an illustration of what I’m talking about; a crude, high-level illustration. To provide this illustration, I’ll go over some problems that really come up when you’re building something.

One. Everyone is unhappy with this software application. It only barely meets the requirements as envisioned by our customers, and is extremely hard to use. Our developers can’t maintain it effectively. Very simple enhancements require more clock time to implement than it seems they should…and they often have to be re-done. How would you re-factor this? How would you define the scope of such a project? How would you prioritize it?

Two. Your system is undergoing an audit of its security features. You look over the requirements and find some of them are extremely well thought-out, and others don’t seem to make any sense at all. It occurs to you that your system should have an audit process of its own, which should borrow the good ideas from this one, and fill in the gaps where it sucks. Since senior management isn’t expecting such a move, what would you do to lower the cost of implementing such a hairbrained idea?

Three. You are the manager of a bunch of highly creative, talented, resourceful software engineers. Trouble is, they tend to “work in silos” a lot. How do you approach this situation without sucking the fun out of these people’s jobs and giving them a powerful incentive to move on? Maybe you should just leave well enough alone and let the team as a whole work inconsistently and inefficiently? What process would you use here to make these decisions?

I’m citing these examples because they actually come up in an environment where people come together and earn money by building something. I’m also citing these examples because, when they or something like them pop up — and they do — whatever you learned in your college class or your cert program isn’t going to help you a whole lot. They call for what I call “thinking on your feet”; inventing a brand-new process, as opposed to following one.

The biggest difference between inventing a new process versus following an established one, is the criticism. You have to be ready to take it, because you’re coming up with Version 1.00 of something. There are going to be flaws. There will be problems. You need to expect this.

Our over-educated set has this bad reputation of not being able to handle criticism. There’s a reason this bad rep is there. It has been earned. Let’s face it: A lot of the appeal of following an established process, is that if it earns criticism the criticism has to be routed to someone else. It’s easy to get hooked on this. And a lot of people are graduating from higher ed curricula with massive, incurable, lifetime addictions.

As I explained at Bastidge’s place last month,

This starts to become a harmful arrangement when you acknowledge something a lot of engineers don’t want to acknowledge: antithetical skills. Imagine that the job to be done is Sumo wrestling…and the certification process is concerned with a quarter-mile sprint. If you look long enough, you’ll eventually find an awesome wrestler who can also run fast. But you certainly won’t see that often…and at the end of the day, when your team is assembled, you won’t have the best wrestlers you could have.

In fact, what you would expect to see is exactly what we are seeing in the high tech fields and have been seeing for awhile: Talented candidates frustrated they aren’t getting hired; massive expense, lag time and inefficiency in the hiring process; CIOs upset that it has become such a cumbersome process to try to fill these positions.

By “antithetical skills” what I’m referring to is that generally, the folks who are best at passing tests and following written procedures, aren’t good at thinking on their feet. This is a significant problem. The issue that tends to come up in a technical field is something like: Our system was working with component X, now it works with component Y. Create a test Z, with as few moving parts as possible, that you know will pass if Y does X and you also know will fail if Y isn’t working.

It’s kind of heart-breaking watching a bright engineer, just hired on, 100% on all his tests, look up from the task at hand with that blank expression on his face. Doesn’t make him a bad person — in his own way, he’s pretty smart. But when people don’t know how to do something, the most common response is to try to cut corners and avoid doing it. So the new configuration goes untested…which creates a needlessly large expense in terms of $$$ and time.

Now, I don’t know this Thiel character from Adam; I’ve not seen Social Network. Not sure if I will. From what I hear, it’s entertaining, well-done and somewhat informative but may not fully adhere to the truth as we’d know it if we’d personally lived through the relevant events. But as one who’s done okay with a high school diploma and nothing else, I can’t fully support this idea of paying twenty-somethings to skip college. Not unless something is being done to make sure they know what they’re doing. More than I knew about what I was doing when I was that age.

Nevertheless…there absolutely is a higher education bubble. Kids who skipped school can see it’s there, the kids going to school can see it, and they see it all the more clearly after they graduate and start looking for work. The employers trying to figure out who, if anybody, to hire…they can really feel it.

The higher education has been monopolized. Now, I don’t know if Jacob Weisberg is part of that monopoly, or if he only has friends in there. But I know this much: It is sophistry to try to claim the well-blazed trail of Mom-and-Dad’s tuition money being thrown into the black hole of university ed is synonymous with — what does he call it? “Intellectual development.” That is obviously Weisberg’s intent. Obviously, he feels anything outside of that will fail to inspire this intellectual development…and probably isn’t intended to inspire such a thing.

I question whether I’m reading too much between the lines, putting words in his mouth he didn’t intend. Well, guess what: His argument says nothing, if you don’t presume something along the lines of what I just paraphrased as you digest what he’s tried to say. His argument completely depends on the view I just expressed. You have to see a formal college class as the only way to enlightenment, in order to sympathize with what Weisberg is saying, and you have to deny that there is any other alternative.

I’m sure that makes a lot of sense if you have a worldview of “Everything I Ever Needed To Know About Life I Learned In College.” And some people do, I know. But here’s the shocker: That does not make you an educated person. It actually makes you pretty shallow, because real life has a lot to teach us before we reach college, and even more to teach us after we graduate.

And I cannot deny Thiel’s definition of the problem he is trying to solve. Weisberg may want to deny it, but all that tells me is that Weisberg does not represent the people who will make the situation any better. You have to acknowledge a fire exists before you can assemble an effort to put it out.

Cross-posted at House of Eratosthenes.

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