On the Future of Education

Tomorrow I will be joining Peter Thiel and the 40 finalists for the 2012 class of the 20-under-20 program for brunch. Of those 40 hopefuls only 20 will become members of the Thiel Fellowship, a daring attempt to hack education and show the world that college is not the only path to success.

Or in their own words:

A radical re-thinking of what it takes to succeed, the Thiel Fellowship encourages lifelong learning and independent thought. With $100,000 and 2 years free to pursue their dreams, Thiel Fellows are changing the world one entrepreneurial venture at a time.

I first heard of the Fellowship when I was invited to participate as a mentor for the fellows. I promptly agreed because I strongly resonate with their goals. As a serial autodidact, I have had my fair share of issues with traditional education as it’s simply not suitable for everyone and certainly wasn’t for me.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I was born and raised in Brazil. Despite superficial similarities, growing up in a developing country is quite different from what readers from more affluent nations would imagine. For example, I held a full-time job during secondary school and my first few years of college. This means that I would work from 9am to 5pm and then go to school from 7pm to 11:30pm. It was tough but it was, and it still is, something very common in Brazil. For most of the population working a full-time job is the only way to stay afloat and to afford any education at all.

While it wasn’t the most pleasant lifestyle, participating in the workforce while going to college at the same time helped me develop some key insights about education. During the day I operated in the real world as a software developer for a large utility company, solving real problems and learning real lessons about life, business and relationships. During the evening I was forced to participate in this odd, almost bizarre parallel reality where professors were trying to, according to their own words, prepare me to succeed in the “real world”. However, it was all too obvious that many of them have never participated in this “real world” that they spoke of and consequently many of the things they were teaching were either outdated or flat-out wrong.

In my case, I taught myself to code when I was 8 years old and had almost ten years of experience as a software developer before I’d even applied to college. I tried to make the best of my college experience but in most part, classes felt generally dull and unstimulating. Luckily, sometime during my sophomore year, I was offered a seat at the management board of a large consulting company and suddenly I had to decide between my fast-moving career or finishing my bachelor’s degree.

The only compelling reason I could conceive to get a bachelor’s degree, other than pleasing my family, was for social validation. However, I wanted to be judged on my accomplishments in the real world and not on my tolerance to inane lectures and my ability to force myself through arbitrary, artificial exercises that would supposedly prepare me to function in the workforce. The way I saw it, I was already empirically prepared for the real world, and it just didn’t make sense to go backwards.

This would be the first time I quit college, out of four in total. Now, before you assume that I am radically against college education, this is certainly not the case. To better understand my position, we must first deconstruct the reasons why going to college wasn’t the ideal choice for me.

Computer science is a field that is both accessible (as in you can practice with a limited budget) and fast-moving. I could not have taught myself medicine when I was 8 years old, I could have read about it, maybe even developed an interest in it, but I wouldn’t be able to practice it – and deliberate practice is a key requirement for expertise. Similarly, while you may also consider medicine to be a fast-moving field, its pace of curriculum change is dwarfed by what we observe in the IT world. The odds are that by the time you graduate from medical school, a considerable portion of what you have learnt is still relevant. In contrast, the core portion of computer science that is in essence future-proof could be taught in only one or two semesters.

College is still, and will remain, the best way to become a medical doctor. The same is true for any other profession that requires access to a fully equipped lab for practice. However it is certainly not the only (or best) choice if you are passionate about a field that is both accessible and/or advancing as quickly as IT.

The key insight I want to share with you is that even though college is one of the many possible paths to success, our society is stuck on the idea that when it comes down to education, “one size fits all”. If you stop to think about it, it makes no sense at all. A good analogy would be a world where painters were only allowed to paint using shades of green and that to be successful, one must limit their palette to greenish tones and renounce the rest of the color spectrum – what a poor world that would be.

Yet this is exactly what we are doing. Our society deliberately tries to reduce the spectrum of choice in education by shunning anyone willing to stray from the beaten path – and in doing that, we all lose. Diversity of thought is also one of our greatest strengths as a species and by limiting which paths to success are acceptable, we are condemning humanity to homogeneity – and eventually to a local maximum (in layman’s terms: a place too good to be abandoned but still rather terrible compared to the best place out there).

Fundamentally, is the level of conformity imposed by college the best way to educate future world-changers?

This all boils down to the reason why I am an outspoken supporter of the Thiel Fellowship. It is not about replacing college for everyone - it is an attempt to widen the palette of choices for education. It is a bold proposal to show the world that a degree is not the best tool for all jobs – but merely one of many in the tool set. While Thiel may come across as a radical when he proclaims that higher education in the US is essentially bankrupt, he is also doing more for the future of education than most of us. His fellowship is one of the select few initiatives that have started a crucial dialog on how humanity should prepare its youth for a future that is rushing at them at an incredible pace.

It is certainly not a program for everyone or for the faint of heart, but the 20-under-20 fellows have self-selected themselves because they don’t want a degree, they want to change the world.

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