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To College or Not to College

Author in Residence  |  by Bill Smoot
Friday, May 3, 2013
Across the country, a lively debate about the value of college has been gathering steam. Long a staple of the American dream, a college education has become the target of skeptical questioning, an inquiry invigorated by rising college costs and faltering job prospects.

One symbol of the skepticism is the Thiel Foundation Fellowship. The brain-child of billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, the Fellowship selects a small number of people under the age of nineteen with promising big ideas and pays them $100,000 over a period of two years to skip college and work to bring their dreams to life. While the Fellowship itself is only an alternative to college, some of Peter Thiel's remarks give it the status of a challenge to college. "Before long," Thiel wrote in The New York Times, "spending four years in a lecture hall with a hangover will be revealed as an antiquated debt-fueled luxury good." Thiel Fellowship recipients are invited to walk in the footsteps of such college dropouts as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg--or rather to go them one better; instead of dropping out of college, the Fellows do not attend in the first place. Those three billionaires are not without company; Forbes reports that out of the 400 richest people in the U.S., 63 don't have college degrees. And Dale Stephens, a former Thiel Fellow, has founded UnCollege; his goal is captured in the title of his new book: Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will. In a telling statistic from the bottom, Marty Nemko reports that "as of 2012, 53.6% of college graduates under 25 are either unemployed or doing work they could have done without college--retail clerk, receptionist, waiter." In response, some politicians have begun to pressure state universities to become more vocationally oriented. In The New York Times this past week, Frank Bruni reports on such efforts in Texas, Virginia, and North Carolina. He quotes the Governor of North Carolina as saying, "If you want to take gender studies, that's fine, go to a private school."

Questions about the value of college are healthy. They remind us that there are many routes to a successful and fulfilling life; college has no exclusive claim as a means of educating young adults. Gap years, travel or work experience, service work, military service, and independent study can pay great dividends of enlightenment, either before or even instead of college. Many students would get more out of college if they entered with a bit more maturity. As a riff on Mao, we might say, "Let a hundred kinds of education bloom." If Peter Thiel reminds us of that, more power to him.

But one aspect of the current college skepticism is disturbing. Much of the debate assumes that the value of college lies in preparation for the job market. For some, the justification for college boils down to a cost-benefit analysis: the cost of college weighed against the higher salaries paid to college graduates. But this calculus ignores the value of college that lies outside the vocational realm. At its best, college teaches young people to think better, to know more about the world, to be better citizens, to appreciate the arts, to read great literature and poetry, to ponder more deeply what it means to be human, to develop some taste for the life of the mind, and to view the intellectual advances of the past two and a half millennia with awe and respect. The tension between the vocational and the edifying goals of education is as old as the conflict between Socrates and the Sophists. Surely the answer--to the degree that there is an answer--lies in balance. "Nothing to excess." But as the pressures of a faltering economy focus attention on the economic justifications of a college education, it is that balanced perspective that is threatened.

The problems in American education that make it fertile ground for new ideas also leave it poorly defended against bad ideas. The worst of the bad ideas asserts that education--from the elementary grades through high school, private schools included, and on to college--should be reshaped to the perceived needs of the job market. Central to the movement for "21st century education" is the premise that the central role of education is vocational training, especially training for work in high tech. The powerful forces behind this movement are not always recognized.

In "the Billionaire Boys' Club," a chapter of her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch argues that unlike the philanthropic foundations that supported education in the past, the new "venture philanthropists" want not just to support education but to transform it to their own vision. "Their boldness was unprecedented," Ravitch writes. "Never in American history had private foundations assigned themselves the task of restructuring the nation's education system." The influence of venture philanthropists on American education--and on educational discourse--may be the most important underreported education story of the past decade.

Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has written and spoken extensively about the need to reform American education. His premise is that schools are failing to prepare students for the 21st century job market. He quotes a graduate of the Harvard class of 2010 as saying, "I don't remember a thing from my undergraduate classes - except for Spanish." I suspect Mr. Wagner has cherry-picked this example. I have for over three decades talked with many of my former prep school students who have gone on to college at the Ivies and other highly selective colleges across the country, and I've never heard one of them speak so disparaging of his or her college education.

Anyone who does an internet search of "21st century education" will uncover books on education written by people who have never taught but work in for high-tech corporations. There will be nonprofit organizations by the dozens funded by the Gates Foundation or other "venture philanthropists." Tony Wagner's Change Leadership Group at Harvard was an initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

As we all work to improve American education, we must honor all the worthy aims of education, the vocational along with the non-vocational. I resist calling the vocational by the label "practical," for what could be more practical than questions about who we are and how we should live. Those questions are essential, and if they are not recognized as such by the billionaires, the billionaires should not be shaping the future of education. 

William Carlos Williams wrote,

It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. 

Do the politicians and venture philanthropists know what this means?

What makes a great teacher? How do teachers connect with students? Why do teachers choose to teach? If you've ever thought about these questions or are interested in learning insight into the world of teaching, Dr. Bill Smoot's book, Conversations with Great Teachers, will interest you.

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