The question of whether or not a college education pays has been rumbling on the sidelines of reform discussions for some years. It got a renewed kick in the rear this week when PayPal co-founder, Facebook investor and billionaire Peter Thiel offered 20 promising young people a $100,000 not to go to college and instead pursue their entrepreneurial talents. The challenge, however, is not an issue of college vs. no-college, rather it is a question of how we are defining success and are we encouraging people to create it in a way that works.
Like so many societal institutions that have run amok, higher education has become a bureaucratic, monolithic system driven by profits, ranking and reputation rather than by openness, creativity and a sincere desire to educate the next generation of citizens—and we are all responsible for the monster that has been created. Education has always been the holy grail of advancement—with greater knowledge came the ability to create wealth, standing and perhaps an impact on the community. Yet somewhere along the way the desire for knowledge became separated from the cultivation of wisdom—knowledge was something to pursue and own for the purpose of achieving worldly success, while understanding how to best use it in service to others became a quaint relic of a bygone era.
So what did we do—we told everyone that the only way to a successful future was to go to school and become the ultimate achiever—academic excellence, excelling in sports and extra-curricular activities all with the aim of getting into the “best” college and to start the process over again to then to get into graduate school and repeat. Viewed from a distance, would any reasonable person find this to be an effective way for anyone, let alone a young person, to develop their unique talents and skills? And with the almighty dollar sign shining in their eyes, universities have spent millions of dollars reinforcing the notion that their degrees are the only key to future success and happiness.
So what is the outcome of all this focus on degrees and resumes? As a professor for sixteen years at a major university, I can tell you first-hand that a majority of students in the classroom are minimally focused on the value of the education for the knowledge and wisdom and are simply walking through the requirements to get a degree. University administrators are more focused on profits than supporting effective learning, continually shifting resources away from day-to-day classroom activities to the point where another professor remarked to me, “there is absolutely no economic incentive to teach in the classroom any longer.” Given all these factors, should we be surprised that more and more students are racking up enormous student loan debt only to find that after jumping through the all the “right” hoops that they can’t find rewarding work?
Redefining success is the first step in rectifying our skewed and abused education system. Simply going through the motions to achieve a goal needs to end and recognizing that each person has something unique to contribute to the world as the basis for their success is essential. If we start from this premise, each student can create a path for lifelong learning that suits his or her talents, skills and passion. Yes, there are basics that everyone needs to know to function in society and we can do a better job of allowing individuals to acquire this information in a variety of ways—and direct experience, as Peter Thiel is focusing on, is a critical part of the learning process.
Perhaps instead of starting with an external objective of a degree, a piece of paper that is supposed to tell people how smart and qualified we are, we begin by asking students to define who they are based on themselves and then to cultivate the talents and skills that will allow them to effectively put the best of themselves out in the world. Fueled by their passion, students would naturally gravitate to the courses, classrooms and experiences that would enhance their skills and they would readily participate and assimilate the knowledge rather than simply shove it in their heads until they are asked to regurgitate it again.
Individuals would then become perennial learners growing, discovering, evolving and (yes!) teaching others as they traveled the path that best suits them and allows them to be happiest. Then external accomplishments of money and status would be the outgrowth of sincere interests and efforts and not the hollow victory after years of suffering through others’ expectations. Pollyannaish, perhaps, and yet, I ask anyone to argue that what we are doing now in education is working.
The idea that education is not a clear-cut way to happiness and success is frightening. I believe that knowledge is vitally important to our society and even more important is the wisdom to use it well. Wisdom is not acquired on cue; it is cultivated in an atmosphere where open minds and hearts meet to exchange ideas and to help one another along the way. The time has come for us to shift our educational expectations and experiences—and I bet there are lots of young people out there who would love the opportunity to do just that.