Dropouts and Billionaires

Peter Thiel owes some of his billions to being one of the first investors in Facebook. This insanely profitable hook-up with Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg must have turned him on to the potential of the bright and disgruntled. In May, 2011, Thiel doled out a cool $2.4M to 24 kids so they can ditch higher education and change the world.

For this The Atlantic is bigging up Thiel as a “Brave Thinker” and dismisses Jacob Rosenberg’s complaint that “the concept threatens to divert ‘a generation of young people from the love of knowledge for its own sake and respect for middle-class values’.” The phrase “respect for middle-class values” is risible, but what Rosenberg said makes more sense in context. Writing at Slate Rosenberg argues that the fellowships demonstrate “contempt for American universities which, like governments, [Thiel] believes, cost more than they’re worth and hinder what really matters in life, namely starting tech companies…. 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.”

Rosenberg sounds as if he’s mumbling through a mouthful of sour grapes but the list of fellowship recipients goes some distance towards making his point. On the basis of their profiles on Theil’s site some of the Fellows are freakishly bright and well-educated (19-year-old Andrew Hsu has degrees in neurobiology, biochemistry, and chemistry) while some of them appear to have mastered little more than the art of blagging. For every Alexander Kiselev, a 19-year-old Russian immigrant who “wants to make experimentation cheaper by creating affordable scientific instruments” you have a Faheem Zaman whose chief credential is that he’s good at taking SATs (“5580 points across 5 tests”!) Test scores notwithstanding, Zaman believes the developing world’s economic problems are due to a lack of “mobile financial services” rather than, say, the oppressive effects of unfettered capitalism. His big idea sounds suspiciously like “PayPal can save the world” – an ego-massaging pitch for Thiel, who founded the company. It’s easy to see what Thiel likes about Jeffrey Lim, too. Lim would like to, “increase the amount of voluntary exchange and cooperation in the world by revamping some of our core economic and social institutions…. Jeffrey plans on using his fellowship to create technologies that will help people self-organize to solve social problems. He’s particularly interested in helping people protect the wealth they create from the harmful effects of inflation.” I look forward to the launch of FacePal, or will it be PayBook?

If Thiel wants to give his money to teenage gasbags that’s his affair, but the Fellowships raise a point worthy of debate: what is education for and who deserves it? Most kids shuffle lemming-like from high school to university not because they have a burning passion for a particular subject, or even knowledge in general, but because they assume they have to in order to get a job. They are partly right: higher education is so commonplace as to be almost irrelevant. In many cases you need a graduate degree for it to mean anything. Yet debt-free education is a privilege of the few. I’ve waitressed with enough graduates to know that having a degree, even in a ‘practical’ field like science or engineering, doesn’t guarantee a job; it guarantees long-term financial anxiety. Anything that prompts teenagers to critically consider their options is good. Especially if it leads to a discussion of what education should facilitate – “knowledge for its own sake.”

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