Sunday, October 23, 2011

Drop out of school, become a billionaire

Michael Ellsberg argues in the New York Times that we should emphasize entrepreneurship over education:
I TYPED these words on a computer designed by Apple, co-founded by the college dropout Steve Jobs. The program I used to write it was created by Microsoft, started by the college dropouts Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

And as soon as it is published, I will share it with my friends via Twitter, co-founded by the college dropouts Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams and Biz Stone, and Facebook — invented, among others, by the college dropouts Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, and nurtured by the degreeless Sean Parker.

American academia is good at producing writers, literary critics and historians. It is also good at producing professionals with degrees. But we don’t have a shortage of lawyers and professors. America has a shortage of job creators. And the people who create jobs aren’t traditional professionals, but start-up entrepreneurs.
College isn't for everybody, sure, but this line of attack rings false to me. The men—all men—mentioned here didn't have traditional educations, to be sure, but their knowledge base was heavily augmented in non-traditional ways not necessarily available to most Americans. Steve Jobs continued auditing classes at Reed College after he dropped out, and he learned the fundamentals of electronics in his father's workshop. Bill Gates went to an "exclusive prep school" in high school, and obtained free computer time at a time when computers weren't ubiquitous. Same for Paul Allen. Stone went to one of the most academically challenging high schools in Massachusetts, while Zuckerberg went to Philips Exeter Academy on his way to Harvard.

Point being: All these men received educations that gave them a pretty good knowledge foundation for their future work. All of these men were born to comfortably middle class families, often with parents personally deepening their child's knowledge base. And because of those middle class families, each of the men had a comfortable safety net to fall back into if their entrepreneurship failed. It's easier to start a business if you understand the world a bit, and if the failure of that startup won't ruin you for life.

Ellsberg is right to argue for alternatives to the higher education machine. And as a proud liberal arts grad, I'll even agree that maybe we could use a few less liberal arts degree holders. But his "college dropout" meme ignores that nearly all the men he names arrived at college having already had extraordinary educations. Would we know of any of them without those educations? Education is the foundation of entrepreneurship, not a substitution.

1 comment:

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hear, hear. True autodidacts are few and far between. The rest of us need years of patient instruction and guidance. There are plenty of things I learned in college that I don't now remember. But if nothing else, those years taught me how to learn.