Anarchist and romantic individualist Paul Goodman once suggested, I think it was in his book “Growing Up Absurd,” that rather than automatically thinking everybody should go to college, society should hand each high school graduate a certain amount of money, say $100,00 (I think he recommended $30,000 back in the late ’60s, when I read the book). He or she would then decide for themselves both what was next on their plate and how to leverage their initial capital infusion. College? Immersion in world travel? Service to others? A high-tech job right away? Blow it all on cocaine? Buy one acre with yurt on it and tools to create a permaculture farm?
If we followed Goodman’s suggestion, what kind of schooling would our kids need to prepare for it ? Clearly, we’d be very concerned that they learn how to think for themselves, to explore their own interests and cooperate with others, to figure out how to follow through with their plans, to admit and critique mistakes. Anything less would be disaster. Dis-aster: “to turn away from the stars.” To not follow their own nature.
Goodman’s point was that there are many ways to educate ourselves — just as there are many ways to live — and not all of them depend on handing unseemly amounts of money over to some “higher authority” who narrows our focus to what is deemed politically and economically viable or correct, has final say over whether or how well we’ve been educated, and then dumps us, whether or not we are ready (and we never are) or willing (how many are actually, in the bottom of their hearts, willing?) into the “job market” where we are expected to compete with others to “get ahead” and to demonstrate that we have done so by buying and displaying for others, like a grouse with its tail feathers spread, lots and lots of “stuff”?
If what Goodman said was relevant 40 years ago, how much more pointed is his critique of corporatized education today? I know young people who have graduated from college with “no prospect of a job” and over $100,00 in student loans. Education has also seen to it that their will, their imagination, and their spontaneous following of their unique natural interests all lie dormant under leaden layers of conditioning.
I don’t know how common this situation is, but to start out one’s life with huge debt guarantees either a slave mentality or ultimately, a revolutionary one.
The article below is an example of outside-the-college-box thinking. Some will hate it; for them, the whole point of an undergraduate education is to set aside time from the rat race, so that one might immerse oneself in lofty philosophical, ethical, literary and scientific ideas and ways of thinking that have been cooking for centuries. The hope is that this immersion process into the loving arms of one’s alma mater (one’s “fostering mother”) will transform one, over four years, into a person of character who thinks deeply about things and acts with the good of the whole in mind.
This traditional view of the “halls of academe,” and of the goal of the college experience, still somewhat prevalent when I was an undergraduate, is now obsolete. Indeed, it actually seems quaint. “Going to college” is the first stepping stone towards entry into the rat race. Period. One mortgages one’s soul immediately, upon high school graduation.
Actually, we could say that the soul was banished in grade school, now that constant prep for standardized testing funnels children immediately into the corporate maw. And, unfortunately, the tech world is a part of that. How to reconcile? So I too, have my ambivalence about the wisdom of this author’s bold idea.
As with any seeming contradiction, I choose to remain in the center of it, to stay there and cook for awhile, and see what comes out the other end. Something new and strange, hopefully. Something not yet seen. Something even wonderful. Here’s the article that reminded me of Paul Goodman’s stimulating idea and generated this introduction to it.
Tech mogul pays bright minds not to go to college
By Marcus Wohlsen
SAN FRANCISCO — Instead of paying attention in high school, Nick Cammarata preferred to read books on whatever interested him. He also has a gift for coding that got him into Carnegie Mellon University’s esteemed computer science program despite his grades.
But the 18-year-old programmer won’t be going to college this fall. Or maybe ever.
Cammarata is one of two dozen winners of a scholarship just awarded by San Francisco tech tycoon Peter Thiel that comes with a unique catch: The recipients are being paid not to go to college.
Instead, these teenagers and 20-year-olds are getting $100,000 each to chase their entrepreneurial dreams for the next two years.
“It seems like the perfect point in our lives to pursue this kind of project,” says Cammarata of Newburyport, Mass., who along with 17-year-old David Merfield will be working on software to upend the standard approach to teaching in high school classrooms.
Merfield, the valedictorian of his Princeton, N.J., high school class, is turning down a chance to go to Princeton University to take the fellowship.
Thiel himself hand-picked the winners based on the potential of their proposed projects to change the world.
All the proposals have a high technology angle but otherwise span many disciplines.
One winner wants to create a mobile banking system for the developing world. Another is working to create cheaper biofuels. One wants to build robots that can
help out around the house.
The prizes come at a time when debate in the United States over the value of higher education has become heated. New graduates mired in student-loan debt are encountering one of the toughest job markets in decades. Rising tuitions and diminishing prospects have led many to ask whether college is actually worth the time and money.
“Turning people into debt slaves when they’re college students is really not how we end up building a better society,” Thiel says.
Thiel made his fortune as a co-founder of online payment service PayPal shortly after graduating from Stanford Law School. He then became the first major investor in Facebook. In conversation and as a philanthropist, Thiel pushes his strong belief that innovation has stagnated in the United States and that radical solutions are needed to push civilization forward.
The “20 Under 20” fellowship is one such effort. Thiel believes the best young minds can contribute more to society by skipping college and taking their ideas straight to the real world.
And he has the shining example of Facebook to back up his claim. Thiel’s faith in the world-changing potential of Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg’s idea led him to invest $500,000 in the company, a stake that is now worth billions.
Still, the Zuckerbergs of the tech industry are famous because they are the exceptions. Silicon Valley is littered with decades-worth of failed tech startups.
Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at Duke University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and a writer for TechCrunch and Bloomberg Businessweek, has assailed Thiel’s program for sending what he sees as the message that anyone can be Mark Zuckerberg.
“Silicon Valley lives in its own bubble. It sees the world through its own prism. It’s got a distorted view,” Wadhwa says.
“All the people who are making a fuss are highly educated. They’re rich themselves. They’ve achieved success because of their education. There’s no way in hell we would have heard about Peter Thiel if he hadn’t graduated from Stanford,” he says.
Thiel says the “20 Under 20” program shouldn’t be judged on the basis of his own educational background or even the merits of his critique of higher education. He urges his critics to wait and see what the fellows achieve over the next two years.
According to data compiled by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, workers with college degrees were laid off during the Great Recession at a much lower rate than workers without degrees. College graduates also were more likely to be rehired.
But for fellowship recipients such as John Burnham, 18, such concerns pale next to the idealism of youth. At his prep school in western Massachusetts, Burnham started an alternative newspaper to compete with the school’s official publication.
The entrepreneurial experience of creating something out of nothing captured his imagination. Now his ambitions have grown.
Burnham believes that the world’s growing population will put an unsustainable strain on the planet’s natural resources. That’s why he’s looking to other worlds to meet humanity’s needs.
Specifically, he believes that mining operations on asteroids could hold the key. For the next two years, he’ll be studying rocket propulsion technology and puzzling through the economics of interplanetary resource extraction.
“This fellowship is so much of a better fit for my personality than I think college would be,” Burnham says. “When you get an opportunity of the magnitude of this fellowship, I couldn’t see myself being able to wait.”