May 282011

I listened to another great story on OPB radio on the drive in to work today. Peter Thiel has offered 100k grants for a select group of students to drop out and try their hands running a technological startup. He made a couple of points that I found to be worthy of repeating and pondering. As I value education I’ve never stopped to question its impact on my successes in life; I’ve always taken for granted that my education played a significant role. That is where I was introduced to programming, where I stumbled onto internships, from which sprouted my budding career as an enthusiastic Linux kernel developer.

Peter raises the should-be-obvious question about causality, that I’ve been known to raise myself regarding numerous other topics. Do college grads succeed because of their education? Or did they get accepted into college because they have what it takes to succeed anyway? Indeed, college admittance criteria has risen, and desirable universities are harder and harder to get into. If these persons would succeed regardless, then the seemingly universal acceptance that a college education is a virtual prerequisite for success comes into question. If it isn’t, then this incredible demand for education, and the equally incredible cost of education may stand on shaky ground.

While I still hold to the believe that a college education is a very good thing, I think there are many people in this world who could lead more successful lives if we as a people placed more value on vocational skills. Craftsmanship in this country has to be at all time low, and our shop-by-price-alone culture is largely to blame for this in my opinion. Some organizations fight to revitalize skilled trades. This Old House has run internship programs for this purpose. Peter is doing a similar thing, but with a skill that is traditionally accepted as coming from college educated professionals.

Peter also claims that college can sometimes be used as a crutch to avoid making some of those hard life decisions. If you don’t know what you want to do when you graduate high school, don’t worry about it, go to college, you’ll sort it out there. I can see some truth in that from my experience with the university. It can be difficult to see through the academia to what lies beyond. For some, study for studies sake is enough, but I think for most of us, it needs to lead to something more tangible. If I were to take what I’ve gleaned from this news story back with me 15 years, I hope I would have been able to adjust my focus away from the grade to retaining applicable knowledge, and discovering how I could do something with that knowledge – before I graduated and had to decide between the real world, or maybe putting that off while I pursued another degree…

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