Living the Knowledge Life: A Thiel Fellowship Finalist's Response

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Editor’s note: This post is a response to an ongoing educational debate over the efficacy of Peter Thiel’s fellowship, which encourages young entrepreneurs to “stop out” of school. The post addresses Vivek Wadhwa’s post “Friends Don’t Let Friends Take Education Advice From Peter Thiel” and Sarah Lacy’s “Peter Thiel: We’re in a Bubble and It’s Not the Internet. It’s Higher Education.”

Dale J. Stephens is a 19-year-old educational deviant and entrepreneur leading UnCollege, a social movement supporting self-directed higher education. He’s working on building a platform to validate lifelong learning.


Over the last two days I’ve received dozens of messages from friends asking my opinion about the conversation between Vivek Wadhwa and Sarah Lacy on TechCrunch regarding the now-controversial Thiel Fellowship. So many people have sent me links to these two articles because I am one of the finalists for the Thiel Fellowship.

I was unschooled for half my life. For those not familiar with the practice, unschooling is a form of homeschooling wherein the learner directs her own education. Self-directed learning has been my shtick for the last eight years, and I believe that the world is my classroom. Self-directed learning does not mean solitary learning: unschooling never involved learning in my pajamas. To the contrary, unschooling allowed me to learn in the real world—how, where, and when I wanted.

I am biased against institutionalized learning. I disagree with Wadhwa’s implied notion that education should only be gained in school.

I dropped out of liberal arts college in Conway, Arkansas because I’m behind a social movement called UnCollege which supports Mark Twain’s mantra: “I have never let school interfere with my education.” I am not part of the academic binary: I do not believe that college is all bad, nor that college is everything.

I believe that learning is everything but should not be limited to academic institutions.

UnCollege is about enabling people to value learning that happens anywhere and everywhere — be it inside the classroom or in the world. Universities should not limit how we learn or live. Ultimately, I hope to change the notion that obtaining a college degree is requisite for professional success.

Personalization

Wadhwa writes that “the best path to success is not to drop out of college; it is to complete it.” I do not think everyone should go to college — nor do I think everyone should drop out of college. Pedagogy should not be applied ubiquitously.

Education is not the place for generalizations. There is no best path. Everyone learns differently.

Individuals should take whatever path to success — irrespective of how you define that term — that suits their learning style. For most people who have come from classically educated backgrounds, college is the accepted path to adulthood, but there should be more to college than putting one foot in front of the other.

Life Skills

I do not think that universities today are preparing students to face the world, a point that Jim Plummer, the Stanford School of Engineering dean, would debate. A dichotomy has arisen between “college” and “life.” This is not an artificial crevasse I have imposed. I hate drawing this distinction: I think that life and learning should be mutually inclusive. I always operated on this assumption until I went to college and met students who dreaded “life in the real world.”

Academia gives students a false sense of security.

Laundry, cooking, and paying bills are but three things that most college students do not think about. When we keep students from directing their own education, how can we expect them to direct their lives post-graduation? Plummer says that “if universities … are not providing the kind of life skills that will serve their students well … then universities should change what they are doing.” I hope he’ll be open to listening to my comments as an unschooler.

College isn’t Dying

Plummer continues that “the students who drop out of college learn many life lessons and move on to either the next venture or in some cases . . . return to school.” School isn’t going away anytime soon. Millions have found success through the school system, and I am the first to acknowledge its virtues.

Friends have asked me what I will do if my plans go awry. The worst case scenario? I can always go back to college. It’s not going anywhere.

People assume that because I’m leading the UnCollege movement I’m against school. I’m not against school; I’m for learning, and I think that learning happens everywhere — not just in the classroom.

There is value in structured learning: I went to public school through 5th grade. School taught me how to follow directions, meet deadlines, and work in groups. These skills have proved invaluable, but these skills do not take twelve years to master — a few well-taught classes suffice.

Skill or Knowledge?

You can gain knowledge through many methods: structured learning, individual study, mentorship, service learning, project-based learning, group study.

However, the skills you learn from each method are different. Skills do not relate to knowledge but to ability. If I learn through group study I develop leadership skills while if I learn through individual study I develop concentration skills while if I learn in a mentorship relationship I develop interpersonal skills. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of learning, but we should understand which learning styles lead to which skill outcomes.

Lifelong Learning

Plummer goes on to say that “one should not take Peter Thiel’s advice” because “the value of education is intrinsic and an end in itself rather than a something to be measured by its career financial return.” I agree that we should not assess education in terms of earning potential (even though we as a society continue to do so—see the methodology for any college ranking), but I do not think that learning is an end in itself.

I’m a lifelong and lifewide learner. I believe there is no end to learning.

Plummer uses his observation as a reason to pursue education, which he presumes to be narrowly defined in a collegiate context. But if he is arguing that we should learn for the sake of learning, shouldn’t he support people pursuing whatever type of education allows them to learn best, even if that education happens outside academia?

Signals

Wadhwa ends his post noting that “There is almost no chance you’ll make it past HR” without a college degree. This statement is sad but true.

The college degree functions a signal to society. It says, “I’m arbitrarily trainable, can meet deadlines, and follow your directions.” It does not convey information about you or your talents. As we asymptotically approach a point at which everyone has a Ph.D, how are we going to choose between potential employees?

Require everyone to get two Ph.Ds, then three? I hope not. There will come a point when society realizes that our accreditation system is a functioning fallacy.

I’m leading UnCollege to hasten that realization and prove that a college degree is not requisite for success. I do not want to burn down classrooms. I do not want to put professors out of work. I do not want to do away with college or university.

While going to college is the societally accepted path to professional success, it is not the only path. I want to help others understand that obtaining a college degree is not the only path to professional success. I believe institutionalized higher education limits possibilities, and that if we allowed people to learn from life instead of confining them to academic intuitions we could unleash human potential and allow everybody to change the world.

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