Of Course Harvard’s Larry Summers Hates The Thiel Fellowship

Editor’s note: Darrell Silver, a mentor for The Thiel Fellowship, and Dan Friedman, a Thiel Fellow from the inaugural class, are the founders of Thinkful, which provides one-on-one adult education online.

The former President of Harvard doesn’t like the Thiel Fellowship. In his shoes, neither would we. A program that asks the best and brightest from top universities to pursue their interests outside Harvard’s hallowed campus walls? Larry Summers’ critique of the Thiel Fellowship as “single most misdirected bit of philanthropy in this decade” is predictable and thick with vested interest.

As with any community (or company), the power of a university lies in the quality of the people it attracts. Good students attract more good students, and in that environment learning and innovation become possible. The problem the Thiel fellowship poses for a place like Harvard is that it un-bundles the institution from the people it attracts. The Thiel fellowship has created an alternative ecosystem where the best and brightest can thrive in ways unsupported by a four-year, quarter-million-dollar degree.

As a member of the first class of Thiel Fellows in 2011 and a mentor for the program, we’ve been working together for about a year building our startup of adult and vocational training. Dan, the fellow, dropped out of Yale to explore technology and education. In his two-year fellowship he worked at a venture firm, developed products for a dozen startups and started working with Darrell on Thinkful. Darrell, the mentor, took a more traditional path. Darrell finished Columbia with bachelors degrees in Art History and Computer Science. He went on to work in finance, started and sold his first startup, and is now the CEO of Thinkful.

Given our different educational backgrounds, working together has taught us a lot about the value of a good education, both inside and outside the classroom. What’s clear is that learning must take place over a lifetime. When universities were in their prime, 17-year-olds gained acceptance into a network that helped them learn enough to get their first job. That job would lead to a promotion and hopefully a steady career track. But those days are long gone.

Today, we expect to change jobs or careers every five years. As a result, the education we need dramatically changes over and over. It’s just not reasonable to expect four years of education in our early adulthood to serve us in a world where the skills we use change so quickly. Add the enormous costs and debt burden that schools like Harvard ask students to take on and it’s no wonder so many twenty-somethings are looking for an alternative.

Leaving college early isn’t easy, but neither is entering the workforce after receiving a traditional four-year degree. As peers of new grads, hirers and adult educators, we see this every day. The benefits of being a Thiel fellow are easy to spot when you see the angst, uncertainty and compromises made by so many traditionally educated young people today. It’s not just that new grads are ill-prepared for their first jobs after college. The problem lies in the compromises they must make in order to keep from moving back home into their high-school bedrooms. Those compromises have long-term consequences, much longer than the four years of college. Where to live, whom to live with and what career to start are a lot to decide on one deadline, but that’s exactly today’s definition of graduation day.

Not so for Thiel fellows. The decisions that shape young people’s careers are made by the Thiel fellows over two years, not in one shot. Many fellows travel and many take advantage of the program’s incredible network to work for and with diverse groups across several sectors. Most important, every fellow tries ideas in the real world secure in the knowledge that failure at age 22 is a low-consequence setback. It’s impossible to avoid compromises in your life, but how could you argue that a system that makes for less of them is “misdirected,” as Summers claims it is?

We do believe in the value of a liberal arts education. There’s something hard to measure that comes from the abstract thinking and logic we gain from our time in college. Our team of nine at Thinkful already represents decades of advanced and undergraduate education few should trade for the couple years’ living expenses Dan received from Peter Thiel. But it’s also the case that taking political science classes and getting drunk in a dorm isn’t the only way to go through your late teens and early twenties. We don’t believe a liberal arts education is necessarily restricted to the exact way American universities deliver it. It’s a sign of fragility that someone like Summers can be so scared by a single billionaire.

Schools like Thinkful, accessible graduate programs across the country, engineering bootcamps and myriad other options, online and off, are sprouting up to fill the needs left behind by traditional institutions. We believe this represents an enormous shift in where our society’s expectations for learning come from. In the short-term, the popularity of programs like Thinkful is being driven by folks trying to dig themselves out of the hole of the recession. As the economy recovers we’ll come to realize that the stability we thought we were purchasing with college is actually much less applicable going forward. In the future (and by and large the Thiel fellows have come to this conclusion faster than everyone else) a one-size-fits-all education won’t work in the complex, rapidly changing world in which we already find ourselves.

What does this all mean for Harvard and the other elite universities? For these select few, not much. The point is that their world is shrinking. The university education of today will represent a smaller and smaller percentage of our life’s education. Harvard, with its massive brand and endowment, will most likely still be among the best, but it will matter less.

The world today is shifting too quickly to allow for a single source or moment of our education. Similarly, Peter Thiel’s vision for free-form education is by no means a model that will work for everyone. What’s shocking is that Larry Summers thinks his model still does.

[Image of the statue on the campus of Yale University: Flickr]