Slate’s Jacob Weisberg is outraged about Peter Thiel’s latest philanthropic venture: $100,000 grants to young people who want to start a company instead of going to — or continuing — college.Jacob says this program is goading students into “halting their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood, maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible, and thereby avoid[ing] the siren lure of helping others or contributing to the advances in basic science that have made the great tech fortunes possible… This threatens to turn the risk-taking startup model into a white boy’s version of the NBA, diverting a generation of young people from the love of knowledge for its own sake and respect for middle-class values.”
It’s terrific that Jacob had such a high-minded, intellectually fulfilling time in college, but it’s ridiculous to suggest that most people who go to college do so “from the love of knowledge for its own sake.” Most highly paid professions pretty much require that new entrants have gone to college, even if college has nothing to offer that will make graduates any better at that profession. This is just a self-perpetuating signaling system: almost everyone with the means and intelligence to go to college does, so employers can safely ignore applications from non-graduates. So people who can go to college do. But if they aren’t filled with that “love of knowledge” they can safely spend their time drinking and socializing, secure in the knowledge that nothing they aren’t learning will ever come up in their professional lives.
Tech entrepreneurship is a rare field in which there is no stigma attached to dropping out, and in which not having a degree isn’t much of a barrier to advancement. Lots of tech’s biggest successes have been dropouts: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, and on and on.
If Jacob seriously thinks that Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg “halted their intellectual development” by dropping out and starting companies, we humbly suggest that he is either vastly overestimating what most people do in college, or vastly underestimating the intellectual challenges of running a startup.
College is very intellectually rewarding for people who are in to that sort of thing. It’s a lot of fun for most other people. But if Peter Thiel wants to help bright, motivated young people who want to start companies instead, that sounds like a pretty great idea to us.