Monday, September 27, 2010

The Case for Going to School Yesterday and the Case for Not Going to School Today (Not!)

Seeing that Mark Zuckerberg is the latest billionaire darling of the tech world who dropped out of school (who the heck has multiple books AND a movie made about them while they're still in their mid-20s?), you have more and more people saying that kids should not go to university; Bill Gates attained riches and glory without finishing school, so can you!  Now it's Mark Zuckerberg.  College dropout failure to worldwide fame!  So goes the kool aid, ad nauseum.

Let's put this into context, OK?

1.  School:
The school that Gates and Zuckerberg quit wasn't your average Joe Schmoe community college.  It was Harvard.  It's hard to get into Harvard.  You have to be in the 99th percentile of something, or 95th percentile of everything, to be able to get in.  Gates and Zuckerberg were that smart, maybe more.  If you're that smart, you might still make it if you drop out.  Most people are sadly not that smart.  People like Gates and Zuckerberg are 1 in a hundred million.

2.  Field of Expertise:
Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were programmers.  But they were hardcore programmers.  According to Outliers, written by Malcolm Gladwell, Gates was able to start learning how to program a computer when he was a teenager, due to special resources in his private school.  He had access to a computer at a time in the 60s when most people didn't even know what a computer was.  And he showed that he was good at it at a time when it was still a nascent field.  As I read on one really interesting blog post some time ago, Gates didn't drop out of Harvard because he couldn't keep up with Harvard.  Gates dropped out of Harvard because Harvard couldn't keep up with him.  He went on to found a company that forever changed the face of computing and make those machines into truly general purpose business and consumer devices: Microsoft.  As for Zuckerberg?  According to The Facebook Effect, he took masters level computer science courses when he was a teenager.  Just because he was so good at it.  He created a program in high school called Synapse that essentially was an early stage of Pandora.  Microsoft offered to buy it for $1 million.  But he turned them down.  I mean... come on.  How many of us were able to do anything like that when we were teenagers?  I'm talking about the masters level computer science courses.  And all the other crazy stuff he programmed while in high school.  For both Gates and Zuckerberg, the equivalent would be something like Joe Schmoe's teenage kid practicing with real NHL players to become a professional hockey player.  Except the NHL players also say the kid has the most natural talent they've ever seen.  And then they all decide to work full-time to help the kid develop the talent into something solid.

3.  Background:
These were privileged kids.  Gates' dad was a lawyer.  Zuckerberg's dad was a dentist.  They went to private schools.  They got opportunity to develop and learn special things that normal kids don't.  Again, Gates got access to a computer when nobody else even had one.  These guys weren't your average Joe Schmoe kids complaining about homework, trying to get girls, and wasting their lives away.  If you read about their lives, you see that they were driven, even as teenagers.  They had a type of discipline that the average kid (and average adult) does not have.  Heck, Zuckerberg didn't sell Synapse to Microsoft for $1 million because he cared about what he created.  He didn't sell Facebook for $15 billion to Microsoft when he had the chance for the same reason.  These guys were about creating, innovating, and changing the world; they refused to let their visions be compromised.  Anybody else would care more about making the quick buck.  And changing the world they are because they had the guts to stick to their guns in the face of adversity, the intelligence to architect true innovation and disruption, the drive to pull their audacious visions off, and the creativity to actually see those visions in the first place.  These people who are telling kids to drop out of university often have no idea which of those kids will have these attributes; fact is, most kids will not.  Again, these guys are 1 in a hundred million.  Maybe 1 in a billion.  And if you don't have the discipline to even aspire to get that, you have to really wonder if you're a contender or a pretender.  Because pretenders won't make even 1 dollar, let alone billions.

I was originally going to post on this subject when I first saw that Washington Post article, but unfortunately lacked time.  Well, it's come on my radar again due to this post.  And ironically enough, one point in the Washington Post makes me very worried that there is a certain rationality to quitting school (or not even entering in the first place).  This comment from the Techcrunch post is the seed:

Most of the people responding are as much in denial as those kids who think they can all be Michael Jordan. Sure, if you are a clueless idiot who has a good idea, and the social skills to get other people to give you money and build it, you can still succeed, it worked for George W Bush. 

But you know, sometimes, we as a society need *REAL INNOVATION*, not the 20th dweeb putting up a hacked up PHP website and blowing through investor money like no tomorrow. We need people doing real research, real engineering, producing things which actually make a difference in the world.

The TechCrunch readership is full of wannabees who of course, don't care about an education, because their idea of entrepreneurship is a half-ass idea, $15k of capital, and 3 months hacking up a prototype. Are you inventing new battery technology? You think you're going to do that without formal training in Chemistry? Are you devising a new cancer drug? Think you're going to do that without an education in molecular biology? Was Craig Venter a guy who didn't attend college? How about a new class of power efficient 3D rendering, or a new power efficient, high yielding WEBM hardware codec for mobile? How many of you are going to build THAT business?

This reminds me of all the people who say they never use algebra. The purpose of teaching you algebra and calculus is to teach you critical thinking, problem solving, and abstraction, not create a new Fields Medal winner. College does not exist to teach you a trade skill, that's what vocational skills are for, it's to expose you to a wide array of knowledge, and teach you learning and thinking skills that will help you in every endeavor. 

What's happening here, is smug self-importance of people who fancy themselves entrepreneurs, who create trivial and mundane products, blowing investor money, and most of whom fail, blowing their level of success out of proportion.

With the exception of some lucky few, and some outright thieves and bandits like Marc Pincus, real success and real innovation come from hard work. We need people to go to school to invent the next great product, and not the next great web 2.0 junk site.

Here's my worry.  The cost of post-secondary education is rising, giving rise to the question whether ROI for post-secondary education is worth the cost.  Normally, I'd say yes.  But I am increasingly worried that society is more and more short-sighted about what education is and what a job is.  And as is normal for free markets, where there is demand, there will eventually be supply.  I worry that society no longer cares for giving its children knowledge and the ability to think; rather, they only demand the ability to earn money quickly.  I believe that can have severe unintended consequences as the demand for shallow-earning-potential-first education gets fulfilled.  I wrote those posts in 2004 and 2005.  My perception of education is even worse now than it was back then.  Even university may not be able to provide that amazing foundation in chemistry required to develop a new battery anymore, if things keep declining.

Yes, university is supposed to be about learning how to think, not about getting job skills.  Heck, after developing my career some odd number of years, I can see how this is even more true.  I see even people with MBAs fail at work because they don't know the first thing about real work, about getting stuff done, about adding value that matters.  It's the attitude, not the pedigree, that's the most important, especially if the pedigree is garbage.  And unfortunately, education may actually be more akin to garbage now than not these days.  If you're going to learn nothing, then why go?  My own experience at university gave me a total of five courses that made me feel like I developed:

PHIL 001 - taught me the basics of logic and reasoning
BUS 437 - taught me about complex decision making
POL 241 - gave me a framework for understanding world events
BUS 468 - ignited my interest in information asymmetry (an unintended consequent, as this was an IT case study course)
BUEC 495 - taught me about transaction costs and the Coase Theorem

The value I saw in my university degree can be summed up right there in 5 courses.  Now of course there were calculus, statistics, economics, discrete mathematics, computer science, and other classes that were also valuable.  But these five were the cream of the crop.  The vast majority of them?  Well, the experience is epitomized by two courses:

BUS 207 - applied calculus for business economics.  Everyone was saying, "OH MAN, THIS COURSE IS SO HARD, THERE'S SO MUCH CALCULUS IN IT!!!"  That's cool, I rock at calculus, course should be a piece of cake.  I go into the course.  Guess what, we didn't do a SINGLE derivative or integral the ENTIRE semester!  Which part of this was supposed to be calculus??  Heck, what part of this was supposed to be worth LEARNING??

ENGL 105 - course where we read books.  I complained to an older friend (an English major) that my English course was basically just a book club, we read the books and discussed them.  My friend thinks I'm crazy, "Isn't that perfect though??"  Chee.  I experienced more insightful analysis and discussion during my high school English AP class, thanks.  If I wanted to join a simple book club, I should go join a book club.  I paid like friggin $300 for this course, and that was back when tuition was cheap.

Now tuition is expensive.  Really expensive.  If the quality of education declines because of the great demand for cheap framed pieces of paper that can say someone can earn money, quality be damned, then why should one go to school?  It used to be that degrees meant something special.  But there is an increasingly inflated value placed on a degree.  The higher demand has caused an increase in supply, but because the demand is after the piece of paper, not the thirst for knowledge, the increase in supply is actually quite low quality.  Volume is the game and pumping more students through the system means more revenue for the system.  Quality be damned.

If we don't try to demand high quality, we will lose out in the end, because we'll get what we demand; it will be a race to the bottom.  And for that reason, perhaps it doesn't make sense anymore for kids to go to university.  BUT if one chooses to make that decision, the important question is then: how the heck are they going to get the quality knowledge and critical thinking ability necessary to become successful?  I'm not talking Bill Gates successful.  I'm talking Joe Schmoe successful.  Because if they aren't able to get that, the next stop is the trailer park, or worse, the street.  Fortunately, humanity is resourceful when the chips are down.  Hopefully, we can figure something out.  People are already trying to fix things and they're starting from the foundation.  There goes Gates and Zuckerberg again....  Dang, I'm interested in seeing that other movie.  :)

For now?  Probably a good idea to stay in school.  While the value of a university degree is more and more in doubt, I think it's still worth it.  For now.  The experience of being in college and growing up with friends you'll have for life is worth it.  And those 5 courses that I cherished were more than worth all the money I spent for getting my degree.  Sometimes, something is just so valuable that it's invaluable, and it makes sense to pay for it and spend time getting it.  Especially when you're not Bill Gates.

No comments:

Post a Comment