I got a story idea from Forbes’ list of 30 social entrepreneurs under 30 years old at 3 a.m. this morning when I couldn’t sleep. At the end of Dan Friedman’s two-sentence bio about founding an online school I saw that Friedman was a Thiel Fellow. There was a New Yorker article a couple of years ago describing how the billionaire Peter Thiel created a bunch of $100,000 fellowships for students to drop out of prestigious universities to get started on their innovative ideas right away.
This struck me as a profound irony: Thiel had tried to tear down the education establishment by creating these fellowships. But his first protégé had used his time away from the classroom to build his own school. So I did a bit more research about what had already been reported. In addition to the early announcement articles there already was a “where are they now” article in PandoDaily about the Thiel fellows that featured Friedman. The article was surprisingly balanced, given that Thiel himself is a PandoDaily investor. But it didn’t really give you a picture of who Friedman is and no one seemed to notice the extraordinary irony of what had happened.
A part of me worried that this is because, at 22, Friedman is still so young, he didn’t have a deeply carved personality, and doing a deep portrait of his youthful decision to skip school could end up being cruel for someone still forming his identity. Moreover, getting access to Friedman might be difficult, if he is well advised and media-weary.
But it might have been no accident that Friedman had formed a school. Maybe he was subconsciously longing for school himself? Or maybe the institutions of schooling are an inevitable if imperfect necessity for people to grow in–in the same way that government institutions are a necessary evil despite the utopian wishes of libertarians like Thiel? Friedman might be looking to get attention for his business and, still un-jaded at 22, be excited to talk to me. Before dropping out of Yale he studied the same subject as I studied in college, so maybe I could find some personal connections to get him to open up.
In either case Thiel’s project seemed like an extreme attack on the liberal arts model of education: it is a model in which young people are presumed ready for the world, purely by virtue of their productive potential. And it seemed worth exploring what kinds of leaders and innovators we would see in the world if this trend continued. Is Thiel right that we can find a more authentic education by eschewing the frustrating education institutions that frequently seem to distract us with obligations and dull our joy? Or will Friedman be more evidence of the necessity of imperfect institutions to nurture our young people in? And what might his example have to teach us about the current trends in education?
I decided to write a pitch for my class today and it came out in the style of the teacher’s model examples: erudite and clever (or at least attempting to be, in my case) and longer than typical pitches. This was very different from the relatively short, straight and dry pitches I had been working on first semester, so I found writing this kind of pitch to be thrilling. I felt free to use language playfully and found myself searching for truths rather than trying to tiptoe my way around a minefields of mistakes.
As is often the case, when I woke up the next day I wasn’t so sure. What had seemed clever and insightful in the early morning hours, now felt like it had the potential to be pretentious, vague and overwritten. The closer it came to my turn to be critiqued, the more afraid I was of being torn to shreds, though still somewhat hopeful that I had stumbled on a gem. Although my pitch may have been bad, I could tell that at least it wasn’t boring. It turned out, however, that we ran out of time in class and didn’t get to my pitch, so I was saved from the potential embarrassment. I could have aggressively sought out my teacher and the other editors giving feedback, but despite my hopes that I’d created a masterpiece, my gut told me that I’d probably written a piece of shit.
I think the biggest pieces of feedback would likely have been: there isn’t much evidence that you’ve done any reporting yet or can get the interview. And my writing about the irony of the situation was a little vague, and didn’t clearly demonstrate what was new about the story.
In any case, here it is:
The current trajectory of education—personalized and digital, managed like a charter business and upending the institutions that can’t keep up, (such as teacher’s unions, school boards and even on-campus universities)—is being taken to its logical extreme by a wealthy billionaire, giving us a test-run of what education might look like in the future. And the fate of this test lies on the shoulders of one 22-year-old New Yorker who didn’t graduate college.
In a New Yorker article in 2011 among other places, Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of Paypal and earliest investor in Facebook, laid the blueprint for just how radically education could change on its current trajectory: students skip college and all its formalized ways of delaying real learning. The most personalized, most efficient way to be educated is to skip the cost of education entirely. While the sports world is increasingly clamoring to let college athletes get paid—Thiel has been plotting to unleash the productive potential of tech-nerds everywhere. He created a fellowship to encourage college students to drop out from elite universities and get started on their real projects right away. He wants to help more Bill Gates do exactly what Bill Gates did.
Thiel thinks he can improve the entire education project by taking away degrees, courses and formal requirements. He wants kids to get started with making their place in the world—now. “You go to school, and what do you do after high school? Don’t know, I’ll go to college. What do you do after college? Don’t know, I’ll go to grad school. And tracking credentialing becomes a way of avoiding thinking about what you’re going to do with your life.”
But only just this year did Thiel bestow upon one of his drop-out pupils the newest form of degree: a million dollars in seed money. And what has Dan Friedman, 22, managed to invent during all this time he didn’t have to sit through lectures? An education website called Thinkful. Friedman invented a product to help adults take and pass courses through the web. He’s helping people do what he himself had foresworn against.
The logical absurdity of Thiel’s fellowship is apparent in the non-educational support it provides to its non-pupils such as Friedman: oversight and check-ins (not tests), workshops (not classes) and networking events (not socializing). Not only did Thiel’s first pupil reinvent education, but Thiel himself educated him on how to do it. So much for the explosion of education.
But if Friedman’s greatest non-pupil manages to turn Thinkful into a million or even billion dollar success story and edge out rivals such as Kahn Academy and Udacity—might this nonsensical non-education find its place? And if so, what kind of a leader and person will Friedman and the future Friedman’s turn out to be, not having sat through Shakespeare and Sociology? Could Friedman’s success, not spell the end of formal education, but its radical rethinking in a way that Thiel didn’t even fully anticipate?
I plan to follow Friedman, as he takes his first big test, guiding his company during its first year of its growth in New York, and meet with Thiel, the attentive teacher, keeping a watchful eye on his star pupil’s performance.