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The University Has No Clothes

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Among the first responses I came across, in February, was on the website of Dale Stephens, a freshman at Hendrix College, in Central Arkansas, which routinely shows up on rankings of the best liberal-arts schools in America. Stephens’s answer to the second question was to propose a new airline that would utilize a single aircraft family, secondary airports, and a single-class seating system to provide inexpensive transatlantic flights. This was no mere daydream: He had already forged contacts with Boeing, Southwest, and several major airport authorities, and he’d devised a business plan that, with adequate seed money, he was convinced could be brought to profitable fruition.

After I read his proposal, I tried to schedule an interview with Stephens. This proved harder than expected. He told me to check his online calendar for an opening; he was booked solid for weeks. When I finally did get through, a couple of days later, it became clear why he was so busy. Stephens’s 19-year-old life is crammed full with intellectual and creative ventures. He is writing a book. He participates in workshops, seminars, conferences. A month before we spoke, he put his airline idea on ice in order to launch an organization that applies the methods of “unschooling”—the self-directed brand of homeschooling with which he was raised—to the realm of higher education. UnCollege, as Stephens calls it, has already garnered coverage from The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Huffington Post, and ABC News. Then, of course, there was his classwork—though he’d already resolved to jettison that distraction. Whether he was awarded a Thiel Fellowship or not, he said, he was going to drop out. He did, at the beginning of last month.

I spoke to a half-dozen applicants, and nearly all offered the same lament: College is impractical. The liberal arts are hazy, its lessons inapplicable to the real world. “The best way to learn is through purpose-driven education,” Max Marmer, a Stanford student who also dropped out recently in favor of entrepreneurship, told me. “Taking classes in itself is worthless.” Listening to these kids—these inordinately gifted, monumentally confident kids—was at once inspiring, intimidating, and a reminder of just how limited in reach the efforts of the anti-college leaders have been. Inevitably, perhaps, both Altucher’s rhetoric and Thiel’s philanthropy have appealed most to that segment of the college population that is bound least by the college system. With their sophistication, self-motivation, and autodidacticism, these students don’t truly need college. Lock the gates of the campus behind them and you can be reasonably certain they’ll do just fine—maybe better.

Attending to these outliers has been a PR boon for the Thiel Fellowship, which is intended, Thiel told me, “to reset the values all the way down the system”—a program of trickle-down entrepreneurship aimed to launch us out of our great stagnation. As Thiel and Altucher surely understand well, now is precisely the moment, with all its uncertainty and anxiety and instability, when systems as stalwart as college seem most in need of reconfiguration. But it is also the time—with all that uncertainty and anxiety and instability—when the millions reliant on a system as stalwart as college are least eager to do any real reconfiguring. The vast majority of undergraduates are in a peculiar and as yet unresolved bind. On the one hand, a college education will likely saddle them with crippling debt and consign them to four underwhelming years in classrooms with fluorescent lighting and drop-tile ceilings. On the other hand, opting out will likely consign them to a lifetime of unsatisfying, low-wage employment. What’s an average kid to do?


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