Education Entrepreneurship

2006-02-02

Barry Leiba comments on my entry about educational entrepreneurship:

Stanford and MIT have not existed since the Big Bang; they were founded, and they established their reputations -- perhaps in easier times, but they did so. St Peter's College could do so too. I certainly believe in the concept, knowing that not everyone learns in the same way, and that innovative teaching methods are valuable. And actually, as I've written this paragraph, I think I've understood how to solve the problem from the last one. I think the key is to get the right names to found it. If such a school were started by some of the recognized leaders in its target field, it would catch the attention of the employers, and it might have the chance it'd need to prove itself.

I think that's right. If you're going to hire someone who's been out in the work world for a while, it seems to me that you want to know at least two things: what has this person done and with whom have they worked? Unfortunately, if the person you're thinking about hiring is fresh out of school, it's hard to know what they've done, if anything (Paul Graham has some thoughts on that problem). So as a proxy for helpful information, you may look at where they went to school. Whether that really tells you what you want to know is dubious, but it's often treated as a useful proxy.

But we don't do that in the real world (what Michael Barone calls "Hard America" as opposed to the "Soft America" of the school world). That is, you don't look primarily at where the person worked (wow, he worked at IBM, he must be smart). You try to find out what kinds of projects the person has worked on, who the person's mentors have been, how the person solves problems, and so on. Someone who has worked at a small startup might be a lot smarter or entrepreneurial than someone who has worked at IBM (I've done both and I bet so has Barry, so the matter is not either-or).

Now I admit that I once attended an entrepreneurial school: for a post-graduate year of high school (long story, see my brutally honest resume) I went to the American Renaissance School in Westchester, New York. The school folded not long after I graduated (entrepreneurialism is hard), but it was the best year of my educational life. I learned more than I had learned in all the rest of high school and much of college, I got a chance to work at the IBM research labs (Barry's current employer) for my "practicum", I didn't play on any sports teams because we didn't have any, etc. As a result I was accepted at Columbia University, where I proceeded to study useless things like philosophy and ancient Greek, but that's another story. The insight I gained from my experience at an entrepreneurial school is that you don't have to be part of a large organization to learn and grow and produce.

To me, what's unfortunate about higher education in America is that effectively there is no space for flexibility, experimentation, and entrepreneurship, whereas those are the qualities on which American society is built. The teachers are too comfortable with their tenured positions and the students are too concerned about social signalling, neither of which matters in the real world. If some courageous, experimental scholar-practioners were to go off on their own and start a small school of economics or psychology or biological sciences or business or whatever, I bet a degree from such a school would have cache because of the caliber of the teachers. But professors (even the supposed free-marketeers) seem happier to build fiefdoms within established universities than to brave the free marketplace of ideas. And that's sad.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal