Peter Thiel and Education's New Utopians

Silicon Valley's denizens are trying new approaches to schooling. Will they work?

It's a brave new world for education.

Photographer: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

If you want to get a deeper understanding of the fraught relationship between the technology industry and American schools, I can recommend two recent articles that might help.

The first is a Wired feature about tech professionals who’ve embraced home-schooling. The second is the Chronicle of Higher Education’s examination of the lackluster results produced by the Thiel Fellowship (a much-publicized effort backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, which encourages smart young entrepreneurs to skip college and focus instead on building great companies).

In both articles, the tech industry's response to education’s warts (and to be fair, there are many) is to abandon the existing system for a parallel world of experiences designed to preserve the creativity and ambition that traditional schools could destroy. Those aren’t bad goals, and to be fair charter schools, religious schools, and the recent spate of education-focused tech companies like Khan Academy and Coursera are all animated by similar worries and desires.

But I worry about the overarching impulse to simply abandon the system, rather than to engage with it or improve upon it. This bothers me, in part, because it speaks to bigger trends that don't reflect well on the tech industry.

I concede that leaving the school system altogether is a fringe point of view that’s easy to dismiss, like the idea of breaking up California into six rich and poor states or of creating floating city-states that are free from existing rules and government regulations. The number of home-schooled kids doubled nationally between 1999 and 2012, but they still only account for 3.4 percent of the 53.4 million school-age kids in the U.S.

At the other end of the spectrum, only 83 candidates have been accepted into the Thiel program since its inception in 2011.

An argument in favor of home-schooling and skipping college is that it lets kids focus on what they enjoy and avoid the things that they don’t. Being told what to do all day, the thinking goes, kills entrepreneurialism.

When I was in school I would have wholeheartedly agreed. I grew up in rural Vermont and my education was pretty typical of rural and suburban America. I took standardized tests, had teachers of varying quality, and studied subjects that I despised (gym, biology) and those that I loved (reading, math). Some classes were so good that I remember them today and some were so bad that I learned virtually nothing. I would have loved to escape that system, freed from the courses and kids that didn’t suit my interests and abilities.

Still, I was forced to study a diverse range of subjects  when I was too young to know exactly where all of my passions might reside and too young to understand that I might appreciate different parts of my education as time went on. I hated poetry in high school, but when I got curious about it as an adult I was glad to have had that small foundation I received earlier. Diverse learning is, in and of itself, beneficial, I think.

The people who founded some of the most successful consumer tech companies embraced diverse thinking and learning. Apple’s Steve Jobs loved technology, but also studied calligraphy. Alibaba’s Jack Ma was a school teacher before he was an Internet executive. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg excelled in math and science, but also in Classics, languages and fencing. Larry Page studied computers, but he was also a musician.

I’m paraphrasing here, but Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey (a lover of architecture) explains the impact that a broad education can have on science as follows: "An amazing engineer can build an ugly, but effective, bridge. Only an engineer who understands and appreciates design can build something as extraordinary as the Golden Gate Bridge."

Not everyone will be a Jobs or a Zuckerberg, of course, but would more exposure to more subjects and points of view hurt? To ask the question another way, does limiting one’s experience to building a startup lead to better companies? Does getting educated in the home, apart from a broader and more diverse community, limit one's intellectual and emotional evolution?

The current crop of Thiel fellows has a slightly terrifying amount of raw brain power. Peter Thiel is probably correct when he says that they’ve all gained exposure to people and resources that they’d never have in college. But leaving school and focusing narrowly on a startup just hasn’t resulted in a notably high rate of commercial success. The Chronicle story notes the parameters of this:

If you add up the work of the four classes of fellows -- 83 people in all -- their ventures have raised $72 million in investments and produced $29 million in revenue, according to the foundation. Those who have sold their start-ups have brought in $17 million.

When I think about the importance of education as an adult, I think as much about the other kids I've studied with as I do about the classwork itself. They picked on me for being nerdy and “weird” looking. (I was the rare, non-white kid in my town.) I once belittled someone for being dumb and felt intense remorse when I saw how much I’d hurt his feelings. We all learned to cope with the random unfairness of rules and hierarchies, which is good training for the adult world. And we bonded over myriad shared, small experiences, even when we didn’t always like one another.

By graduation, many of us had transformed from thoughtlessly cruel kids to decent-ish (sometimes pretty nice) people. One could argue that you don’t need school to become more empathetic, just a lot of exposure to different kinds of people. But schools basically provide batch-process socialization. We find ways, to some degree, to interact with wealthy, poor, smart, learning-disabled, nerdy and jock-ish kids -- not by watching videos about bullying or racism but by engaging with one another in unpleasant or tough situations. All of this can inculcate social skills such as tolerance and empathy.

The tech industry could do more to value diversity, tolerance and empathy. That's certainly the perspectives of Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and the many female venture investors and executives who’ve been dismissed by their peers. Former employees at GitHub and Tinder would probably agree, too.

Given that the tech industry is already so hobbled by these flaws, it may not help matters for some of its brightest lights to encourage educational solutions that involve steering clear of institutions and situations that smooth our rough edges.

Stoking creativity with abundant inwardness and self-direction can generate lots of products, to be sure. Just think about all of the apps we now have that tackle problems like laundry services, fresh food delivery, car services, travel, and finding a parking space.

That same inwardness can also lead to "Galapagos Syndrome," a term coined in Japan to describe a creative loop that generates ideas and products that only make sense within a narrow world and for a narrow audience. That phenomenon helps explain why some companies get funded for reasons that only make sense to tech people.

George Packer’s indictment of the tech industry has been hotly debated in Silicon Valley, even as more and more money pours into all sorts of apps meant to make life more convenient for a certain sub-sector of Americans. As Packer wrote in the New Yorker last year:

The hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.

A venture capital investor named Danny Cohen once told me that a lot of the so-called innovation happening in tech right now won’t hold up to "the geography test" -- meaning it may never be embraced by people outside of Silicon Valley or tech enclaves like Boston, New York, Seattle and Los Angeles. But when you’re in the swirl of all the activity, it’s very hard to comprehend such limitations.

I can understand why a parent would want to find education alternatives because, depending on where you live, the public school system is horribly broken and the private system might be troubled as well.

But I don’t think that withdrawing from the school system because you have the financial and social wherewithal to do so makes the tech industry stronger, smarter or better able to create important products.

Withdrawing, could, however, reinforce some of the tendencies that have made it hard for tech engineers and executives to relate to the outside world and to the people who will feel the impact -- for better or worse -- of the industry’s rise to power.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.