Excerpt from Trees on Mars — Chapter 2

Teaching Future
Why Schools are Teaching Change and Preaching Tech

For an ever-increasing subset of both prospects and employers, the university has become something like a moldering zombie—still trundling along, but already dead. The skills needed in the age of future either can’t be taught, won’t be taught, or are better taught on the job. Is it too late for the university? There are, in fact, many who think that the time is right for the university system to be put out to pasture. Consider the receptive response that the twenty-year-old leader of the UnCollege movement Dale J. Stephens has received. Already author of a book published by Penguin—Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will—he finds himself in the enviable position of traveling the globe touching down at the hippest tech conferences talking about how to succeed (i.e., get to the future faster) by thumbing your nose at higher education. Typical Dale can be found in a Forbes magazine Q&A in which he tells Gen Y what they need to do: “Don’t expect going to school to get you a job, and understand that if you want to be successful you’re going to have to hustle and create opportunities for yourself.”

Dale’s wisdom is echoed by the hiring guru at Google, Laszlo Bock: “G.P.A.’s are worthless as criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. . . . We found that they don’t predict anything.” Accordingly, Bock points out, at Google the proportion of people working at the company without a college degree continues to increase. Zuckerberg didn’t need college, Bill Gates didn’t need college, and maybe you don’t either. “Too many colleges,” Bock says, “don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s [just] an extended adolescence.”

In 2013, the presidents of 165 universities issued a joint statement calling on President Obama and Congress to deal with the supposed “innovation deficit.” “Our nation’s role,” they wrote, “as the world’s innovation leader is in serious jeopardy. The combination of eroding federal investments in research and higher education, additional cuts due to sequestration, and the enormous resources other nations are pouring into these areas is creating a new kind of deficit for the United States: an innovation deficit. Closing this innovation deficit—the widening gap between needed and actual investments—must be a national imperative.”

There was a kind of desperation, even hysteria, underpinning the joint statement. There may be an innovation deficit, but this is more about the university presidents’ needing to respond to the future ideology, an ideology impatiently hostile to the notion of an education system—any system really—that slows us down, that puts roadblocks on the highway to the future. They know that, increasingly, higher education is being seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It is in this climate that the presidents seek to make their universities more about innovation and change. They band together and demand money to reinvent themselves as change agents teeming with future Facebook interns. They have to do this, because in the tech sectors that increasingly dominate our perceptions, consensus is emerging: college is a big waste of time and money.

Dale Stephens got his start when he was “selected out of hundreds of individuals around the world” to be a 2011 Thiel Fellow. The notion of the Thiel fellowship—a kind of unscholarship dreamed up and funded by PayPal founder, now billionaire venture capitalist, Peter Thiel—is exactly the kind of challenge that the university presidents are desperately trying to respond to. Thiel funds students not to go to university. Instead, those accepted into his program are moved to San Francisco and given money and advice in order to pursue their dream ideas in the form of start-up companies hell-bent on disruption. It comes full circle: the result of Dale Stephens’s Thiel fellowship is UnCollege, the social network and advocate site for those who choose not to pursue higher education.

And if you do go to university? Well, there’s plenty of enticement to give up on your degree and start chasing the future. “Here in Silicon Valley, it’s almost a badge of honor,” says Mick Hagen, age twenty-eight, about being a college dropout. He dropped out of Princeton in 2006 and moved to San Francisco to start the mobile app Undrip. Hagen now recruits from the undergraduate ranks and says that other tech companies also do this. They are essentially pitching students to drop out and come work for them.

The students are getting the message. Consider the rise of the campus hackathon, weekend programming sessions in which groups of students, jacked up on energy drinks and donuts, compete to come up with and program some new piece of tech. These once-fringe events are increasingly popular on campuses across the country. In 2014, there were only forty of them. As of 2015, there were around 150. The longest-running hackathon, as of this writing, happens at the University of Pennsylvania and hosts 1,200 students from across the country each semester. “A few years ago, hackathons weren’t really that popular—it was sort of a subculture,” Kathryn Siegel, a junior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tells a reporter. “There’s been an enormous explosion.” That’s hardly surprising. The events are a potent cocktail of rewards now and later. “We want you to build the future of television!” announces a representative from DirectTV, sponsor of a Stanford hackathon. If you do, you might win a zero-gravity flight, or a trip to Paris, or a flat-screen TV or, even better, a job offer. Tech firms and venture capitalist companies are all over these events. “We want to find the next Mark Zuckerberg and the next Jack Dorsey,” says Andy Chen, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm that sends its people to twenty or more hackathons every year. “If you’re not at a hackathon, you’re at a disadvantage,” Chen explains. “What you learn in class isn’t necessarily as applicable to the work force.” Nobody needs to worry about the college hackathoners getting distracted by their homework: “What’s really cool about this atmosphere is that it’s pretty easy to say ‘Screw it’ when it comes to schoolwork,” says Vikram Rajagopalan, a sophomore from the University of Michigan. “Pulling out a textbook is very frowned upon.”

As far as Mick Hagen is concerned, students who drop out of college are actually more desirable than those who stay in school. “College puts a lot of constraints, a lot of limitations around what you can and can’t do,” Hagen said. “Some people, they want to stretch their arms, get out and create more, do more.” College is constraining. Come with us and “create” and “do.” Stretch out your arms and create Undrip, “a mobile iOS app that algorithmically surfaces the best and most interesting content from your social feeds.” Alas, the app ran out of money and closed shop in 2013, a victim, according to its in memoriam web presence, of a lack of “explosive growth to attract additional capital.” Mick Hagen’s not heading back to Princeton. According to his website, he’s already collected just short of a million dollars—and no doubt several more college drop-outs—for his next start-up venture launching soon.


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