Education For The Win

I saw something on the Internet this evening that made me angry. (Wait, something wrong on the Internet? Film at 11. But bear with me.)

Success is sitting right in front of you. You don’t need to have a bachelors degree to reach out and take it- to think anything else is a limiting belief that exists solely in your mind. Hustling = passion + ability to sell yourself. No degree required.

This quote, from this article by Steven Corona, the CTO of TwitPic, really rubs me the wrong way. It’s also on an issue about which I’ve been speaking, privately, for a few years.

The tech industry needs to stop its hatred of education.


For many years, the tech industry, spurred on by stories like that of Bill Gates, have been singing this same tune: you don’t need college, or an advanced degree. You can code perfectly well without those things! You can achieve greatness without those things! Only losers get those things! You’re better than they are!

Why is this? Well, if I were cynical, I would say it’s so that the people involved can hire those convinced by these arguments and pay them less– much less. Let’s set that aside for a moment, though, and pretend I’m not cynical. Why would these usually-sane people be arguing against higher education, the pursuit of knowledge, and all that goes with it?

It’s certainly true that, strictly speaking, one doesn’t need college; one doesn’t need high school, for that matter. You can drop out at 16– or before that, in some places– and start working! “We don’t need no calculus, or English, or physics classes!”

It’s trite, and somewhat untrue, to say that you are then eminently qualified to flip burgers, and that’s all. People like Gates– or, for that matter, this Steve Corona– prove that you can do more than that, without bothering with college. So if you can do that, why bother? After all, we know that college is otherworldly expensive. Why be in debt for the next 5, 10, or 20 years if you’ll do the same things without it?

Well, for one thing: if you know, at age 18 (or 16, or 12, or whatever), exactly what you’re going to do with your life, how you’re going to do it, and that you will never, ever hit a snag in this adventure, then great– but I’m going to go ahead and just say that you’re lying. You can’t know that; no one can. Education doesn’t provide you with job skills, it’s true. What it does do– I would argue, one of its most important jobs– is provide you with the ability to handle unforeseen circumstances.

That’s true in a lot of different ways. One, quite obvious, way is that if you’ve taken that basic higher level of math, science, writing, etc.– the generalized core curriculum, or distribution curriculum at some schools– you can do lots of different things, not just the one thing you trained for. I went to an engineering school, at a school known almost exclusively for medicine. Nonetheless, I took lots of odd things: a course on philosophy, quite a bit of hard science, and quite a few math courses in different areas. While yes, I am an engineer, I also have the breadth to write grants (did that once as an undergrad, and now, successfully, to run my business), understand how science works in both theory and practice (important if you do your own research, as I do), and even– made-up though it might seem– communicate with people whose backgrounds are different than my own. I took enough philosophy between high school and college to be able to discuss Feminist Kritikal theory with radical adherents, enough history to be able to learn from people who’ve spent their whole lives on one decade, and enough math to be able to talk even to friends who are way too good at it. This isn’t unimportant; if you can’t communicate with people different from you, you’re going to be at the mercy of those who can. This is what caused the SOPA/PIPA debacle; the hardcore nerds who knew why it would cause problems couldn’t communicate with the people in charge, and we finally had to black out Wikipedia in order to make them understand.

In essence, college, and education in general, gives you flexibility, and preparation for a life that goes off the straight and narrow. A security researcher for whom I have a huge amount of respect, Moxie Marlinspike, told a pretty amazing story earlier this year about almost dying due to lack of preparation– in a different area, to be sure, but much the same thing: something he hadn’t anticipated happen, and he damn near died. Steve Corona is CTO of a decent little company– but if he’d picked the wrong language, his skills would have been useless, and all the personal motivation in the world wouldn’t’ve really helped. Sure, I could code before I went to Hopkins– but it’s all the other things that I learned in college that made it important. College isn’t just a job skills course– nor should it be.

My colleague, mentor, boss, and friend (all of the above, in different amounts given the circumstances) Dr. John Linwood Griffin gave a talk at the Hackers on Planet Earth conference on higher education– more specifically, on graduate school, not just college. You should watch it, but he hit on another point worth mentioning: that education gives you a chance to exceed what you think you can do, in a way that lets you make a decisive impact on the world. Indeed, to leave grad school, you actually have to make a novel contribution to the field. As he mentioned, it’s not impossible to do this without school– but it’s rare, and once you’ve done such a major thing once, you’ll find yourself making bigger, awesome-er impacts everywhere you go. Dr. Griffin can walk into most companies on the planet and change them for the better just by his presence. Education, as he’s the first to say, put him in a place where he could do it.

I heard a wonderful interview on NPR today– on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, of all places. They interviewed “Elvis Guy” and “Mohawk Guy” from NASA/JPL, the flight director and landing director of the Curiosity Mission. There was a pretty touching moment, at least to me:

SAGAL: Wow. So Adam, tell me about your background. Because what we read, you were like a rock and roll guy for a while, right?

STELTZNER: Right. I was not the best student in high school. So I stopped going to high school.

SAGAL: Really?

STELTZNER: And started playing music. And after a few years of that, playing rock and roll in the San Francisco Bay area, I became intrigued at the fact that there were a different set of stars in the sky as I’d drive home from playing a show as there had been when I went to the show. And I had some vague recollection about something moving with respect to something else. But I frankly didn’t really know what it was.

BODETT: But then you stopped taking drugs, right?


STELTZNER: That’s right.

SAGAL: And so then you…

STELTZNER: So then I went down to the local community college to try and figure out why those stars were moving. Then I started to make up for my lack of high school education, so on and so forth, and then I’m here.

So then he went and landed a rover on Mars. Because he got curious about something other than himself. Seriously, listen to the whole interview, it’s amazing.

The TL;DR version is this. If Steve wants to hate on education– if he wants to say that classes are only “for the lowest common denominator” and that he’s too cool for them– fine. What I hear is that he couldn’t be bothered to step outside his shell, even for a moment, and do something outside his comfort zone. Not to increase his own knowledge, not to learn from people different from him, nothing. I wish him only the best; he’s one of the lucky ones. However, when he spews venom on education, he crosses the line: he says that no one should ever need to do anything beyond what they think when they’re a teenager. He footnotes that first quote by saying that doctors, teachers, and speech therapists do need to go to school– and that just underlines my point; by saying that no one else gets any value from education, he’s just pointing out that he has no idea what education does. Too bad.