Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about startup culture, and am reminded of its nobility — having started three companies in my career, and learned from each experience, and even occasionally made some money. I’m more positive on startups these days than I have been in a while.
I have experience as an entrepreneur, but I also have an education. For me, it was a rough path. I dropped out, briefly, in high school. Got a chance to reboot my education, which was something I really needed to do. I had a professor in my freshman year of college who showed me that my mind could do math. And from there, I took charge. With mixed results. But at the end of the mess, I was educated. Not just in science and technology, but also in art, music, history, economics and literature. There were a few things I wish they had required I learn: accounting and psychology, foremost, so I wouldn’t have been so scared of taxes and sex. But on the whole I think I got a pretty good deal.
Nowadays Silicon Valley says that college education is a waste. This idea has spread to academia too. They’re trying to make the experience more relevant to entrepreneurs and their investors. I’ve heard it said at Harvard that they want to participate in the success of the next Gates and Zuckerberg, both Harvard dropouts. I find this disturbing. I want them to educate better citizens, not richer business people. If they happen to be better citizens and rich, all the better. But first comes the person, not the bank account.
I don’t think Gates and Zuckerberg are good role models for young people. And not just because they dropped out. It’s more subtle. Most kids who try to be the next billionaire entrepreneur will fail. There probably isn’t even one such success in the class of 2013. So most will be disappointed. And if we push the kids toward that, we will lead them to believe, mistakenly, that it’s enough to create a massive fortune. It is not enough. And if they fail to create the fortune, according to this standard, they will have failed in life. So, not only will we have set this generation up to fail, but we have just certified the mistake of past generations, that wealth itself has meaning. It has a lot less meaning, imho, than most people think.
When you look at the problems our democracy has, probably the biggest one is the “low information voter.” The ignorant electorate that says they want government out of our lives, but keep your hands off Medicare and Social Security, for example. We should strive not to create better billionaires, we should set our sights higher — to create better voters. I’m not saying they should vote the way I want them to. I don’t vote the same way I did 20 years ago. We should however vote with a purpose. Not for style or appearance. For what’s good for ourselves and for the country.
The education process could work better, so let’s make it work better. But before you throw it out, think clearly and seriously about what we depend on it for.
Update: There’s a Hacker News thread on this piece.