“Knowledge for its Own Sake”

Back in September technology billionaire Peter Thiel (founder of PayPal) announced a kind of anti-scholarship: he would give $100,000 to kids to drop out of college and become entrepreneurs. Slate editor Jacob Weisberg writes that he totally objects to the Thiel plan, or maybe just Thiel himself:

To describe Peter Thiel as simply a libertarian wildly understates the case. His belief system is based on unapologetic selfishness and economic Darwinism. His most famous quote—borrowed from Vince Lombardi—is, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”

So the problem is that Thiel’s a jerk. Moreover, he’s apparently a really weird jerk:

Offline, Thiel is the lead backer of Seasteading, a movement to create law-free floating communes based on voluntary association. Led by Milton Friedman’s pajama-wearing grandson, this may be the most elaborate effort ever devised by a group of computer nerds to get invited to an orgy. (Let’s build our own Deepwater Horizon with legal prostitution!) Thiel is also an investor in space exploration, with the avowed aim of creating new political structures even farther offshore.

Now all of these things are totally worth noting, and also worthy of ridicule, but does that really make the get-$100,000-to-drop-out-of-college plan wrong?

As Weisberg explains, the problem with Thiel’s plan goes like this:

Where to start with this nasty idea? A basic feature of the venture capitalist’s worldview is its narcissism, and with that comes the desire to clone oneself—perhaps literally in Thiel’s case. Thus Thiel fellows will have the opportunity to emulate their sponsor by halting their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood, maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible, and thereby avoid the siren lure of helping others or contributing to the advances in basic science that have made the great tech fortunes possible. This threatens to turn the risk-taking startup model into a white boy’s version of the NBA, diverting a generation of young people from the love of knowledge for its own sake and respect for middle-class values.

Well technically the whole idea of making a lot of money through entrepreneurship is a very middle-class sort of dream, but whatever.

Um, what? “Diverting a generation of young people.” Come on.

Part of the problem here seems to be that Thiel’s plan came along around at the same time that the Obama administration has made an aggressive push to get more people to graduate from college. It is, therefore, inappropriate to encourage anyone not to complete the degree, right?

Well not really. Frankly, the point of college is to become educated, not specifically to graduate. That “love of knowledge for its own sake” is transmitted by colleges whether students finish or not. Certainly the idea of increasing the number of college graduates in the United States is commendable, but there’s no need to fetishize college graduation.

The goal of getting more people through college is not to increase the “love of knowledge for its own sake”; it’s to help people succeed as young adults. If someone has a business plan that he wants some startup money for, it’s good to encourage that. It doesn’t mean the end of learning as we know it. As Thiel envisions it, it just means the lucky college kid with the Thiel money isn’t going to scramble to complete those credits he needs in political science or whatever.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer