In defense of liberal arts


I read an interesting article on CNN today, by a 19-year old entrepreneurial whiz named Dale Stephens, who is one of the first recipients of the Thiel Fellowship.  This is a $100,000 grant to entrepreneurs and inventors under the age of 20 to further their pursuits in business and creativity. An interesting aspect of this grant is that, for the two years of the fellowship, the recipient cannot be enrolled in any sort of academic institution. This probably explains why Mr. Stephens is writing about how “College is a waste of time…”


Dale Stephens is cocky and opinionated in the way that only a 19 year old who has discovered making his own money can be.  He’s found his path, or at least he thinks he has, and he has little room in his worldview for anyone who is not an entrepreneur.  At one point in his CNN article he disparages time spent in class:


Of course, some people want a formal education. I do not think everyone should leave college, but I challenge my peers to consider the opportunity cost of going to class. If you want to be a doctor, going to medical school is a wise choice. I do not recommend keeping cadavers in your garage. On the other hand, what else could you do during your next 50-minute class? How many e-mails could you answer? How many lines of code could you write?


It is true that not everyone is cut out for college, and that a young man like Dale, with big ideas and lots of energy may take one or more of his “big ideas” and turn them into gold in the marketplace. But I wonder about a world where the burning questions are about answered emails and lines of code.


The world is moving fast, and technology is changing our lives forever.  I’m o.k. with that.  While I am no computer tech, and I couldn’t write a line of code if my life depended on it, I love the things technology has brought us.  The speed of communication in the business and personal worlds is amazing and productive.  Social networking has brought whole new worlds of interaction and I welcome them.  But I worry a little bit about the tunnel-visioned approach to the wonders of technology.  Young people like Dale worry me.  They are undoubtedly out to rule the world with their creativity and innovation, but a view that answered emails and lines of code are more important than time learning about something outside your area of interest and expertise seems dangerously narrow to me.


I think, as the world gets more and more technology dependent and network based, we should be stressing things like philosophy, literature, art, and music, history, religion and social sciences.  These are all areas of study that stretch our minds, feed our souls, and renew our spirits.  Creativity and innovation are best fed by open minds, satisfied souls and fresh spirits.  Of course Dale feels like he is all of those things right now – he’s 19 years old.  But where will Dale be when he is 40?  What will be the “opportunity cost” of never learning about the way others think, feel, create, and learn?  This young man seems to think that “gathering to discuss, challenge and support in other in improving the human condition” will be productive even though those gathering to discuss have little or no knowledge of that condition beyond what they see with their own eyes, or have experienced first-hand.  I find it fascinating that he thinks learning should take place “as it did in French salons.”  Where does he think the ideas discussed in the French salons came from?  History, philosophy, and the Arts are what informed and fueled those group discussions he claims to admire, though apparently doesn’t know a lot about.


There is another thing that bothers me.  I am afraid that, as a society, we are losing our ability to do things we don’t want to do.  No matter how hard Dale and his fellow creators of wonder try, they will not be able to eliminate the fact that sometimes we have to clean up, do the paperwork and recordkeeping even if it is all digital, answer the complaints of our customers, and listen to boring facts that are nevertheless necessary for us to know.  If the emerging leaders of the world are, as Dale says, “the disruptive generation creating the ‘free agent economy’ built by entrepreneurs, creatives, consultants and small businesses,” they will sometimes need to do things that bore them, or that they don’t want to do. An inability to manage one’s own level of boredom and disengagement can only lead to an inability to relate to the world as it is and an ever-increasing withdrawal from reality.


I completely forgive Dale for being 19 years old and full of himself and his opportunities.  I’m sure he is brilliant, and his Thiel Fellowship may indeed produce the Next Big Thing.  But what will Dale be doing when he’s 40?  He, of course, sees himself as continuing to innovate and create, changing the world by changing the marketplace.  I would argue that, without widening his interests, learning from others, and broadening his view of what is creative, he will be burned out, at a loss for inspiration and success in life or in business.  And that would be sad, because a brilliant mind and energetic spirit like that is truly a shame to waste.





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