It was 1955. A boy was born in San Francisco to a single mother. She requested an adoption for him soon after, and he was placed with a husband and wife in the area, neither of whom had a college education. The mother protested but the couple promised to pay for his college education. Grudgingly, she agreed.
The boy grew up in a world of orchards and change. He was often bullied at school for his obsession with mechanics and his tendency to be alone. As his peers chattered away about how he was a loner, he was cold-calling technology company CEOs to try and get a job.
By high school, he was taking classes at Stanford University and building products with an older engineer friend. His adopted parents paid for his college education, as they had promised his biological mother so many years back. But little did they know that he would drop out a semester in.
The American education system failed Steve Jobs, and he is far from the only one. The founders of Microsoft, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Whole Foods, Uber, Oracle, and Dell are all drop-outs.
We have learned to associate entrepreneurship with dropping out — you probably didn’t even blink twice when you read the long list of companies in the last paragraph. For an institution that has been depicted as the status quo for decades, excluding an entire occupation from its public perception is disconcerting.
The disconcert turns into irony when we consider how pivotal that occupation is to the country’s values. The foundation for the American Dream is social mobility for anyone who seeks it, a spirit that entrepreneurship also embodies.
Educational institutions are not blind to this fact. At UC Berkeley where I go to school, everyone from my accounting professor to the next hot consulting club is eager to help us “learn entrepreneurship.”
But can entrepreneurship be learned?
Babson College is ranked #1 for entrepreneurship education by US News. But disappointingly few innovators have come out of the school. Yale University looks for students who can “become the leaders of their generation in whatever they wish to pursue.” But if some of the most disruptive leaders of our time are drop-outs, is the education system truly designed to foster leadership?
Let’s take a step back to examine the American education system.
An Overview of American Education
In 1910, a little under 10% of Americans had a high school diploma. By 1950, it was 50%.
The growth of educational accessibility was in stark contrast to Europe, where education was seen as a privilege for the elite. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, America worked to expand the reach of its education, arguing that it provided the necessary skills for high-paying work. The goal was to provide flexible employment options for students with skills that could be used in various occupations around the world.
The way success for these programs was measured changed in 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act was signed by George W. Bush with bipartisan support. The act mandated that schools administer a nationwide standardized test if they wanted to receive federal funding. The success of each school was then decided entirely by the test scores of their student. Schools who didn’t meet the score threshold for their state or show marked improvement over time were penalized.
As a result of the heavy emphasis on standardized tests, schools began “teaching to the test” by only covering the concepts they believed would increase student scores. For the students who struggled with test-taking, their success seemed lower relative to their peers, despite their potential for success with other assessments like projects.
While the law has since been replaced with a more flexible policy, the repercussions on the American education system are long-lasting. Students are measured by how well they are able to conform to test-taking rules. It’s a system designed to create workers, instead of creators.
But with less than 10% of Americans ultimately pursuing entrepreneurship, wouldn’t it make sense to tailor public education to the other 90%?
What Is At Stake
Entrepreneurs are known for disrupting the status quo. School, as one of the most stagnant institutions in America, embodies the status quo. It makes sense that entrepreneurs would resist it. Programs like The Thiel Fellowship play off this idea, offering money to student entrepreneurs if they drop out to build their ideas.
But why does education have to represent the status quo? In the global race for innovation, America has been losing its lead for years. Yet, the institutions that we consider integral to our society remain unchanged. In a society where employees are the hegemonic role, builders can never thrive. We should not have to unlearn our education to become an entrepreneur.
Many do not even have the luxury of attempting to unlearn. Marginalized groups repeatedly cite education as their most treasured source of security. Education has become a crucial precursor for traditional, well-paying career paths. For people who have grown up with the need for a safety net, dropping out of school is not an option.
In the 2020 class of Thiel Fellows, less than 1/4 of the students were women. Two were women of color. We cannot innovate and disrupt if entire populations are excluded from our ecosystem. Given the current state of education, the future of innovation is at stake.
After Steve Jobs dropped out of college, he stayed on his college campus, sneaking into classes to hear professors lecture. He attributes a calligraphy class he audited during this time to Apple’s iconic design. Education may be broken, but there is hope for repair. Instead of a radical restructuring, let’s dive into 3 key barriers entrepreneurially-minded students face that we can take down to enable innovation.
Problem #1: Specialists vs Generalists
While grade school students are generally forced to take the same 5 classes as everyone else, college students have the opposite problem: higher education requires a series of classes within the same field. We are expected to pick a major and stick to it, completing 30–35 classes within 4 years. Despite the incredible variety of classes universities offer, we don’t have the freedom to choose which ones to take.
This makes sense if you are planning to spend your career employed in one position. To be a successful software engineer, you need a depth of computer science understanding. To be a successful journalist, you need a depth of writing understanding.
But many students interested in innovation want to learn about diverse topics. Someone interested in disrupting bio-technology would need to understand the basics of biology, computer science, business, and human-centered design. Steve Jobs wanted to learn about design, computer science, business, and literature. When he found he couldn’t, he dropped out and opted to learn everything on his own.
Our education system is designed exclusively for specialists. To create room for innovation, we need to first create room for generalists.
Imagine a school system where… majors are optional. Students can choose whether to specialize in a specific subject or forgo a major in order to explore whichever classes catch their eye. Major requirements encourage interdisciplinary thinking, highlighting courses in different departments that intersect with knowledge that is strictly major-related.
Problem #2: The Obsession with Failure
School punishes failure. One poor assignment can wholly change your final grade in a class, potentially jeopardizing your future employability. With so much pressure on each assignment, trying to do well in school can feel like walking on eggshells.
It doesn’t help that the system allows for an unnecessary amount of nuance in student performance. The difference between an “A” and an “A-” is often a question of test-taking abilities, rather than true understanding, but to a “straight A” student, it can feel astronomical. Instead of spending time building new ideas, entrepreneurially-minded, ambitious students often end up spending hours learning how to better take tests.
And when students grow up in this system, the fear of failure often becomes ingrained in their minds. For innovation, this fear is wholly counterproductive. In a space that is so high-risk, failure is inevitable. If your first attempt cannot be perfect, your best option is to iterate upon it so you can perfect it over time. Entrepreneurship is about embracing failure and then bouncing back from it.
Imagine a school system where… mistakes are allowed and encouraged. Teachers reward students who ask questions. Students receive feedback on every assignment and are graded on their ability to improve from the feedback, rather than the quality of the original assignment.
Problem #3: The Plagiarism Card
Growing up, I often sought writing inspiration in other people’s work. Seeing the artful way in which my favorite creators expressed their ideas helped me develop and cement my own creative voice.
Throughout this process, I was always nervous that I would be accused of plagiarism — it was never intentional, but my words often mirrored the style of the books I was reading. Teachers told us to think with our eyes closed, free from other’s opinions or ideas. After we submitted our assignment, teachers would look up our ideas on the Internet to check for plagiarism. Originality was a requirement for success.
The problem is that innovation builds on top of existing ideas. Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, is a two-time winner of the Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality. “There is absolutely nothing there that is new,” Harari once said while reflecting on his bestseller’s success. “It was really reading the kind of common knowledge and just presenting it in a new way.”
Harari’s creativity lay in curating ideas together. But when we optimize our ideas for originality instead, we lose out on quality. Using ideas from someone else in your work is rarely true plagiarism because your interpretation of someone’s ideas will be inherently different from theirs. When the education system punishes idea-borrowing, it hinders our creative processes and ultimately slows down innovative progress.
Imagine a school system where… ideas are evaluated based on how effectively they synthesize pre-existing ones. Students have the opportunity to develop an innovative process by studying the work of other innovators and borrowing from their ideas.
Much of the dialogue today around building a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem in America revolves around making existing entrepreneurial institutions more accessible, such as venture capital and accelerator programs. But for many young minds, their potential for building earth-shattering ideas was never developed. Fixing the pipeline doesn’t help if the pipeline itself is empty.
Education is the bridge between the outer world and the existing pipeline. If we reform our education system to foster exploration, allow for failure, and encourage curation, we can ensure that more disruptive ideas are able to take fruition.
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