Peter Thiel at Yale: We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters

April 27, 2013

Peter Thiel just came to Yale to spread his contrarian gospel. The rate of technological innovation is decelerating, he argued, despite our collective belief that there are smart scientists in labs somewhere, working to solve our problems. Government regulation is largely to blame. And inventive minds are too focused on the internet and too neglectful of the world of things. We were supposed to have flying cars by now. Instead, real food and energy prices are higher than they were forty years ago, and flying from L.A. to San Francisco has actually gotten slower. (Thank you, TSA).

In case you don't know who Peter Thiel is: He co-founded PayPal. He made the first outside investment in Facebook. In 2010, he launched the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, which gives entrepreneurs under age 20 $100,000 to skip college for two years to develop "ideas that simply cannot wait."

I asked Peter what our schools can do to produce better innovators. He re-framed the question by asking me to consider what purposes education actually serves in the United States today. He posited four functions:

  1. Education as learning. This is rare. Most people who really care about learning are autodidacts.
  2. Education as insurance. We invest in education in order to hedge against future uncertainty.
  3. Education as tournament. In this sense, education is zero-sum. Yale and Stanford create a public good by incubating and transferring knowledge, but if they could suddenly triple the size of their student bodies, they wouldn’t. Prestige is un-scalable. Elite universities are like nightclubs.
  4. Education as babysitter. This is our dirty little secret. “Education” can be a codeword for “holding pen.”
    If we want to retool education to accelerate innovation, Thiel argued, we first must decompose “education” into its constituent parts.
    In that spirit, let me add two functions to Peter Thiel’s list:
  5. Education as socialization. Like the military and Hollywood movies, schools are good for imparting shared norms to heterogeneous populations.
  6. Education as leveler (or perpetuator) of privilege. Do schools level the social playing field, or do they perpetuate inherited privilege? They do both.

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Daniel Weisfield