It seems some days that getting an education is portrayed as the pursuit of mugs and fools. I have lost count of the articles and blogs I read, and the talking heads I hear, spouting nonsense about the folly of pursuing a college education or an advanced degree like an MBA. It is a large and recurring theme in startup land – the argument that real entrepreneurs don’t need an education, or that an education (or an MBA) is just an impediment to the inherent greatness and creativity of the entrepreneur. It’s a theme presented through the images of the down trodden BAs who can’t get jobs, and stories of overpriced liberal arts colleges pumping out graduates with “no skills.” And, you know what? It is SO MUCH NONSENSE.
Entrepreneurship is a human behavior, without question. People who are entrepreneurial often seem to be born into it. However, growing a successful business is not instinctive. It is a journey, and one that is more likely to be successful if the people involved have knowledge and context to guide their instincts. Moreover, a successful business needs a team, and some members of the team need to have detailed skills. One of the best examples of this I have seen is the appreciation of competition. Each business has it, and a successful business must overcome competition to succeed. An instinctive entrepreneur often believes she has no competition. An educated individual appreciates how markets work and how supply and demand forces shapes competition. In other words, education provides context and a framework for instinct.
While it is wonderfully exciting to talk about high school graduates that succeed because they throw off the shackles of a college education, the reality is that for most mere mortals an education is vitally important. In a given population, there will always be outliers, of both success (internet millionaire) and failure (BA cab driver), but for the substantial majority of a group, having an education is essential both for themselves and for society as a whole.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
We live in a highly complex society and world. Material and physical science has progressed to the point where the composition of matter can be explained from the subatomic level upward to the universe itself. The understanding of the composition of DNA and the mechanics of life has progressed to a level of understanding that allows scientists to utilize software to predict protein sequences and use DNA to store computer data. We are linked together through spinning electrons, waves, minerals and materials that we can manipulate and triangulate down to the head of a pin. Our economy is shaped by the creation of money out of thin air, traded by computers and converted into goods, and then back again in a complex ballet of interrelationships. There are dependencies, externalities, ideologies and typologies everywhere you look. If you think that you can understand this last paragraph by instinct I wish you the best.
Without education and the ability to gather an appreciation for the highly complex world within which we now live, a citizen cannot really participate. You can’t compete in a game where you don’t have the tools. In addition, there is something more important at stake. Without an education the world appears unstructured and random. It appears magical. But, not in a pleasant, Game of Thrones kind of way. It appears magical in the way that anything is possible, and everything is relative. When that happens, jet contrails in the sky can be a government plot to seed clouds just as easily as a natural reaction to jet exhaust in the upper atmosphere, and zero point energy can get just around the corner.
The reality is that our populace needs to be educated for our democracy to function and our economy to grow. Society exists because we stand on the shoulders of those that have come before. We build our lives on the knowledge that our predecessors leave behind. Today’s software engineers use technology built by those that come before, and our scientists build knowledge on the theories proven by those that preceded them. Politics and social trends are built upon the experiences of our parents and so forth. None of us figure out everything during our lifetime, no matter how smart and brilliant we are. Moreover, we are smarter and progress further, when we get the head start of the knowledge of those that have come before.
This does not mean, however, that our education system gets a pass as it currently exists. Many of our universities have wildly inefficient business models, and have raised their prices not because of inherent value, but as a way to signal exclusivity and limit access. The world of education, particularly higher education, needs structural reform. However, to state that the education industry needs to understand and serve its customers is not the same thing as saying that the product that they sell is not valuable.
Overall, my belief is that an education, of whatever type, provides value to the student if the student applies herself and develops the ability to stand on the shoulders of those that have come before. It is up to the student to decide whether the education overall allows her to stand on shoulders that matter and provide opportunity (in other words, whether learning Eastern European literature is as economically viable as studying Ruby on Rails or chemistry). The truth of education is that we should support it as a societal value, and leave it to the free market for students to determine what they want to pursue.
The next time you hear a voice argue otherwise, I want you to ask yourself “why does this person rail so loudly against education?” Or, ask them. I suspect you’ll find the answer they give will have more to do with themselves than they would like to reveal.