I’ve taught at a couple universities, and I’ve got plenty of criticisms of higher education, but I still don’t think the answer is to scale back education altogether. I think we have to continually reshape it and improve it, and that means mapping it to the skills our society needs but also reaffirming our commitment to a broad-based liberal democratic education. If we can’t do that, if we’re not willing to do that, then I’d argue we’ve given up on the whole project of liberal democracy.
You have a very interesting perspective, Sean. I’m not sure I’ve ever talked to someone quite like you, so it’s great. What you’re saying sounds really good. The issue is how to do it. Cutting waste is easy and transparent. But making things better is really hard and, in order to do it, you’ve got to trust a bunch of people who have already really screwed up, and that sounds imprudent to me.
—Why this economist things public education is mostly pointless
Caplan just researched and wrote a 400-page book literally titled The Case Against Education, and he has never before talked to someone with Illing’s perspective? I don’t care how many citations Caplan has in his book — if he’s never heard someone make the argument that public education is a cornerstone of a healthy liberal democracy, then he has simply not done his homework.
Eisenhower did all he could to bring his brand of piety into the White House. He insisted on opening all his Cabinet meetings with prayer. While he was in office, the phrase “under God” (borrowed, perhaps, from the Spiritual Mobilization campaign) was incorporated into the Pledge of Allegiance and the words “In God We Trust” were printed on the nation’s currency. There was minimal debate about the matter: When the House Committee on Banking and Currency discussed it, there was one lone dissenter—a Jewish representative from Brooklyn, who noted, somewhat weakly, “If we are going to have religious concepts—and I am in favor of them—I don’t think the place to put them is on our currency or on our coins.”
—Kim Phillips-Fein, “Laissez-Prayer,” a review of Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America
“Is this a book about building better businesses or building better people and cultures? To Thiel’s credit, these issues are deeply interrelated if not, in some sense, the same. In this regard, Zero to One possesses a distinctly moral—at times, almost apocalyptic—dimension. Thiel’s vision isn’t just entrepreneurial; it’s also ethical and romantic.
The question, “What valuable company is nobody building?” is a derivative of his central question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” There are still secrets to uncover, frontiers to explore, he emphasizes: Thiel wants to re-instill a sense of wonder, to help us see the world “as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first.” It’s these touches that lend Thiel the aura of being something more than just another Silicon Valley millionaire, even if he does quote Shakespeare like a soundbite.
But the book’s humanist strain also undermines Thiel’s notorious denigration of higher education. Thiel believes that academic degrees have become status markers of dubious benefit to society and the individual. He has compared university administrators to sub-prime mortgage brokers and tenured professors to sixteenth-century Catholic priests selling indulgences in the form of diplomas—secular salvation for modern souls. The Thiel Foundation offers students under age 20 scholarships to pursue a startup instead of going to school.
But the critical inquiry Thiel advocates is exactly what a liberal arts curriculum is designed to teach. “Will this business still be around a decade from now?” can only be answered, he believes, by “think[ing] critically about the qualitative characteristics of your business.” His book is, perhaps inadvertently, a plea for the necessity of humanist thought in the business world. This alone is fairly radical in a business culture that tends to think a literature degree means you can identify a simile and not much else. Thiel himself has benefited—financially and intellectually—from this background: Zero to One could only be written by someone who possesses not only tremendous business expertise, but also a deep and broad education. His insistence that you can get along without the taint of a formal education is hypocritical at best.”
—Elizabeth Winkler, “Peter Thiel Is a Closet Humanist”