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Over the weekend, Jacob Weisberg at Slate lost his mind over the “hyper-libertarian” Peter Thiel. Thiel is a co-founder of Paypal and now a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley — this means that Thiel has more money than most. Weisberg takes issue with Thiel’s new “Thiel Fellowship,” which will award 20 people under the age of 20 $100,000 in cash to pursue their technological dreams. This, apparently, is unacceptable to Weisberg.
Before spending almost five paragraphs attempting to discredit Thiel by pointing out how crazy his politics are (they’re not) and how outlandish his personal pursuits are (maybe a little, but if you were a billionaire, wouldn’t yours be?), Weisberg lays into Thiel for daring to entice students to drop out of college. Mind you, Thiel isn’t just paying any random student $100 to drop out of school. He’s paying $100,000 to 20 of the most intelligent students that apply. Do you really think that a college degree will have any bearing on these students future? If they’re impressive enough, and their ideas are good enough to win $100,000 from Thiel, will that slip of paper really matter? Because everyone knows that to be a successful person, you must spend four years being talked at by a bunch of Ph.Ds. Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, Dean Kamen, Ralph Lauren, Kirk Kekorian — all graduated from college with honors. Oh, wait, you mean they’re all college dropouts?
But let’s get to what Weisberg finds wrong with Thiel’s fellowships:
Where to start with this nasty idea? A basic feature of the venture capitalist’s worldview is its narcissism, and with that comes the desire to clone oneself—perhaps literally in Thiel’s case. Thus Thiel fellows will have the opportunity to emulate their sponsor by halting their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood, maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible, and thereby avoid the siren lure of helping others or contributing to the advances in basic science that have made the great tech fortunes possible. Thiel’s program is premised on the idea that America suffers from a deficiency of entrepreneurship. In fact, we may be on the verge of the opposite, a world in which too many weak ideas find funding and every kid dreams of being the next Mark Zuckerberg. This threatens to turn the risk-taking startup model into a white boy’s version of the NBA, diverting a generation of young people from the love of knowledge for its own sake and respect for middle-class values.
You know what I think is a “nasty idea?” Forcing people, under the guise of “intellectual development”, to spend 4 years or more of their lives taking classes like “Arguing with Judge Judy: Popular Logic on TV Judge Shows.” And I can appreciate Weisberg’s idealized vision of university life as a group of young people devouring “knowledge for its own sake.” But sadly, I just don’t think that’s the way it works anymore. Maybe getting some of the best and brightest out of the universities and into the real world would be just the right thing for us.