Author Michael Ellsberg wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times last weekend titled Will Dropouts Save America? that created quite a stir. He argued that students are not learning the skills they need in order to become entrepreneurs, which could lead to job creation.
America has a shortage of job creators, he wrote. And the people who create jobs aren't traditional professionals, but start-up entrepreneurs. He later adds the following: And while most people who end up starting businesses likely have college degrees, those degree-bearers should be well aware (as they learned in their freshman statistics classes) that correlation does not equal causation. Assuming that college was responsible for their success gives higher education more credit than it deserves.
The piece has garnered some criticism, as has Ellsberg's new book, The Education of Millionaires: It's Not What You Think, and It's Not Too Late.
In an interview with IB Times, the author spoke about his new book, education, job creation, and the student loan crisis.
What is the book's background?
Ellsberg, 34, began working on his book in the fall of 2009.
I was in a place where I really liked my life, Ellsberg said, adding that he was in a good relationship with the woman to whom he is now married and had overcome personal issues and health problems.
None of that learning happened inside a formal institution, he said. It was all informal learning, self-teaching. I think that a lot of people realize that the things valuable to them in their career and personal life they learn not through academics, they learn out in the real world.
His own wife, he pointed out, was a college dropout who ended up starting her own business.
She exemplifies the spirit of my book, he said.
What was your educational experience?
Ellsberg attended the prep school Deerfield Academy and graduated with a bachelor's degree in international relations from the Ivy League's Brown University. He was also a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.
I'm not at all an example of the people I write about, Ellsberg said. I had tons of academic credentials and no street smarts in my 20s. I went through the system and my 20s were a complete mess. Financially, emotionally, I was a mess. I think that is true now for many many 20-somethings. People are very lost and confused now when they get out of college and I was one of them. [College graduates] in droves are going right back to the rooms we grew up in. Something is wrong with this picture, and I'm not the only one so something's wrong here and we've got to raise the hard questions.
What do you think are some antiquated aspects of U.S. education?
We have a system that takes kids away from each other and puts them in a chair where they're crouched over studying for the SATs and writing papers, he said, pointing to the enormous amount of energy students put in to doing things like formatting papers in the proper MLA style. We're basically training them to become professors. We don't need to train everyone in the country to become one.
Are there any benefits to going to school?
Ellsberg said that critics of his piece in The New York Times have missed its point. He has nothing against those who work every day-type jobs and that students who want to become lawyers, doctors or scientists, for example, absolutely need to get the proper education and training.
Many people get many benefits out of school, he said. Obviously those people make valuable contributions to society. I have nothing against those people but I am trying to promote job creation and those are not the people who are creating jobs.
The F word: failure. Did you ever have a positive experience after failing at something?
The argument critics make, he said, is that people like Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs are the exception, that most people fail when they start a business.
That is true that a majority of initial businesses fail, Ellsberg said. However, what that misses is that every entrepreneur I've ever talked to almost talks fondly about their failures as a source of learning.
Students can debate all they want about the causes of World War II, he said, but it is already too late to do anything about that. It is better for people to get out into the world and try something, even if they end up failing at it.
That to me is a much better education than trying to have a squeaky clean resume, he said, pointing to his own writing career as an example. I am having some success now as an author. That was a very long tale of trial and error. Now I have career I'm happy with.
Should everyone just drop out right now?
No, not everyone should drop out, he said. We should be having the debate and the discussion. Less young people should be focused on academics and more should be focused by starting small businesses, starting young, like the ones in my book.
Ellsberg said that some of the negative responses to his arguments have been that business gurus like Jobs and Zuckerberg were motivated to do what they did, whereas the average kid would not be motivated.
I'm not talking to the unmotivated kids in America, he said. If you have no motivation, just floating through life, then you may need some kind of formal educational institution to guide you. Then you should get the cheapest one you possibly can. If you look at who's made an impact on the world...they're not all from Harvard and Stanford and Yale. They come from all kinds of schools.
What do you think of President Obama's student loan initiative?
I think it's a step in the right direction, he said, although he found it alarming when the President said that under the loan initiative students would have their loans forgiven after 20 years instead of the currently required 25 years. He called the repayment plans a form of indentured servitude.
We have a system that is saying to young people that in order to be a functional member of society you have to be taking loans that you will be paying off well into middle age, he said.
Ellsberg pointed to some of the Occupy Wall Street protestors who have student loans to pay off and no job prospects.
They got out of the system and they realized the system didn't work for them, he said. They're lucky to get a job at Starbucks. They're pissed off and they have reason to be pissed off.
What can be done?
Ellsberg said that adults need to encourage leadership in young people and encourage them to solve problems in the world.
You don't learn to solve problems by taking multiple choice exams, he said.
He pointed out that the subjects in his book were making things happen in the world from a very young age.
You don't lead in a classroom, you lead out in the real world, he said. If you have the ambition and the desire to do things, you don't need this college stamp of approval.