Current Events

Maybe You Should Think About It

This post was co-authored with Steve Horwitz.


The great thing about being a young adult is that the world is all before you. There are a dizzying multitude of possible paths on which you can set your feet, and an incalculable array of possible futures at the end of each one.

The problem is that you have to listen to people our age tell you which path to take.

There’s a debate currently raging about the value of education, which is filled with people of our generation trying to tell people twenty years younger what they ought to do. The sides in the triangle look, roughly, like this:

Drop Out, Cash In:  The claim is that college is a waste of money and time and that young people would be better off becoming entrepreneurs and creating value in the marketplace and/or alternative institutions.  This is often coupled with a critique of higher education as being about learning to obey authority and conformism rather than creativity and learning.  It also often includes a critique of faculty as being disconnected and self-indulgent and caring little about actually producing critical thinkers and student learning.

Razzle-Dazzle Them: There is a large debate in economics over whether a college education adds to human capital in the form of skills and knowledge or simply signals to employers that you are smart, persistent, and teachable, among other things.  Although this view does not claim that going to college is a bad thing (at least not for most people), it does suggest that one should pick a school, a major, and courses mostly with an eye to their instrumental value as signals.

Grecian Urn: In the rush to protest the hyper-practical exterior of the “Drop Out Cash In” crowd, and what can be the tacky “designer label” feel of the Razzle-Dazzle crowd, the academy often rushes to defend all learning, for all people, for its own sake. No cost can be too high for access to truth and beauty, right?

The problem is that all the sides of the triangle are made up of at least 50% unadulterated hogwash.

The Drop Out, Cash In argument is inspiring. And we like the way it encourages people to follow their dreams and think creatively about how to accomplish their goals. But it ignores, it seems to us, some very important questions about entrepreneurship. First, it ignores the ongoing and heated argument among entrepreneurs and educators about whether entrepreneurship is something that can be taught. Second, it elides the question of whether everyone is suited to entrepreneurial activity. Third, it seems to us to vastly understate the difficulty and challenges of entrepreneurship. We are impressed by successful entrepreneurs (and believe us, we are very impressed) because we know it’s hard to succeed. We’ve seen a lot of failures and been involved with a few ourselves. The implication that “becoming an entrepreneur” is some sort of straight and easy way to success makes us want to rip our hair out (well, Sarah’s anyway). We also have serious questions about the idea of “becoming an entrepreneur” as a goal. Who does that? Don’t most entrepreneurs set out to make a product or provide a service or fill a Kirznerian niche? They have, in other words, a specific thing that they want to do. By doing it and succeeding at it, they become entrepreneurs. Setting out to “become an entrepreneur” without an entrepreneurial idea sounds, to us, a lot like friends who want to “be a writer” but don’t have any story ideas or writing experience. They’re in love with the idea of literary cocktail parties and book tours. How many people who want to “become an entrepreneur” are in love with the idea of seeing themselves quoted in Forbes or giving TED talks about the secret to success?

And we don’t understand why praising entrepreneurship has come, all of a sudden, to go hand in hand with a knee-jerk anti-intellectualism that is the worst version of parodies of the American businessperson.  It’s actually possible to respect and praise entrepreneurship without denigrating the work done by intellectuals and academics.

The Razzle-Dazzle Them approach is persuasive. We can all see how university alumni watch out for one another and help provide opportunities and mentoring, and we can all appreciate the usefulness of a short-hand that says, “Hire me. I finish what I start.” We would never say that education is not a signal. But we are equally unpersuaded that education is only a signal. We have been both teachers and students, and we know that every day we make interesting and productive use of content we dismissed when we acquired it. That education provides a signal and a short-hand does not mean that is all that it does.

The Grecian Urn approach is probably, in today’s climate, the easiest to dismiss. We’re glad that we had the kinds of educations that equipped us to respond to the beauties of poetry and music and painting. But we’re willing to admit that the course Sarah took on Pindaric Odes hasn’t produced any measurable intellectual, spiritual, or material gains for her. (Not yet, anyway.) Nor has Steve’s course on the philosophy of space and time with all of its non-Euclidean geometries and paradoxes of time travel. (But boy he enjoyed writing about the Planet of the Apes movies!) Not all knowledge is useful for all people. And insisting that everyone needs to learn Latin or that the world will fall apart if we are not all conversant with the Great Books is probably not the best way to defend the humanities.

We do believe that there are too many young people going to college today, due to a combination of misguided government subsidies, labor market interventions that make it harder to get work right out of high school, and a mistaken belief that the only path to a successful, financially stable career involves four years of college.  College isn’t for everyone, but neither is anything else.

So are we just going to Statler and Waldorf our way through this debate, throwing peanut shells at all concerned and not making any useful suggestions?

Hell no. We’re as happy as all the rest of the 40-somethings out there to pretend we’ve got all the answers.

Here’s what we think.

  1. Life is full of unexpected surprises. Very few of us take a straight line through life where the plans we have at 18 are the plans we are living at 40. You should probably pack carefully for that trip—with as broad a set of experiences and tools as possible, and a mind that is as flexible and capable of improvisation as you can make it. You aren’t one thing. And whatever things you are, you’ll be different things later down the road. Fill your mental and physical toolbox with a wealth of tools and you’ll be more prepared to address those surprises.  A good liberal education is as much about this flexibility and about the ability to learn how to learn as it is about the particular content you acquire.
  2. Knowledge is always useful. Heinlein said that “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” Some of those are things best learned in an academic atmosphere. Some are not. The point is to take this intellectual and mechanical and spiritual curiosity as your motto. As Kipling said, “Run and find out.” Because you cannot predict when the stuff that you know will bump up against the stuff someone else knows and produce one of those great ideas, enduring friendships, or moments of happiness that we all live for.
  3. School is expensive. If you go, go hard. Go with a sense of the possible risks and potential rewards.
  4. Entrepreneurship is expensive. If you go, go hard. Go with a sense of the possible risks and potential rewards.
  5. Everyone is trying to sell you something. We’re educators. (Well, Sarah is sort of complicated, but she’s more like an educator than anything else.) We’ve chosen to do this with our lives because we believe education is important and valuable and useful and beautiful and fun, and because we are lucky enough to be able to make money from doing something we believe is important and valuable and useful and beautiful and fun. So of course we want you to think that as well—not just so we can make money, but so we can share the things we love. The same thing is true of the people who are pushing students to drop out and be entrepreneurs. They’re doing something they believe in, and they’re trying to make money from it. There’s no shame in any of us making money from what we do. Just know that this is what’s happening. 

That’s what we think.

Oh. You wanted to know what we think you should do? You wanted to know if you should drop out? Razzle-dazzle ‘em? Study truth and beauty? You, in particular?

We’re libertarians. We don’t know what’s best for you. And we’re very suspicious of people who claim they do.

We think you ought to decide. And because the decision you make today may not be the decision you stick with in 5 or 10 or even 20 years, we think you ought to keep deciding as your life twists and turns and changes. We just wanted to give you a few more things to think about while you do.

Now get off our lawn.

Published on:
Author: Sarah Skwire
  • “Second, it elides the question of whether everyone is suited to
    entrepreneurial activity. Third, it seems to us to vastly understate the
    difficulty and challenges of entrepreneurship.”

    I agree with this so hard. I can’t tell you how many people tell me, and others, to start a business, without a real sense of what that means and that some people are better followers, to put it simplistically, than leaders.

    I think it’s also worth talking about folks who think/say/believe that people who don’t like working under someone should quit their jobs and start their own business. I think this line of thinking has so much hubris attached to it. I have learned. So much. In the first two years of my first job—a LOT of it about interacting with people—that I would have probably never learned if I had quit or left when things got rough (and believe me, they did!). I never would have learned those lessons without that experience, and if I had managed to start my own business either right out of school or right out of college, I think I would have failed stupendously.

    My grandfather used to say that no matter where you are or what you’re doing, there’s always something to learn.

    And, on a last note, most of the research I’ve seen on the matter still says that, financially, on average, young people are still better off with a college education than without one.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      certainly not everyone can start a business, and those who have good ideas and the capital to start one would probably be successful at whatever they did.

    • Sean II

      “I had managed to start my own business either right out of school or right out of college, I think I would have failed stupendously.”

      I take your general point, and it’s a good one…but don’t be so sure.
      Older and wiser people are older and wiser, but part of their wisdom includes an ability to see the many ways in which things might go wrong. This tends to make them risk-averse.

      Young fools don’t have that encumbrance, and thus indeed do they sometimes make good entrepreneurs.

      The key thing I would add to your insights is this: because most enterprises fail, and because there is no sure way to convert merit into success, it’s almost always bad advice on an individual level to tell anyone, at any phase of life to quit the relative security of what they’re doing and go create something that doesn’t yet exist.

      For every Mark Zuckerberg there are dozens or hundreds of “Oh, what the hell is that dude’s name, the poor slob who started fuckin’ Friendster?”

    • jdkolassa

      Agreed. One thing that really annoys me about a lot of libertarians is that they seem to assume everyone is an entrepreneur, and that if we just had more people doing more entrepreneurial things the economy and society would right itself.

      Except most people aren’t entrepreneurs. Sure, we should all be problem-solvers, but that seems like two different things to me.

      Not sure about the college thing, though, at least with the astronomical tuition costs most people are putting on themselves.

    • Philip

      I’m skeptical of the way commentators use studies on the financial benefits of education. We know degrees were valuable in the past. We also know the premises underpinning that value have eroded (costs are up and immediate benefits are down). But the financial value of a degree is only realized over the long haul. And projections based on historical data whose foundations we know to be untrue is a dangerous enterprise.

  • Charles Martin Cosgriff

    I like it. Well said. I’ve long thought that education isn’t for everyone, or that what formal schooling you seek should only be when and where necessary.

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    In my case it is more like giving advice to people 35 years younger. It would be a disservice to give only one type of advice to all kids. Every person is different, and whether to attend college now, or later, or a trade school, or an apprenticeship, that all depends on the unique individual you are talking to.

  • Bill

    “Now get off our lawn.”


  • Spatiotemporal Being

    “Nor has Steve’s course on the philosophy of space and time with all of its non-Euclidean geometries and paradoxes of time travel.”

    Shit, I just signed up for the philosophy of space and time next semester. You’re telling me I’m wasting my time?

    • Andrea

      I want the reading list for philosophy of space and time!

    • jdkolassa

      Depends. Are you going on a study abroad program to Gallifrey? Then yes, it will be quite useful.

  • Theresa Klein

    What makes you think I’m a young adult?

  • Aeon Skoble

    “Setting out to “become an entrepreneur” without an entrepreneurial idea sounds, to us, a lot like friends who want to “be a writer” but don’t have any story ideas or writing experience. They’re in love with the idea of literary cocktail parties and book tours. How many people who want to “become an entrepreneur” are in love with the idea of seeing themselves quoted in Forbes or giving TED talks about the secret to success?”
    THIS, times eleventy. The other thing it sounds like is middle- or high-school-age kids who see themselves as “setting out to become a professional football/baseball/basketball player.” Some small percentage of them actually will, but most will not. Just because you have a passion for baseball doesn’t guarantee you a spot in the majors, and by the same token, having a passion for entrepreneurship – and I don’t even know what that means – doesn’t mean you’ll actually have a product or service others will want.

    • Sean II

      Allow me to spike that punch:

      If someone over the age of 19 says he wants to be an entrepreneur without some specific idea, I feel very safe in assuming he’s a total dick.

      • martinbrock

        What about the 19 year old wanting to be a college graduate without a specific major?

    • martinbrock

      Sure, entrepreneurial ambition without an idea sounds silly, but the ambition to be a professional psychologist, without knowing that the number of psychology grads each year exceeds the number of professional psychologists, also seems silly, and the same ambition with this knowledge seems sillier. Maybe, if I have a novel, entrepreneurial idea for employing a psychology decree, seeking the degree under the circumstances is not so silly, but how many psychology undergrads have such an idea?

      • Aeon Skoble

        Sure, but who said the point of an undergrad major in psych is to be a psychologist? You can still benefit in specific ways from having studied psych in several careers (e.g. marketing, teaching), and in non-specific ways in any career, just like lit or history or whatever.

        • martinbrock

          Right. Obtaining a psychology degree without an idea of how to leverage the knowledge in another career is very much like being an entrepreneur without an entrepreneurial idea.

          • Aeon Skoble

            That’s what going to college and getting a broad liberal arts education is for.

          • martinbrock

            Then what’s primary and secondary education for?

  • j r

    There is a problem with talking about entrepreneurship as a monolith. There are lots of different types of people who start their own businesses: there are professionals like doctors and lawyers who hang out their shingle; there are people who spend 20 years in an industry, start a side gig freelancing and consulting and then spin that into their own company; there are people who open brick and mortar stores; there are people who run online businesses writing code or doing internet marketing; and then there’s the whole start up culture.

    This whole conversation seems geared only towards start ups, which makes sense because it’s the one that requires the least amount of human and physical capital. And that just raises the obvious question: why persuade more kids to forgo the accumulation of human capital and jump straight into trying to develop the next great iPhone app that tells you where to get the closest artisan cupcakes and then lets you post pictures of those cupcakes with cool filters?

    College is not for everyone, but in lieu of college most kids should probably start working.

  • Guest

    I’m suddenly able to edit every post, not only my own. I’m all for freedom and everything, but that just doesn’t seem right.

  • martinbrock

    I’m less interested in the signaling value of completing a conventional undergraduate degree program at a conventional, brick and mortar university than in the signaling value (which we don’t yet know) of completing emerging, unconventional educational programs like Khan Academy.

  • martinbrock

    … Specialization is for insects.

    So the academy is a hive of insects?

    • Brad

      If only we worked on the same problems in any coherent fashion!

  • idomeneus

    μή, φίλα ψυχά, βίον ἀθάνατον
    σπεῦδε, τὰν δ᾿ ἔμπρακτον ἄντλει μαχανάν.

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