How This College Dropout Wants To Change Education

Quitting college at 18 to move to Silicon Valley and pursue your startup is the stuff of Hollywood dreams. Now add a billionaire benefactor—PayPal founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel—bankrolling you and under pressure to prove that entrepreneurship can rival Harvard as a path to success. The inaugural class of Thiel Fellows is blogging about their experiences for Fast Company. Dale Stephens wants to shake up education, one page at a time.

Dale StephensWe live in a world where technology dominates the future, but I fundamentally believe education is a human problem. I wish curing our educational ills were as simple as making videos of lectures, or buying iPads for every student. The fact that education is more complicated than that is part of the reason I'm writing a book. Yes, one of those oldfangled paper contraptions.

When I am asked what I do, and I respond that I'm writing a book, I'm often scoffed at. In San Francisco the assumption is that if you don't have your own startup merging Airbnb, Pandora, and Dropbox, your life is a waste.

Changing education isn't quite as simple as starting a company, because we already hold beliefs about education. Before Airbnb, did you know that you needed to rent out your spare bedroom? Before Pandora did you know that you needed to stream personalized radio? Before Dropbox did you know that you needed to sync your files? The answer, in all cases, is no. However, if I asked you, "Did you know you need to get an education?" you'd be insulted. You'd also have very clear ideas about how to get an education.

Those preexisting ideas mean that changing education required more than building a technology company—it requires shifting our paradigm. I'm writing a book as the first step in shifting that paradigm and changing education. Surely technology will build solutions that help solve our educational problems, but efforts will be fruitless until we stop worshipping the SAT.

Another reason I'm writing a book is to take the time to put my own views on paper. It's easy to forget, but I've only been on this path for six months and I haven't had time to think through every aspect of education and come to my own conclusions. Writing a book gives me the opportunity to do that.

While I may have a Thiel Fellowship and have the next two years more or less guaranteed, the reality is that I don't have a college degree. Publishing a book gives me credibility independent of the Thiel Fellowship. And, no, before you ask, that is not hypocritical. I am not against brand names—in fact, I think brand names are even more valuable than college degrees—a degree from Harvard means more than a degree from Hendrix. However, I don't think brands of colleges will be the only brands that matter in the future. Therefore, I'm putting my money where my mouth is and publishing a book through Penguin over distributing a PDF on UnCollege.org.

The root cause of this questioning is not, I think, a lack of respect for writing, but rather a reflection of the intense pressure put upon child prodigies. Why do people think I'm a failure if I don't change the world in two years? After all, I am only 19. I've only started shaking up this universe.

Dale Stephens was homeschooled and then unschooled. Now he leads UnCollege.org. Perigee/Penguin will publish his first book about hacking your education in early 2013.

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3 Comments

  • risatrix

    Congrats on your fellowship, and as a former professor I can see why you're skeptical of the current state of college education. I think it's a great idea to think things through on paper and will be interested to see what you come up with!

  • Don Li

    First of all, congrats for taking the extraordinary path!
    "shifting a paradigm" would require thought leadership to say the least.
    " efforts will be fruitless until we stop worshipping the SAT",
    we must have some tool to measure learning, if not SAT, another one would need to be more flexible (to prove domain knowledge or skill), nice you question existing system...
    you are not a passive follower.

    Wish you much success.

  • Blake Boles

    The Thiel Fellowship seems aimed at starting tech companies (or any kind of company). Initially you proposed to work on RadMatter (a tech start-up), but now you're writing a book instead. How does this mesh with the Fellowship's vision?