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.