Monday, September 17, 2012

Uncritical Reporting of Thiel Fellowships in NYTimes

Update: This post was put on Techdirt as of 9.20.12.

 Yesterday, the New York Times had a headline article about Thiel Fellowships.
The program is very interesting, and I was hoping to garner some insight into its success.

However, I was left severely disappointed at the lack of any critical examination of the program, which is still quite controversial. The whole piece read like a PR blast. For instance:

1. The program encourages high achieving indidivuals to skip college in exchange for $100,000 over two years of fellowship grant, plus access to Thiel's network. While many projects discussed in the article were interesting, there was virtually no information about the sustainability of any of these projects or whether or the fellows had achieved any academic success - such as publications - or business success.

2. The article entirely omitted any examination of the fact that Thiel himself has an undergraduate degree from Stanford and a law degree from the same -- this was relegated to a parenthetical. Surely some examination into this seeming contradiction is merited.

3. Similarly, the article totally failed to examine the fact that, at best, this program can really only be successful in a narrow slice of fields -- computer software being the largest. For applied sciences generally, however, and especially engineering and medicine, you simply cannot be an autodidact and a viable career candidate - I'm not allowing someone without an MD to replace my hip, and I'm certainly not allowing someone without engineering qualifications to design my hospital. Too many professional organizations, professional licenses and research areas require formal schooling for this model to be scalable in our most key STEM disciplines. And yes, clearly some fellows are studying applied engineering, such as solar cells, or going into biotech, but there was no critical examination in this article, whatsoever, of whether it is feasible to be an autodidact in these fields which typically require years of graduate level tutelage, even for students well into the genius range. For instance, there was a story about a fellow who was studying gerontology and having great difficulty raising funds - is this, perhaps, because serious VC is not willing to give funding to someone in this field who does not have an MD or equivalent bio degree? I know when raising money for tech startups, VCs frown upon so-called "non-technical" founders - I'd be very surprised if this was not also the case in biotech and electrical engineering.

4. A huge part of Thiel's argument, from what I gathered, is that the network he introduces his fellows to is a large part of the importance of the program. This article seems to be ignoring the fact that, for the vast majority of us, including Thiel himself, these networks are actually formed at institutions of higher learning.

5. The biggest indicator, I think, of the laziness of this article is that the lede is about a student who left Princeton to become a Thiel Fellow, and the "cost" of Princeton was not even the primary factor in this decision. I should certainly say so. Choosing a Princeton student is an exceptionally poor example, as Princeton is renowned for having possibly the best financial aid department of elite American schools, excepting the military academies. Princeton was the first school to completely eliminate student loans as of 2001, and they give extremely generous aid packages. So, from the very get-go the author's credibility was sincerely lessened in my eyes. Additionally, the statement that this article is being written "[a]t a time when the value of a college degree is being called into question..." is highly cynical and glib. What is being questioned is whether colleges are teaching the right things
and whether the current college model is appropriate for all students, or if more alternative forms of higher learning need to be explored. What absolutely no one questions is that college degree holders outperform college dropouts, high school graduates, and especially high school dropouts across a wide spectrum of important metrics, including not only lifetime income, but health and divorce rates. This American Life has an interesting and tangentially related piece on the lasting impact of education on young people this week. Fundamentally, the debate is not whether higher education is unnecessary, it is about how higher education can more fundamentally meet the needs of different types of learners and address growth fields in the economy.

So, New York Times, I'd love to see you take a second shot at this. I'm deeply interested in alternative education methods, however, this article was entirely uncritical. It was a fluff piece that, somehow, made the A1 Sunday Headline online -- which baffles me.

Instead of merely talking about how fantastic the fellows are (I'm sure they are), how exciting the program is (I'm sure it is), or what a fascinating iconoclast Mr. Thiel is (this goes without saying), let's see some critical examination of this program. It has been going on long enough that we should be able to see some verifiable data, comparing fellows' progress to the peers they left behind in school, or, if nothing else, some success stories about gainful employment, fundraising, papers publishing, products brought to market, etc. Instead, this seems like a retweet of corporate PR.

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