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December 2, 2012 9:31 AM   Subscribe

"Why should I load up on debt just to binge drink for four years when I could just create an app that nets me all the money I’ll ever need?" Young entrepreneurs are ditching college in droves, seen by some as a bad investment while dropping out is a "badge of honor" in Silicon Valley, whose lionized heroes include Zuckerburg, Jobs, and Gates - all college dropouts themselves.
posted by four panels (133 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Why should I load up on debt just to binge drink for four years when I could just create an app that nets me all the money I’ll ever need?"

Because this is not what college is for, or really how apps work for most people who try that?
posted by Blasdelb at 9:39 AM on December 2, 2012 [89 favorites]


Misleading lead quote. It's from a fictional character on a TV show, not an actual human being who lives on this planet.

Also, can we fucking kill the word "hack" in all spheres of life that do not involve a hacksaw, please?
posted by Existential Dread at 9:41 AM on December 2, 2012 [14 favorites]


These people are already high achievers. They drop out of places like Princeton. They would most likely be successful even if they were burdened with a 4 year degree.

This stuff goes in cycles anyway. When google was still ascendant everyone thought programmers without a PHD from stanford were nigh on unemployable.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:45 AM on December 2, 2012 [15 favorites]


College is training for managerial work, and the economy doesn’t need that many managers,” said Michael Ellsberg... The future, he added, belongs to job creators, even if the only job they create is their own

This is why I'm in favor of single-payer heath care in the US. If you want to encourage innovation, entrepreneurial growth, and small business startups, make it possible for someone to start a business without worrying that they're risking their health coverage.
posted by dubold at 9:46 AM on December 2, 2012 [133 favorites]


Misleading lead quote.

It's misleding!
posted by goethean at 9:46 AM on December 2, 2012 [39 favorites]


Reminds me of a joke.

A million people walk into a bar in Silicon Valley. None of them buy anything. The bar is declared a great success.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 9:47 AM on December 2, 2012 [179 favorites]


More to the point of the article: like all articles of this type, it extrapolates the results of a fortunate few to a more general trend that really does not exist. Success is certainly not guaranteed for college graduates, but that REALLY doesn't imply that a person who starts a business as a college dropout is somehow ahead of the game.

It's really only applicable to a handful of fields, as well. You certainly can learn business or computer programming in the comfort of your local library, if you are dedicated. You'd be hard-pressed to start a business as an electrician or chemist or geneticist without some formal training and credentialing. Mobile apps will not run the world, no matter how strenuously Silicon Valley blowhards present that view.
posted by Existential Dread at 9:47 AM on December 2, 2012 [29 favorites]


"Also, can we fucking kill the word "hack" in all spheres of life that do not involve a hacksaw, please?"

From the esteemed Ratio:
"'The self-described genderqueer geek and “web slave” quietly hacks on everything within reach'

I just hacked my ham sandwich by adding brown mustard! A jawdropping feat of breadcraft!

This mechanical pencil? Also a zit-popper. Hackery!

Yesterday on the bus I was a little sleepy so I wadded up my coat and used it as a pillow! Hackariffic!

That ham sandwich I mentioned before the jump? Gave me heartburn! So I hacked my wetware with a Pepcid AC! Jawdropping!
"
posted by Blasdelb at 9:48 AM on December 2, 2012 [28 favorites]


Yeah, I was just remembering the skincrawly content of the article that prompted that comment, wherein they alleged that some glorious hipster lady "quietly hacks everything in sight".

ugh ugh why can't i forget that vile phrase
posted by elizardbits at 9:50 AM on December 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also, can we fucking kill the word "hack" in all spheres of life that do not involve a hacksaw, please?

But then how would we describe the author of this piece?
posted by "Elbows" O'Donoghue at 9:55 AM on December 2, 2012 [153 favorites]


The startup world is a pyramid scheme, but articles like this do tend to reinforce the college degree as punched ticket world that's created a generation enslaved to student loan debt.
posted by fatbird at 10:00 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


At any rate, all this talk of apps convinced me that all I need to do is write an app. I am sure it is just gold rush 2012. A few of us will strike it rich and the rest of us will starve. When I am broken down shell of a man sitting in some frontier town saloon I will be able to say I was there.I worked 8, sometimes 9 hours a day. Fought throguh RSI, eye strain, and sometimes short periods of boredom. I risked it all to fire up my IDE and write my app.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:05 AM on December 2, 2012 [13 favorites]


Apps didn't exist when I was in high school, but this was basically my thinking. I can learn to binge-drink while holding down a fulltime job, thanks very much.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:10 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is a slashdot.org post on age discrimination in the tech industry about once per month. I'd imagine this age discrimination mostly impacts people who got their coding gig, but never remained intellectually agile.

It isn't the university degree that important guys. It's that you pay attention in the theory classes, like computation, complexity, algorithms, and machine learning, see also real math classes like combinatorics, linear algebra, optimization, numerical analysis, etc. In fact, you should take the masters versions of algorithms during undergrad.

There was recently a post on how venture capitalists prefer young entrepreneurs too. In that case, there is another mechanism at work behind the age bias : Young people's ideas skew towards cool looking but kinda useless, ala Facebook. Older people's ideas skew towards necessary. Twitter's founders are all older than me, for example.

In particular, there are many older engineers with really important technical ideas that simply require slightly too much money for the venture capital framework. We need government financing for sufficiently interesting start-ups, imho.

posted by jeffburdges at 10:11 AM on December 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


Also, there is nothing preventing most upper middle class kids from doing university abroad. You cannot finance such a degree using student loans, and you might need to learn another language, but it's definitely one big step towards leading a more interesting life.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:15 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is why I'm in favor of single-payer heath care in the US. If you want to encourage innovation, entrepreneurial growth, and small business startups, make it possible for someone to start a business without worrying that they're risking their health coverage.

Most of the kids involved in this come from backgrounds where this is not a concern, anyway. But I agree with your larger point.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:20 AM on December 2, 2012


Yeah let's all drop out of college, and do 3 hours of work a day on some me-too Web 2.0 bullshit application called Frood or Blunge or something, using whatever scripting language is trendy this week.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 10:22 AM on December 2, 2012 [26 favorites]


If all they want is to code and sell an application, why do they bother even finishing high school? They should just quit school at 16 and run away to Silicon Valley.
posted by pracowity at 10:24 AM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why should I load up on debt just to binge drink for four years when I could just create an app that nets me all the money I’ll ever need?

Why does it not surprise me that this self-described "entrepreneur" equates attending college with binge-drinking?
posted by Thorzdad at 10:26 AM on December 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


Also, can we fucking kill the word "hack" in all spheres of life that do not involve a hacksaw, please?

There are many meanings for hack, beyond the computer world. Among them, incompetent writers.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 10:28 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


The big glaring thing that's missing from this article is where on earth these kids got the money to fund their start-ups/world traveling adventures. Getting video on Oprah? Speaking at a TED talk? And then being so unbearably smug as to say "“Experience has proved to be a far better teacher in my life than any book, classroom or educator?” Easy for you to say that experience is better when your experience has been so rich and college has always been on the table. Easy for all the programming kids to say when their field lends itself so well to self-education. (Provided they've got the drive to begin with; the unspoken truth behind many of these articles is that lots of people frankly don't.) Consciously and critically opting out of college is not remotely the same thing as never having a chance to go.

I'll just be sitting here, waiting for the story about the single parent who drops out of my city community college and writes a multi-million-dollar app.
posted by ActionPopulated at 10:28 AM on December 2, 2012 [28 favorites]


In other news, prompt food and coffee service looks to be assured for the next few years in the western states.
posted by jquinby at 10:29 AM on December 2, 2012 [10 favorites]


College is training for managerial work, and the economy doesn’t need that many managers...

Well, you are half-right, anyway. I don't see why blue collar workers (or office drones, like myself) can't appreciate a higher education. If anything, they might be MORE likely to want to have an appreciation for finer things in the off-hours.

We need to get away from this "school only exists to help the business community" mode of thought.
posted by DU at 10:30 AM on December 2, 2012 [31 favorites]


Also, can we fucking kill the word "hack" in all spheres of life that do not involve a hacksaw, please?

BoingBoing would go out of business, though.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:33 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


If school doesn't matter why is Zuckerberg spending the greater part of his amassed wealth trying to improve Newark schools? After all, under this idiotic form of Herbert Spencer's social statics, the 'job creators' should separate themselves from the leaches like wheat from chaff, and the earlier they can do so, so much the better for us college-educated peons who need management jobs; improving primary schools and improving access to higher education will only serve to delay and obscure this important phenomenon!
posted by anewnadir at 10:35 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


There are certainly all manner of college degrees. A chemistry degree, medical degrees, and other professional applications are certainly fine. What has ruined the reputation of colleges, above and beyond the binge drinking and drug use, is the liberal arts students. And please don't act like we need to cite references about idiot drinking binges on colleges, or the amount of alcohol that is consumed. Please.

But my thinking was essentially the same back in the late 80s and I never stayed in a college for more than a day or two. While I have never become some huge internet millionaire, I have managed to *always* stay employed in a professional and technical position for about twenty years now. I have remained employed all through the financial crisis, or whatever we call it now. I make well above average and I stay current with my skills.

I have consistently been able to retain my positions over the years against people with "college degrees" that obviously just got scammed out of their money because they hit the workforce with zero practical skills. I have also known "English majors" that wrote like they were in third-grade. I have also known "Compsci Majors" that didn't understand text file encodings.

Never underestimate the ability for people to lie to themselves. You can mock up papers in college all night long, and avoid any direct confrontation on the actuality of any skills you claim to have, but the only way you can do that in the real world is by becoming a manager or kissing a manager up.

One of the funniest phenomena related to younger college graduates that I see is this whole insistence that spelling and grammar is just someone's "opinion" and why can't we all just chill out. Just try mispelling their name in an email though, and watch the gravy hit the wall.

This whole thing about spelling and composition somehow being some relative thing can be passed off as the lackluster excuse it is at a college, but in the real world you cannot have everyone speaking or writing their own interpretation of a language, and it won't help you to keep any jobs.

And mind you, I am not even looking for perfection in spelling and grammar, everybody makes mistakes, but when a person with a "college degree" writes business letters like they are on Twitter, I really just don't know what to do with that. I suppose I should just be thankful someone potty trained them before they reached me.
posted by midnightscout at 10:43 AM on December 2, 2012 [12 favorites]


But my thinking was essentially the same back in the late 80s and I never stayed in a college for more than a day or two.

Sounds like you're an expert in it, then!

I graduated with a history degree and haven't been unemployed more than a few months here and there in 20 years. Whose anecdata wins?

I'm with you on the writing skills thing, though. Part of my job involved fielding requests and queries that come in via email; many come from .edu addresses and they can't seem to put a simple sentence together.

That's not what college is for, or should be for. That is shit that should be taught in learned beginning in elementary school.
posted by rtha at 10:50 AM on December 2, 2012 [16 favorites]


You could also mention other famous, successful, extremely wealthy college drop outs: Steve Wozniak, Larry Ellison, Paul Allen, Ted Turner, Simon Cowell (successful record industry businessman before his television fame).

Steve Wozniak, after his success, went back to college to finish up his degree. He wanted to set an example for his kids.

I think the key word is 'famous'. We know their names because they are a handful out of billions. Look at the people you went to high school with. What kind of jobs do the college graduates have, compared to the ones without a degree? There are exceptions, but I know I would have been fooling myself if I had told myself I was one of the exceptions. You can go to college and still work on that concept (as Zuckerburg and Gates did), and if it looks like it is going somewhere, then drop out.
posted by eye of newt at 10:51 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


midnightscout: "I have also known "Compsci Majors" that didn't understand text file encodings. "

As a ComSci Major, I'm a bit confused about this as your dog whistle. I understand ASCII, but barely understand UTF-8 or ISO/IEC 8859-1. It really hasn't come up.
posted by pwnguin at 10:51 AM on December 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


Why does it not surprise me that this self-described "entrepreneur" equates attending college with binge-drinking?

Yeah, just this morning I overheard two student workers I supervise--both business majors--divide their professors into either "good" or "difficult" categories, and share tips on how to arrange one's desktop to "write my paper in one window, do my research on Google in the other!" Obviously, this kind of thinking isn't limited to B-schoolers, but the notion of higher learning that actually values learning seems to be at odds with the "entrepreneurial spirit" I often encounter on campus.
posted by Rykey at 10:54 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's not what college is for, or should be for. That is shit that should be taught in learned beginning in elementary school.

Yeah, when I'm not being snarky about it, I often argue that my well-funded public school education beats the pants off of quite a few liberal arts degrees, based on people I've known, and it was (well, sorta) free. The problem with college seems to be that kids are coming in with poorer and poorer basic education in writing, math, critical thinking - stuff they should be pretty competent in after twelve years of school.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:55 AM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


As mentioned in the NYT article is the Thiel Fellowship which pays talented students $100,000 not to attend college, funded by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
posted by ericb at 10:59 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I noticed something interesting in the lists of successful college drop-outs that the OP and Eye of Newt provided: All white. All male. Every one.

How easy would it be for a woman and/or person of color to achieve that same success outside of the sports or entertainment fields?

I'm not in the camp of "Everyone HAS to go to college OMG!" but having a BA, even one in a "useless" field, makes finding good work easier for most people who do not/cannot go into the trades (which I think are underrated, btw). The same people show up on lists of successful college dropouts time and time again - and I want to shout, "Those are the privileged few! The exceptions, not the rule!"
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:59 AM on December 2, 2012 [53 favorites]


This is dumb. Using Mr Zuckerberg's invention I can amply demonstrate to anyone who cares the value of a college education, using as evidence my highschool classmates, as I suspect just about anyone in the United States probably can. I mean, come on. The odds of someone becoming a dropout-turned-tech-millionaire (to say nothing of "-billionaire") are astronomical. You might as well buy lottery tickets, or pin your hopes on becoming a professional athlete, or any number of other hopeless dreams.

It's interesting to learn about people who took nontraditional paths and were nonetheless successful, but they're not safe models.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:05 AM on December 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Ah, and then there's Rick Santorum blabbing away: “Not all folks are gifted in the same way. President Obama once said he wants everyone in America to go to college. What a snob.”
posted by ericb at 11:05 AM on December 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


I noticed something interesting in the lists of successful college drop-outs that the OP and Eye of Newt provided: All white. All male. Every one.

I think that dynamic is totally related to the public school issue, too - upper-middle-class kids, who are statistically much more likely to be white, are much more likely to hit college age with a very solid foundational education, making it much easier to jump into white-collar jobs without a college degree. I am certainly aware that this was my personal advantage - I did some temping/office adminning, but very quickly ended up in a three-times-minimum-wage tech support job, because I had a personal computer growing up and the opportunity to teach myself the basic skills to qualify, as well as being well-spoken and literate.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:07 AM on December 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


What has ruined the reputation of colleges, above and beyond the binge drinking and drug use, is the liberal arts students.

I went to engineering school, and let me tell you, we could have drunk every one of them namby-pamby liberal arts students under the table. Of course, not being distracted by many females in our so-called parties made it far easier to concentrate on the booze.
posted by Skeptic at 11:07 AM on December 2, 2012 [14 favorites]


Well, a recent publication (albeit a lobby document) from the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies shows that as one obtians higher levels of education you see much higher earnings, lower unemployment, more portability of yoru skills, and a greater contribution back to society through taxes. (PDF).


There may be differences for particular fields, and income is not everything, but in general where income is the concern, you are better off with the highest degree you can attain.

(As Rosie M. Banks notes upstream, there may be a race bias in the "drop-out entrepreneur" model. So I should also note that I have also seen studies showing a difference by race and gender in how much university education results in higher income etc. with bias to the white guys. However, overall, it is better for all groups (and I'd argue, for society in general) for as many people a possible to obtain higher degree --even though that may not be true in all individual cases)
posted by chapps at 11:08 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


... more portability of yoru skills ...

Especially spelling! ; )
posted by ericb at 11:09 AM on December 2, 2012


Five minute edit window! Five minute edit window!
posted by ericb at 11:10 AM on December 2, 2012


Hey man, my yoru skills are excellent, and have got me many jobs in the last 20 years...

...and I didn't need no durned college to make me an expert on the yoru, let me tell you! All it took was dedication and hard work!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:13 AM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


As a ComSci Major, I'm a bit confused about this as your dog whistle. I understand ASCII, but barely understand UTF-8 or ISO/IEC 8859-1. It really hasn't come up.

As somebody who used to labor in the translation mines, I believe I speak for everyone when I say "Please bother to learn that." Especially before you code anything that might have to handle Spanish, let alone Japanese.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:14 AM on December 2, 2012 [10 favorites]


Kadin2048: "This is dumb. Using Mr Zuckerberg's invention I can amply demonstrate to anyone who cares the value of a college education, using as evidence my highschool classmates, as I suspect just about anyone in the United States probably can. "

I realize the article does a poor job framing the question (couching this in terms of drop out millionaires, but I think the best formulation of it's argument is:
College degrees are not required for a stable developer career in Silicon Valley
The common thread among the people profiled in the article isn't that they're all millionaires (or soon-to-be), but that they all got through college admissions. They all had the educational attainment, and the financial wherewithal to attend, and decided to allocate themselves elsewhere. And it's not clear to me that this thesis is wrong. If you screen all essay applications for spelling and grammar, you haven't taught anybody anything about them, and yet your graduating class may well be immaculate in that regard. This attitude is even subtly enforced by the argument that this is the responsibility of K-12 education.
posted by pwnguin at 11:20 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's interesting to learn about people who took nontraditional paths and were nonetheless successful, but they're not safe models.

Depends on the definition of success, yeah? I mean, the way this piece and others like it frame the discussion, "success" is "Made a million dollars by age 25." But there are lots of people - some in this thread, I bet - who didn't go to college or who dropped out who nonetheless make enough money to support themselves doing something they like, have a circle of friends and family who care about them, do fun projects for no money just because, and so on, and they're not millionaires and never will be. Stepping off the beaten path can be a risk, but there are no guarantees if you stay on it, either.

But anyone who can only define success as making a lot of money and being famous is stepping into a trap. Likewise anyone who believes that there's that One True Career/Job that will make them happy. Truly, you can have a meh job that you don't care all that much about and still be happy. Don't let what you do for money define who you are and how happy you're allowed to be.
posted by rtha at 11:24 AM on December 2, 2012 [14 favorites]


"yoru" is the Canadian spelling, I swear!!!
posted by chapps at 11:28 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


four panels writes "whose lionized heroes include Zuckerburg, Jobs, and Gates - all college dropouts themselves."

Coming from a background wealthy enough to allow you to voluntarily drop out of an top tier university is a huge structural advantage.
posted by Mitheral at 11:29 AM on December 2, 2012 [11 favorites]


My app takes all those fractions of a penny...
posted by Evilspork at 11:41 AM on December 2, 2012 [12 favorites]


I find articles like this one to be very frustrating. They focus on the experiences of exceptional people--exceptionally smart, or talented, or privileged (gender, race, money), or (though chances are, no one wants to fess up to this one) lucky--with the subtext that these trajectories and choices are or should be the norm for all people in all times, places, and economies.

No question, there are many (some? lots?) college dropouts who have become Silicon Valley gazillionaires. Yay them. But those folks make headlines precisely because they are unusual. And so many kids buy into it because, hey, they're all exceptional too, right? If Mark Zuckerberg can do it, so can I! I'm at least as smart as him! And you know, maybe that kid is just as good. But in my experience, chances are? Not so much.

Not everyone needs a degree, and college (tuition) needs to be reformed, yes, but degrees still matter, as do advanced degrees. And they will continue to matter in many fields. Ask the zillions of middle-aged adults who didn't write the killer app and who need that masters degree to get a promotion or to keep their jobs.
posted by skye.dancer at 11:46 AM on December 2, 2012 [8 favorites]


Oh man, one of my students claimed in an essay that 99% of successful people were college dropouts. 99%! Really?

When I challenged him on it, he changed it to "most." It took a lot of arguing with him to get him to change it to "many." (I have no problem with the fact that many people are, that many successful people don't go, and that the system is screwed up and broken, but I also take issue with the "Let's highlight a bunch of anomalously lucky and privileged people while ignoring all of the counterexamples on both sides!" narrative.)
posted by wintersweet at 11:48 AM on December 2, 2012


College degrees are not required for a stable developer career in Silicon Valley

Now, this is a reasonable thesis that can be argued.

But it's not what this article presents. This article starts out with a cartoon stating "College is for suckers." It attempts to glamorize this view by stating "'Here in Silicon Valley, it’s [dropping out] almost a badge of honor,' said Mick Hagen, 28, who dropped out of Princeton in 2006..." It denigrates higher education by quoting someone who calls it managerial training. And it attempts to bolster its argument by pulling a quote from a fictional character on a TV show.

There's a reason this article is in the Fashion and Style section.
posted by Existential Dread at 11:48 AM on December 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


“I think kids with a five-year head start on equally ambitious peers will be ahead in both education and income,” said Mr. Altucher, who regrets graduating from Cornell.

Christ, what an asshole.
posted by Huck500 at 11:51 AM on December 2, 2012 [18 favorites]


Also ignoring the fact that this situation will change as colleges adapt to offer the skills needed for these fields. There was a time when you could be an elementary school teacher with just a high school education, because not many people had more than that.
posted by wintersweet at 11:51 AM on December 2, 2012


Existential Dread: "'Here in Silicon Valley, it’s [dropping out] almost a badge of honor,'"

You can't drop out of somewhere you've never attended, right?
posted by pwnguin at 11:54 AM on December 2, 2012


It's almost as if the purpose of an academic university degree wasn't to help you make money but to help you learn and research stuff which was interesting but not necessarily commercially useful.
posted by Damienmce at 11:55 AM on December 2, 2012 [24 favorites]


Yeah, the point of college is not to give you specific skills for a job in a transitory occupation - it is good that colleges in the 90s didn't develop majors in fax machine design. Even if a few people made it big in fax machine design.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:56 AM on December 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'd imagine this age discrimination mostly impacts people who got their coding gig, but never remained intellectually agile.

Oh, if that were actually true!

note: i don't have reams of data or citations to support this and i realize the plural of anecdote is not data, but i do have more than a few friends who have encountered age discrimination in the computer science field. people who had excellent, up-to-date skills but who were shut out of employment because they "were too expensive" or "wouldn't be a good fit for the culture", etc.
posted by skye.dancer at 11:56 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


The common thread among the people profiled in the article isn't that they're all millionaires (or soon-to-be), but that they all got through college admissions.

I hadn't looked at it that way, but that's a good point. We certainly need to separate out those who dropped out of college — meaning they got in, could have gone or finished, but decided not to for whatever reason — from those who didn't go to college at all, which might be for any number of reasons but presumably includes as a group those who weren't capable of getting in at all.

It could be, I suppose, that the best bang-for-your-buck as a student would be to get admitted to the highest-tier college possible, do one semester there, and then drop out. That would show prospective employers that you made it through the admissions process, which at many "elite" schools is the entirety of the filtering process, but not require that you actually pay $100k+ (or borrow it) for the diploma.

My gut feeling is that it's not really scalable; if a lot of students started doing that, colleges would start moving the "filter" further along in the process, so that you couldn't take advantage of an admissions letter and use it as a resume line when you apply to a startup. And beyond that, looking at "startup culture" as something other than a very small fraction of jobs or the economy is silly in general.

Stepping off the beaten path can be a risk, but there are no guarantees if you stay on it, either.

There are no guarantees in life, period. (Except death and taxes.) But that doesn't mean there are ways to make life easier on yourself and ways to make it harder. I think most of us would agree that counseling a young person to pin their hopes on professional sports — absent some truly earth-shattering, preternatural, one-in-10-million level of talent — would be irresponsible. Could you tell them with confidence that they wouldn't be successful? No, but any reasonable person would see that it's a high-risk path, a gamble, with a vast downside risk if they forego normal education and socialization in the process. It's a tightrope walk to stay at the top of Maslow's hierarchy, and our culture and society has a hard floor awaiting those who fall.

There aren't any guarantees of success (for any definition of it), but some tightropes are thinner and swing more dangerously in the breeze than others.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:00 PM on December 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yeah, the point of college is not to give you specific skills for a job in a transitory occupation

I totally agree. College degrees seem to be mostly marketed this way these days, and it's bullshit on the face of it - because, let's face it, outside of academia itself (and less and less there, with the decline of tenure) all occupations are transitory. I think eventually the scene will split into less-expensive trade schools working exclusively with specialized fields - and this totally includes CS - and academics with broader scope and less obvious applicability to any one job.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:00 PM on December 2, 2012


So I actually learned stuff getting my undergrad degree and even more so with my grad degree that I use every day. Stuff that I probably wouldn't have picked up on my own. I'm sure that there are self-taught people for whom school is a waste of time but for most of us, there's no substitute.
posted by octothorpe at 12:03 PM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


The point of this article seems to be that some kids are skipping college because they think they know what they want to do and their classwork isn't relevant to that thing.

Here are some contrary points:

1) What most people do all day has little relevance to what they thought they were going to be doing when they were 19.

2) Patience with assigned tasks, and the ability to stick to them even if those tasks are felt to be irrelevant to life development, is a useful life and work skill.

3) An ability to excel at assigned tasks even if there is something else a person would prefer to be doing is pretty much the definition of 'work'. The ability to work is a useful skill.

Some of these kids may be skipping these basics. I'd definitely be suspicious of anyone who chose to drop out without a perfect-to-date GPA. If they have so little left to learn, why didn't they get A+ in all their classes - why couldn't they perfect the task they set themselves in the first place?
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 12:09 PM on December 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


But that doesn't mean there are ways to make life easier on yourself and ways to make it harder.

Totally agree.

On a slightly different tack, another things that bugs me about articles like this is the glorification of entrepreneurship. Starting your own business is not for everyone, just like college isn't for everyone. Not everyone can or wants to work 100 hours a week for nearly nothing for however long it takes to make the business self-sustaining...and to do that repeatedly as the businesses fail (because most of them do in their first couple of years, regardless of how brilliant and dedicated the founders might be). I get the feeling that a lot of Kids TodayTM think that by being all "Woo entreperneurship I won't be a drone in a cube woo!" they'll somehow avoid any dronehood. While I'm perfectly willing to grant that doing boring grunt work might be more tolerable when you're doing it on your own behalf, it's still boring grunt work, and it still has to be done. I'd bet money that Jobs et al. still have (or had, as the case may be) boring, shitty stuff they didn't want to do that they had to do anyway.
posted by rtha at 12:16 PM on December 2, 2012 [10 favorites]


There is no one right answer. I know two coder dropouts worth 8 figures and others who also code well but who sleep on a couch at Mom's house. Anyone who says "X path is the right path for everyone" is lying.
posted by Blue Meanie at 12:17 PM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


"'Here in Silicon Valley, it’s [dropping out] almost a badge of honor,' said Mick Hagen, 28, who dropped out of Princeton in 2006..."

I feel as though this fellow has seen a really biased sample of Silicon Valley. I work at a Silicon Valley company and I'm the only person in my group without a PhD. I don't think we'd even look at an applicant who hadn't finished college. Our work requires a whole hell of a lot more statistical rigor than anyone teaches in high school, and it's surpassing rare to come across a programmer who's self-taught in statistics who actually knows what the hell he's talking about, so I don't think we'd even treat it as a possibility. We don't have time to waste on people who don't take math seriously enough that college felt worth their time.

Sure, if you're trying to write the next Farmville maybe you don't need college. But if you're a 20-year-old kid with no college degree trying to write the next Google I hope you'd still be laughed out of town.
posted by town of cats at 12:20 PM on December 2, 2012 [10 favorites]


Here's some disjointed thoughts:

One of my friends runs a club for Stanford students to make things (this actually describes like three dozen students). Another of my friends helps run a thingy for Berkeley students to make more things. Another runs a thingy to protest the culture of startups at Stanford. Another despaired of the opportunity to protest the culture of startups at Berkeley and now just makes fun of silly start-up kids.

It's kind of amazing, then, that all four, not just the last two, are deeply skeptical of start-up culture. It's an entirely valid position to take, even for start-up founders. I once heard a start-up founder note that the timing of these world-changing startups is basically indifferent to the flows of the rest of the market for software. Who thought startups were that hot in 2004?

It's also worth looking at race. There's two significant demographics (depressingly) in CS programs today: white dudes and East Asian dudes. The Asian dudes mostly don't do this drop-out-of-college-and-start-a-startup stuff, because their parents would flay them. They graduate-from-college-and-start-a-startup. It's not an artifact of college dropouts, because those are mostly poor kids who never got a real chance at state schools and community colleges. It's an artifact of the rich white community.

The above is really significant. I know a few college dropouts, and their ability to go where they want to in life is basically correlated to how rich and white they were as a kid. Also, all male. Perhaps it's the ability to deal with radical inequality, or something like that. My sample size is college dropouts in Silicon Valley, though, so I am absolutely biased.

It's also worth bringing up that people like Dale Stephens are merely just following through on their critiques of the modern university by having nothing to do with them. Unlike, say, Peter Thiel, who finished a degree in Stanford Law and therefore was able to be the legal guy at Paypal.

I could critique the modern university all day. Anyone can critique the modern university all day. That's the thing about being all things to all people: you have to be really hypocritical to do it.

We say that a liberal education provides a boundless amount of personal satisfaction and gives us insight and other qualities. Such a claim is easier to make and harder to verify than saying that an engineering degree will get you money (which, for a ME degree, is patently false, but at least verifiable). All this presupposes a rigorous liberal arts education. It's hard to say that a liberal education will change your life if you haven't engaged with it, and if it didn't challenge you.

Here's something about the changing nature of rigor: if you look at Harvard's 1899 entrance exam, most of the mathy things are things that most 9th-graders in academically elite schools could probably do. But I would be hard pressed to find people to do any of the liberal arts questions. Including people in Harvard currently, of course.

It reminds me of my physics teacher back in high school. According to him, it is currently the case that if you're a physicist, you can go and do journalism or programming because physics as a modern discipline is simply more rigorous than either, but it is not true that you could go the other way: from journalism into physics, at least not without pain. I disagree with some of this: journalism is a hard problem, and so is programming. But -- and here's the thing -- it's debatable whether a English degree prepares you for a career in journalism better than a physics degree because, even though, theoretically, you get more domain knowledge, there's still rigor lacking from most journalism degrees.

I bet this wasn't true in 1899, with respect to physics and journalism, because physics was easier as a field and an English degree was harder going. Note that I define the task of journalism as selling papers, independent to the truth or other things. So yellow journalism is skilled journalism: it sold papers.

One of the CS kids keeps on telling me to change my major to CS. I'm currently studying something very hipster, but taking very man CS classes. He tells me that the value of a degree at Stanford lies only in the interactions you get with cool people, students and profs, and the nice piece of paper you get at the end. According to him, a piece of paper with "CS" on it would merely be nicer.

There was a study once, of consulting firms, where the HR at consulting firms basically repeated this sentiment differently: if Harvard were to take in a class, and split it in half, and take in half of the class of 2020 or whatever and have them take classes and stuff, and let the other half go and do whatever they want, the consulting firms don't care. This is significant, because it proves that literally the only criterion that consulting firms hire for is prestige. You could make the same case for startups entrenched in the startup culture.

That hiring heuristic, surprisingly, actually works a lot of the time. Not for coding skills, but for selling skills, for writing ability. I was once told that SAT's and extracurriculars matter in large part in college applications only as a way of weeding out bad candidates: the availability heuristic means that college admissions committees will focus upon the points you made most clearly and which stick in their mind, and that is in the essay. What that gets you is a bunch of really clear writers and presenters in the Ivy League.

It's an awful heuristic for finding people who can get shit done, but a great heuristic for finding people who can get shit done in an alright manner and get press about it. It's a great heuristic for finding people who can maintain an aura of agency -of power- around themselves. The education which these people have constructed for themselves is good. It's not the best which could be done. Most people get an awful education handed to them. However, it has recently become very easy to get press about constructing your own education. Doesn't mean that you actually constructed your own education, it means that you got handed your education in a different way and now get to crow about it.

What's the path to finding or making people who can get shit done? I don't know. The Eriksson work on that 10,000 hours stuff is not awful. The biggest criticism of it that I know of is that there should absolutely be individual variation in the creation of expertise. I don't think there is that much variation to be had.

I once introduced a friend to the book, The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson. Good book. Many of you have read it. It touches on the nature of an education in the future. My friend became very interested in all this education business and in education startups and all that jazz.

(spoilers)

He wants to make into reality an item in the book - the Primer - which educates the main character. I've also heard other education startup people talk about this. Makes sense, with Khan Academy and Coursera and all this other stuff popping up, right?

I never had the heart to tell my friend my own reading of The Diamond Age. The Primer in the book is, in one significant way, a sham in two ways: there's a real human behind the scenes voicing the teaching generated by the book-computer, one real human. And an engineer created the book in the first place.

(end spoilers)

I guess I can finish off with some computational learning theory. Bear with me a little bit here. Open this in a new tab (written by Andrew Ng, founder of Coursera, hilariously)

In a task where you are learning a model to fit to data, there are two problems that can occur which reduce your ability to predict more data that comes in:

1. Your model is too simple.
2. Your model is too complex. It takes in things about the data which don't in reality matter.

1. is easy to imagine. Let's say you have data which fits something that in reality is best fitted with a quadratic model, with a linear one. See that first picture in the pdf. If you predict more data by looking at that linear model, it's not going to be very accurate.

2. is somewhat less intuitive. Let's say that you have that same quadratic data, and you fit it with something 5th-order. It fits the data you have perfectly. However, the data you have, is not perfect data. It doesn't perfectly describe the underlying processes generating the data. So for that data, you're taking in some spurious information and thinking it's part of the underlying processes generating that data.

The parts after that are just turning that intuition into math and some other stuff.

Intellectually, it's somewhat of a leap to translate that to human cognition (is human intelligence merely the successive solution of problems relatable to the decision problem? maybe), but here's the conclusion I get: it's just as important to unlearn things as it is to learn them. If you look at the formal mathematics, what it tells you is that you get the most results from directly learning things, but you get that last extra bit which translates to excellence from unlearning things. It sounds Zen. It is pretty much Zen, with mathematics. The conclusion, though, is borne out in a lot of fields: Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein, Kant, van der Rohe. (bug me to clarify if this isn't clear)

I think this is a significant thing to aspire to, and something significant for the un-college and un-school people to teach us, independent of their critiques of the institution of college.
posted by curuinor at 12:27 PM on December 2, 2012 [21 favorites]


pwnguin

Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, Lê Đức Thọ, Phan Đình Khải

When you get past the 26 common letters in the modern English alphabet, it becomes imperative that every component of your program and every custodian of data between (and including) your processing code and the interface presented to your users is on the same page regarding how to interpret the various combinations of zeroes and ones that make up string data as stored in its native format. ASCII, UTF-8, and ISO are all standards - definitions that each of these custodians of data can check to make sure they're on the same page.

Absent uniformity in this area, you're likely to find even your entrées, fiancées, and Pokémon riddled with unsightly boxes and/or question marks, to say nothing of the more obscure diacritical marks needed to render the anglicized Vietnamese text seen above.

For web applications, it's best for extensibility to target the UTF-8 charset, but to invoke it you'll need to make sure the header of pages served to the user's browser indicates that it is to be interpreted as such. A <meta> tag in the markup, as some sources suggest, is less correct, and may not always be honored by browsers. To do so, you'll need to edit your server configuration file (the Apache syntax is of the form AddCharset UTF-8 .htm), or use a scripting language (the PHP syntax is of the form header('Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8');). The latter solution may be required if your web application is hosted in a shared environment.

Depending on your server-side scripting language of choice you will also need to make sure that your code uses multibyte-safe functions, and your database (if applicable) stores text data using the UTF-8 character set. MySQL's default character set can be set via configuration file, or (as might be required in a shared hosting environment) can be set at the Database, Table (if memory serves), and Field level.
posted by The Confessor at 12:40 PM on December 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


Bay Area tech companies are on a hiring binge right now, but when the next recession comes and your competition all has degrees, you don't want to be the one walking around with no post-secondary education. Grad school, on the other hand, is a big waste of time and money, unless you can do it while you're in the industry, and preferably with your company paying for it.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:40 PM on December 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Grad school, on the other hand, is a big waste of time and money

Depends on your field. Physical sciences, a PhD can be advantageous. Your tuition is also covered and you are paid a (small) stipend, so debt doesn't enter into it.
posted by Existential Dread at 12:50 PM on December 2, 2012


Depends on your field.

I'm talking about the software industry. I can't tell you how many people I've interviewed with MS and PHD after their names who had never done any interesting work or research, and had no real-world experience -- not even an internship. And more than that, they couldn't answer basic interview questions, even about things they listed on their resumes.

If someone went to grad school for CS, and I ask them "What interesting things did you research?" and they give me that blank look, I'm going to assume they stayed in academia either (A) to gain/extend a visa or (B) because they were afraid to look for a job.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:56 PM on December 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


A really irritating thing (and once you notice it, you will see it everywhere and it will annoy the shit out of you): in this article about educational trends, how many times is "college" equated (either explicitly or implicitly) with "Ivy League university"? How often is "college" equated with "elite expensive private liberal arts school"? And now, just for extra credit, how many times is "community college" mentioned or alluded to? No, go ahead, take a minute to count, I'll be here waiting for you.

Ok, so there's a shout-out to University of Kansas in the first line. And next college mentioned is Reed, which is $55k a year and pretty elite, I guess. But it's not like we're just roll-calling Ivies, right? Cool, maybe we're not just going to be generalizing the experience of a tiny group of America's elite as though it somehow represents the experience of the rest of the -- oh, wait. Wait a second. "Harvard seems little more than a glorified networking party..." "...graduated from Brown University and spent years trying to translate his expertise in post-colonial critical theory..." "...Ivory Tower apostates..." "...regrets graduating from Cornell..." "...a mass exodus from the ivy halls..." Oh, but look, to close the article, we've got a mention of Hendrix College in Arkansas ($47k per year).

So, in reality, there are roughly 4,500 colleges and universities in the US, and almost half of those are community colleges. Only 7 of them are Ivy League. But by the looks of this article that purports to be about national educational trends, community colleges don't exist at all, state schools exist but aren't that important, most people (or rather, most of the people worth talking to) go to Ivy League universities, and a couple of outliers go to elite liberal arts colleges with yearly tuition rates over $47k/year.

Told you it was annoying. Maybe it would help if we made it a drinking game.
posted by ourobouros at 1:02 PM on December 2, 2012 [16 favorites]


ignoring the fact that this situation will change as colleges adapt to offer the skills needed for these fields.

This is a really good point, especially if one is using people like Steves Jobs and Wozniak, Bill Gates, etc. as examples.

When those guys dropped out of college or decided it wasn't worth doing or whatever, the traditional college experience didn't really apply to what they wanted to do. Most universities didn't have computer science programs, and while some universities (CalTech, MIT, Cornell, probably a few others) could provide access to that sort of thing, most could not. Certainly Reed College probably wasn't where you wanted to be if you wanted to start the PC revolution.

Similarly, if you're the sort of person who starts out at a liberal arts focused university, and then you discover that what you really want to do is make stuff that your college can't actually prepare you to make, it might be better to drop out and do what you want to do rather than plodding along because it's the done thing. This is probably more the reason that Mark Zuckerberg dropped out, since I think you can do computer science at Harvard these days.

But if you're just a person who doesn't know what they want to do, or wants to do something that does fall easily within the categories of things universities are teaching people to do nowadays, modeling your life choices after Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg is kind of stupid. Not to mention cocky as fuck. You're basically saying, "I have no idea what I'm going to do with my life, but I bet it's so revolutionary that college doesn't apply."
posted by Sara C. at 1:05 PM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


A really irritating thing (and once you notice it, you will see it everywhere and it will annoy the shit out of you): [...] next college mentioned is Reed, which is $55k a year [...] Ivy League universities, and a couple of outliers go to elite liberal arts colleges with yearly tuition rates over $47k/year.

Another really irritating thing in discussions like this is the persistent and totally wrong assumption that the sticker-price nominal tuition has anything to do with the actual cost of attending a given institution for non-rich students.
posted by RogerB at 1:08 PM on December 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also, can we fucking kill the word "hack" in all spheres of life that do not involve a hacksaw, please?

But then how would we describe the author of this piece?

Or the horse that I ride?
posted by Kerasia at 1:15 PM on December 2, 2012


Steve Wozniak, after his success, went back to college to finish up his degree. He wanted to set an example for his kids.

I went to see Steve Wozniak talk in my area pretty recently. During the Q&A, someone asked him what his favorite reward that he'd received was. He said it was his degree from UC Berkeley.

If you already know what you want to do and a college degree isn't a requirement and you already have enough skills to do what you want, then fine, drop out of college. But that's not most people. Most 18-22-year-olds don't know what they want to do and college is the time dedicated to figuring that out. And at the very least, they come out of college having proven to themselves that they can do a 4-5-year-long hard project and finish it. That means something, especially to those who found it hard to stick with it. And not having the degree does put you out of the running for a fair amount of jobs, assuming you don't want to be an entrepreneur. Folks who don't finish college are more likely to end up hopping from fast food to retail jobs their whole life if they weren't born with computer genius.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:34 PM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


College is training for managerial work, and the economy doesn’t need that many managers,” said Michael Ellsberg... The future, he added, belongs to job creators, even if the only job they create is their own

I find this funny in a way. I've been in the startup world for a year now, working for a CEO that is very much a visionary entrepreneur with plenty of degrees but no real serious experience managing before this job. And the fact of the matter is, we need far more managers to make the company successful than visionary CEOs. Yeah, we need one visionary CEO to get the whole thing started, the job creator or what have you. But companies honest to god don't succeed solely on the strength of will or vision of their founders. Watching a company try to reach the point of escape velocity, most of them require a huge amount of management infrastructure to successfully grow the people in the company for success. Zuck needed Sandberg and many more like her to make Facebook truly successful. It's very rare you get an Instagram-type success story of very few people making huge amounts of money. Usually you're growing to 100, 200, 500 people before you start to see the lights of success. And you cannot grow that without a lot of management.

Ironically the one counter example to what I'm saying might be Google, a company founded by the overeducated and who stuck to hiring mostly highly educated employees for much of their early growth. They have a notoriously poor management structure but one of the benefits of limiting hiring to the extremely well-trained/well-educated is that they need less management to build success within the scope of their job. The company is also quite comfortable letting able people fall through the cracks both pre- and post-hiring, which is one of the biggest time sucks for managers but also a thing they try to prevent because hiring is so expensive and time consuming.

Entrepreneurs are great, but they mostly don't succeed without large support from the leagues of managers, not to mention the squadrons of people that are willing to work for someone else, follow someone else's rules and pour their heart and soul into someone else's vision. And most of those folks go through formal schooling, which gives them a good degree of training but also helps them learn how to translate vague marching orders into deliverable products. SV and the tech industry in general would die without the college system, and the only reason these kids have half a hope of succeeding as dropouts is thanks to the fact that most of us don't.
posted by ch1x0r at 1:38 PM on December 2, 2012 [8 favorites]


curuinor

Here's something about the changing nature of rigor: if you look at Harvard's 1899 entrance exam, most of the mathy things are things that most 9th-graders in academically elite schools could probably do. But I would be hard pressed to find people to do any of the liberal arts questions. Including people in Harvard currently, of course.

I don't see it as an example of the changing nature of rigor so much as an example of the changing political climate. Many of those questions appear to be designed to exclude anyone who hasn't been specifically prepared to take this type of exam. Anyone who could not afford the luxury of studying classics and an advisor who could tell them in advance that topics like the rivers of Ancient Gaul would be tested would be excluded from Harvard. At the same time, Harvard could claim that the test is "fair," because the same questions are asked of everybody. In this way, Harvard could bias admission towards wealthy and legacy students without saying so outright.

The exam actually reminds me a lot of the Jewish Problems described previously on metafilter. Both contain questions where if you specifically prepared ahead of time to take the test, the test is easy, otherwise the test is impossible or nearly impossible. The Harvard 1899 entrance exam seems like an undergraduate version of that. Whether it was designed deliberately for an exclusionary purpose or not, it is just as effective at keeping undesirables out.

But I suspect that the design was deliberate on at least some level. Post-civil war, but with overt racism alive and well, it makes sense that this type of class-based exclusionism would be a very desirable feature in an entrance exam for an elite school.
posted by yeolcoatl at 1:47 PM on December 2, 2012


Continuing on the Harvard Entry Exam tangent, it's not only a series of questions designed to exclude people, it's a series of questions that come straight from the type of curriculum that was common back then, which was heavily based around the Classics (in the Greek and Latin sense, not the Great Books sense) and rote memorization.

Students who'd completed high school back then would be as familiar with Transalpine Gaul and translating passages of Greek as we were with SAT analogies.
posted by Sara C. at 1:53 PM on December 2, 2012


College is training for managerial work

Huh. And here I thought I was teaching students about dynamic programming and network flows and NP-completeness to help them think better, so that they can code better.

Oh, right, I forgot. As usual, "college" means "liberal arts/humanities degree from an Ivy League university (or maybe Stanford)". I'll just be over here with the rest of the state-university engineering schlubs.
posted by erniepan at 1:54 PM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


yeolcoatl

Right! Then we have a new class-based exclusion popping up, then. Elite colleges might explicitly try to have an advantage for people who are not rich white dudes in the modern era, but the true elite of today are dropouts! Incidentally people who are rich white dudes, many of whom dropped out from Ivy leagues and elite liberal arts colleges and elite engineering schools.

I guess the shibboleth we can use to see if anybody advocating dropping out of college or not going is speaking from a position of ridiculous privilege (like me) is if they talk about community college and state schools, or where-people-go-to-in-significant-numbers, or not.
posted by curuinor at 2:01 PM on December 2, 2012


I'll just be over here with the rest of the state-university engineering schlubs.

Wow, a STEM guy who doesn't like liberal arts/humanities types. How novel. I wonder where do interdisciplinary types fall then?
posted by FJT at 2:13 PM on December 2, 2012


Post-secondary education should better serve the needs of computer engineering, say computer engineers.

Live streaming video at 11.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:16 PM on December 2, 2012


where's pol pot when you need him...
posted by ennui.bz at 2:21 PM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Most 18-22-year-olds don't know what they want to do and college is the time dedicated to figuring that out. And at the very least, they come out of college having proven to themselves that they can do a 4-5-year-long hard project and finish it.

This is exactly what I disagree with on a purely economic basis. My family made too much money to be eligible for need-based scholarships and too little to not have to take out loans. It did not make economic sense to spend 10k a year at the big state school (or up to 5x more at a prestige school) to figure out what I wanted to do. I was 18. I had no perspective. I maintain that I was much better served spending a couple of years working, saving up money, and narrowing down my interests than going to college with no goals and no strong interests other than a fondness for video games and epic fantasy novels.

Now, as I said above, I was well-educated through high school and was qualified for a bunch of jobs that not every, or even many, 18-year-olds might be coming out of public school. But I do not at all think that I would have been better off with a liberal arts degree (because yeah, that's what I would have gotten) and a pile of debt than four years of resume-building and exploration that led me to discover my current career, which does not require a degree and, in fact, has no specific degree associated with it.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:23 PM on December 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


People, stop feeding the NY Times!
posted by srboisvert at 2:31 PM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wow, a STEM guy who doesn't like liberal arts/humanities types. How novel. I wonder where do interdisciplinary types fall then?

Well, although I'm not the person you directed this at, technically I'm one of the interdisciplinary types, and I do have something to say about this.

CP Snow is the obvious guy to read for the split between the sciences and the humanities. We simply don't have the same language. From Snow:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.


A physicist would have an easy sense of the importance of the Second Law of themodynamics on our understanding of existence. After all, entropy is fundamentally why time only goes one way.
A lit crit person would have an easy sense of the importance of reading Shakespeare for our understanding of existence. After all, his plays are absolutely important for our conception of modernity and the nature of action and doubt and the unconscious.

But in order to deny the importance of either physics or lit crit, we have to learn the denial. Most of us are given a basic education in physics and in the analysis of language. We have to forget it or not have paid attention to it in the first place to say not be able to understand something like the concept of entropy. There has to be a denial in the first place that the other fields have something significant to say.

Where the STEM and the liberal arts people differ is in the success that they have had for forcing their way of study on people. Ideally, neither numeracy nor literacy would have to be forced onto people: people would all learn it on their own. However, it's not an ideal world and when push comes to shove, we choose to force literacy as a basic requirement to be educated. We allow people to call themselves educated who do not understand mathematics, but we would never allow people to call themselves educated if they could not read, in the modern day. This is quite silly: you should know both. This is why STEM people are the ones doing the disparaging, mostly: people fail in basic and profound ways in their numeracy and statistical understanding all the time.
posted by curuinor at 2:35 PM on December 2, 2012 [10 favorites]


The advantage of dropping out is not that you can be an entrepeneur. That's foolish. You will almost certainly fail even if you are a genius because so much has to go just right. Luck is more important than intelligence or hard work. The famous successes are people who were in the right place at the right time.

The advantage of skipping college is that you can go ahead and learn a trade. Plumbers, construction workers, and maintenance technicians don't have to worry about their jobs being outsourced. There's usually work somewhere even in a bad economy. And hey, you find out how to fix your own sink instead of paying the other guy $100 an hour to do it.

If you're attentive, you will also learn a lot of things about working with people, how projects are organized, and the interrelationships between businesses that are not taught in college. My father was a Ph.D. physicist and I grew up in his lab; I left college with 96 hours toward an engineering degree and, for a lot of reasons, never went back. I learned more absolutely important shit in that first couple of years working in the real world than I had in school since middle school. Yeah, trigonometry and calculus did come in useful on occasion, but I would probably have picked up most of what I eventually used IRL on my own. Because of my personal interests I'd already learned most of what I was "taught" in college on my own, and I'm pretty confident another couple of years would not have changed that much.

College does nothing to prepare you for the reality of irate customers, lazy or incompetent coworkers, power-mad bosses (well maybe it does do that a little), the maze of regulatory and licensing conformance most real life activity must negotiate, or the fact that what you are doing could cost some other person millions of dollars or kill someone if you fuck it up. The pressures of building a real system for a customer who you expect to pay you are nothing like the pressure of preparing for an exam or wrangling a GPA.

It's kind of a shame that so many HR people who could use a person like me blindly follow the "must check college degree" criterion. It does reduce my opportunities and, because of that, the pay I can command. But I also didn't start out in life with $100K in debt. And a minority of employers know to look for someone like me, because years of real life experience can do a much better job of preparinig you for more real life than four years of figuring out what you want to do by sitting in lectures and passing tests.

I find it really sad that Wozniak, with all his accomplishments, felt the need to return and get his degree in order to feel validated. I guess when you have fuck-you money you can do whatever you want, and that's what he wanted to do, but sheesh. We knew what he was capable of without seeing a degree, and I seriously doubt those extra years in classrooms really made him a better or more talented person.
posted by localroger at 2:48 PM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


people fail in basic and profound ways in their numeracy and statistical understanding all the time.

Not pointing this at any particular person at all, but: people (STEM and humanities types both) also fail in basic and profound ways at expressing themselves in writing and in reading comprehension. None of us is served well by us vs. them. STEM and humanities are not dichotomous and shouldn't be treated as such.
posted by rtha at 2:53 PM on December 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


Well, I don't know if he needed it to feel validated--that he didn't say, but he sounded like he was pretty validated by life in general. I think it was more along the lines of achieving a goal or fulfilling something unfinished, though. Or proving something to himself. I could just be fanwanking, of course, this is just my impression of things at the time.

For the record, his second choice answer was making the Inventors Hall Of Fame--something Steve Jobs couldn't do. Heh.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:10 PM on December 2, 2012


For the record, his second choice answer was making the Inventors Hall Of Fame

Well see this makes a lot more sense since that's something that not everyone with four years to burn and average capability can manage to do.

I suspect ranking the college degree above that was just bullshit meant to set a good example. But the fact is he did return to college after a run as one of the most successful inventor/entrepeneurs in human history, and I just find that inexplicable.
posted by localroger at 3:18 PM on December 2, 2012


Possibly, yes. He was speaking AT A COLLEGE, after all.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:20 PM on December 2, 2012


But the fact is he did return to college after a run as one of the most successful inventor/entrepeneurs in human history, and I just find that inexplicable.

You don't think that for some people, there is just a joy to be had in learning? If I wasn't working at a university as a research fellow for 8 hours a day, I'd quite happily spend my time sitting in a lecture theatre listening, or in the library reading. For me, it seems to be a more joyous experience than deciding you're going to become a billionaire because you figured out how to make something pretty with jQuery.
posted by Jimbob at 3:23 PM on December 2, 2012 [13 favorites]


Pretty much everything I wanted to belabor has already been belabored upthread, so I'll focus on the one point that has been overlooked: by and large, today's public libraries are an awful place to try and get a "free education."

Public libraries are terribly funded, and their holdings in everything, but especially in technical fields, are in awful condition. I have literally never been in a public library in which the shelves didn't groan under the weight of computer books with "98" in the title.

Computer books are expensive and their shelf life is short. It is extremely unlikely that you'll be able to find books on current technologies at your public library, perhaps outside of a few well-off communities. You can make the point that many computer technologies can now be learned for free online, but there's certainly a big difference between a comprehensive course of instruction offered by a good software book and combing SO for FAQs and "hacks." And, of course, you need to know what to search for before you go googling for it, so if you're piecing together that education for free online yourself, you're probably not starting from scratch (e.g., if you want to learn about multithreading support in Python, you probably already know about both multithreading and Python).

And it gets much worse in fields like math and physics, because building holdings in quantitative areas is literally not part of a public library's mission. Those books are both extremely expensive and have extremely limited demand from borrowers. Try to find a public library system that has a textbook on numerical optimization. And, unlike iOS programming, this stuff will be very difficult to find online for free. (Unless, of course, you search for class notes from college courses — but that's clearly cheating.)
posted by Nomyte at 3:24 PM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


As a ComSci Major, I'm a bit confused about this as your dog whistle. I understand ASCII, but barely understand UTF-8 or ISO/IEC 8859-1. It really hasn't come up.

I don't see why some of you are getting upset over this. It's a computer science degree. Learning about character encodings there would be about as relevant as learning about accounting systems for a degree in mathematics.
posted by ymgve at 3:47 PM on December 2, 2012


We already know that people vote against their own interests because they identify with their future as millionaires. Now they can also not-educate themselves because they identify with their future as entrepreneurs.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:03 PM on December 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


You don't think that for some people, there is just a joy to be had in learning?

Well of course there is, and if it's a new thing I suppose the college environment might seem like a stimulating departure from the demands of Real Life. In my case, though, I spent the first twenty years of my life in college (literally; my earliest memories are of my father's laboratory and "my" first computer was his HP2100A) and for me the stimulating departure was to get the fuck out of school and do something that really mattered.

I strongly suspect Woz went back to school out of some guilty fealty to parental expectations. In his case there was no real reason to do it; he didn't need the credential, as he already had much better and enough money for it not to matter, and if he was interested in learning he could have joined any number of projects doing real work which would have given him the chance to extend his education and which would have been glad to have him. The idea of a guy with Woz's experience sitting in undergrad classrooms prepping for exams just makes me wonder why people even fucking get up in the morning.

Incidentally, I do know a person who went back at age 50 and got her degree, starting from scratch, and went on to get her master's. She is now so deeply in debt she will never recover (but her attitude was that she knew that going in, you can't get it from her when she's dead) and she now hates teaching and she hates the bullshit politics of the typical collegiate faculty with the passion of a supernova (and it has been very, very hard for me to tiptoe around the old I Told You So thing). I believe her current plan is to re-engage with some old contacts and start doing framing again for some art galleries in the French Quarter, but she could have done that anyway and without $80K+ in undischargable debt.
posted by localroger at 4:05 PM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


localroger: "Well of course there is, and if it's a new thing I suppose the college environment might seem like a stimulating departure from the demands of Real Life. In my case, though, I spent the first twenty years of my life in college (literally; my earliest memories are of my father's laboratory and "my" first computer was his HP2100A) and for me the stimulating departure was to get the fuck out of school and do something that really mattered."

Your privileged upbringing has not been shared by 99.99% of the population, which is the point pretty much everyone here has been making.
posted by mkultra at 4:53 PM on December 2, 2012 [8 favorites]


localroger: "My father was a Ph.D. physicist and I grew up in his lab"

This is what I mean by "privilege". You grew up in an environment surrounded by scientists that showed the value of actually learning things. Most people don't have that benefit.
posted by mkultra at 5:07 PM on December 2, 2012


This might be a good example of why the term "privilege" isn't a great one even where it could credibly be argued as accurate on narrow and specific points (in this case, localroger's access to lab/computing equipment and an education network is certainly a privilege not everyone has). It evokes a general sense of ease which is often enough false that the overstated case is easier to reject.

I find "advantage" is usually less loaded and helps speak of specifics.
posted by weston at 5:30 PM on December 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


Hmmm, I could swear I left a comment.

My father grew up in Laurel, MS in a house that didn't have indoor plumbing until he was 12. He was recruited to his calling by an Atomic Energy Commission van that came around recruiting students into the sciences for the benefit of the nuclear arms race. He decided he wanted to discover new elements, but by the time he got his MS that was pretty much a dead end. He decided he liked the college environment and went into teaching.

He ended up the token white professor at a mostly black university, making less money than most tradesmen did. The early-80's mini-depression ripped my family apart and that's why I left both college (never returned) and my family (didn't talk to them again for 17 years).

I didn't grow up in an environment surrounded by scientists, I grew up in an environment with one scientist (my father), a rather incompetent administrator, and a swarm of college students who routinely did worse than I (in high school) did on my father's tests. One semester when my father had a medical emergency I even taught one of his summer labs. I invite you to imagine my white bread 14 year old self explaining to 20 black college sophomores that I'd be standing in for Dad.

on preview: weston is right, advantage would be a word that would not have set me off. But privilege? A little more priivilege like that and I'd have been a fucking heroin addict.
posted by localroger at 5:36 PM on December 2, 2012


Well put, weston, thanks for that.
posted by mkultra at 6:07 PM on December 2, 2012


This is why I'm in favor of single-payer heath care in the US. If you want to encourage innovation, entrepreneurial growth, and small business startups, make it possible for someone to start a business without worrying that they're risking their health coverage.

and this is also probably the reason most big businesses are against single-payer - remove that fear and millions of their best and brightest will shed their cubicle shackles and strike out on their own.
posted by any major dude at 6:14 PM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


We allow people to call themselves educated who do not understand mathematics, but we would never allow people to call themselves educated if they could not read, in the modern day. This is quite silly: you should know both. This is why STEM people are the ones doing the disparaging, mostly: people fail in basic and profound ways in their numeracy and statistical understanding all the time.

I don't disagree that too many people are innumerate. But literacy is more than just being able to read and write. There are far too many 'educated' people who are both unable to understand numbers, and easily soak up polemic as if it were truth because it suits their world view.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:20 PM on December 2, 2012


Also, what rtha said.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:21 PM on December 2, 2012


STEM and humanities are not dichotomous and shouldn't be treated as such.

Harvey mudd college calling itself the "liberal arts college of science and technology" sounds silly on its face, but I think their mission to temper a (very rigorous) technical education with a significant amount of humanities subject matter is Important.
posted by flaterik at 6:28 PM on December 2, 2012


Any extremely cursory glance at Harvey Mudd's course catalogue suggests they require fewer course hours in the humanities and social sciences than Georgia Tech, flaterik, probably they keep the total course hours required for graduation under better control though.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:41 PM on December 2, 2012


Easy for all the programming kids to say when their field lends itself so well to self-education.
Sadly this is not the case. Programming only appears to lend itself well to self-education because programming appears, on the surface, to be no different from being a sort of software mechanic. Fix a bug here, tighten a bolt there, good as new. You don't have to really understand much to start writing software, making it ideal for so-called "self-starters." Just read some docs, copy someone else's code, and start building your app. Only much later – when, for instance, the code has become the backbone of some breakaway startup, and needs to be rapidly scaled up and maintained by a large group of engineers – does a programmer's incompetence manifest. But by the time this happens, the culprit has long since moved on to something else – management, for instance, or selling real estate.
posted by deathpanels at 6:44 PM on December 2, 2012 [9 favorites]


Learning about character encodings [in a computer science degree program] would be about as relevant as learning about accounting systems for a degree in mathematics.

Well, no. It would take about an day, however long it takes in all relevant languages to set your databases & codebases to default to Unicode for any text input/output. The ASCII default of most languages/IDEs I see as an infectious holdover of the DOS days.

It is not hard, and it's a fairly painless way not to punish the poor bastard who's inherited your code base when the company decides to enter the world market; or when your agency is required to support legally mandated languages x, y, or z.

There's other stuff to do or not to do, but that is the bare minimum, and it is NOT HARD.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 7:21 PM on December 2, 2012


Since nobody has mentioned it yet, may I recommend the excellent book Coders at Work?

Most notably, the interview with Brad Fitzpatrick offers a pretty decent counterexample to both the need to drop out to found your business (he didn't), or that you learn everything you need outside of the classroom (he notes some pretty abstruse classroom-learned stuff that he applied IRL).

On another note, I went to Reed College, the same one that Steve Jobs AND Ry Cooder dropped out of. Depending on which circles you move in, our most famous alumnus who actually graduated was Dr. Demento, a music major. He has been quite successful in his chosen field, despite the additional burden of a master's degree.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 7:30 PM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah ivan you're right, but you won't get them to agree with you because those messy details are left to techgettoistas like us. A much bigger problem is the not teaching finite math any more so all these guys come out of school not knowing that 1/10*10=0.99999 in binary if you don't forcibly round it off in double precision. But details like that are so not the cutting edge of relevant thought.
posted by localroger at 7:33 PM on December 2, 2012


I was a comp-sci major. The interesting thing in my case is that my college classes didn't really seem to teach that much about pure coding. I taught myself how to program in high school C++ and then Java in highschool, and could already write the equivalent of a simple "App" with graphics and networking code (back then we just called them "programs") either in windows or the JVM.

Except for the first year classes, which went over C++ at the time (which I knew) most of the class assignments didn't come anywhere near stressing my programming ability, until the last couple years when I would take the hardest classes I could get my hands on - stuff like compiler design and artificial intelligence/machine learning. Those classes didn't each "programming" though, they just assumed as a pre-requisite that you already knew how to program really well - and class assignments could be thousands of lines of code. There were plenty of "easy" upper level classes that people could take if they wanted too, though. Stuff like Java or .net programming, or "advanced" database design - stuff that I pretty much picked up on my own when I was in school.

But one thing I did get out of it was an overview of "computer science" as an actual theoretical field. In highschool, I was teaching myself graphics and network programming because that was the most obvious thing to be doing. I was just starting to get into databases because that seemed important. In college though I got exposed to stuff like language design, algorithms and big-O notation, and computational theory. Those things come into play all the time when you're trying to solve hard problems.

That said, these days with all the online learning stuff you can do it might be possible to get exposed to those things for free, without needing to pay for college. If you're someone who's really driven to be a great programmer and spends hours and hours coding in your free time, it might be possible to learn what it is you need to learn without paying for school.

The other thing I got out of it was 4 to spend programming for fun, instead of to pay the bills and a community of people who were doing the same thing to hang out with. But, I bet you could get a lot of the same thing by joining a local hackerspace
As a ComSci Major, I'm a bit confused about this as your dog whistle. I understand ASCII, but barely understand UTF-8 or ISO/IEC 8859-1. It really hasn't come up.
A character encoding is just a function that converts a sequence of bits into two things: a 'letter', and - critically - another number of bits which tells you how many bits to move forward in your data stream to get the next letter. With ASCII you always move forward exactly eight bits (technically only 7 bits so you can use the last one as a checksum which might be useful on ancient teletype machines - but most people used an extended set with an extra 128 characters)

UTF-8 sometimes uses multiple bytes to store letters if you're using more than the basic 128 characters in ASCII, but it has some interesting features so that if you hit the middle of a multi-byte character on a byte boundary you'll 'know' that you're looking at the 'middle' of a character and won't have the rest of your data get messed up. the way it works is pretty interesting.
As somebody who used to labor in the translation mines, I believe I speak for everyone when I say "Please bother to learn that." Especially before you code anything that might have to handle Spanish, let alone Japanese.
These days, if you just use UTF-8 for everything, life should be pretty good, as long as you remember that characters might be more then 8-bits. (Obviously that might not help if you have to deal with non-ascii legacy files, though)
Oh man, one of my students claimed in an essay that 99% of successful people were college dropouts. 99%! Really?

When I challenged him on it, he changed it to "most." It took a lot of arguing with him to get him to change it to "many." (I have no problem with the fact that many people are, that many successful people don't go, and that the system is screwed up and broken, but I also take issue with the "Let's highlight a bunch of anomalously lucky and privileged people while ignoring all of the counterexamples on both sides!" narrative.)
Well, someone that dumb isn't going to be one of them.
But it's not what this article presents. This article starts out with a cartoon stating "College is for suckers." It attempts to glamorize this view by stating "'Here in Silicon Valley, it’s [dropping out] almost a badge of honor,' said Mick Hagen, 28, who dropped out of Princeton in 2006..." It denigrates higher education by quoting someone who calls it managerial training. And it attempts to bolster its argument by pulling a quote from a fictional character on a TV show.
Is it just me or is it starting to seem like Silicon Valley is a huge bubble? They always say that the way to tell when something is a huge bubble is when it enters into popular culture, like when real-estate speculation started to become a cultural thing, thats when you knew it was over.

The flip side, though is that in a sense silicon valley always seemed like a bubble, but it seems like it's getting back up to dot-com era absurdity levels though.

---
Also, from what I understand aren't people like Bill Gates, Zuckerburg are actually college drop-outs. They're technically just on leave. They could come back and finish their degrees if they wanted too. The only "real" drop-out that was successful in that was Steve Jobs, who founded apple. The other people took leaves of absence because they were making so much money already and college was interfering in that. Jobs actually quit school and bummed around for a while (taking lots of LSD) before – then getting a real job at Atari, before founding Apple.
posted by delmoi at 7:34 PM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Only a Masters degree, ivan?

How dare he call himself Dr. Demento!
posted by Sara C. at 7:35 PM on December 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


Learning about character encodings [in a computer science degree program] would be about as relevant as learning about accounting systems for a degree in mathematics.

Well, no. It would take about an day, however long it takes in all relevant languages to set your databases & codebases to default to Unicode for any text input/output. The ASCII default of most languages/IDEs I see as an infectious holdover of the DOS days.

It is not hard, and it's a fairly painless way not to punish the poor bastard who's inherited your code base when the company decides to enter the world market; or when your agency is required to support legally mandated languages x, y, or z.

There's other stuff to do or not to do, but that is the bare minimum, and it is NOT HARD.
It's not that it's hard to understand UTF-8 or hard to teach it. It's just that it's one standard among thousands that might come up in some job, in some industry, at some point. So while your experience might teach you that programmers (not all of whom have taken any C.S. courses, incidentally) need to know this particular standard well, that might not be the case in, say, the audio software industry, where knowing some other crucial standard is much more relevant. It doesn't make sense to focus on any particular microscopic topic in a university curriculum.

Now, you might look at some C.S. curricula and wonder why Java or Scala or some flavor-of-the-month language is being taught if we're to abide by this "no microscopic topics" rule. But usually such languages are chosen because they introduce a student to relevant topics in language design, data structures, compiler design, et cetera. There's a lot to learn about computing by examining the ins and outs of Python and asking why the designers did it this way. There's not a lot to learn by looking at some data interchange format or encoding standard and following the same process of inquiry. It's just not as relevant to understanding the subject matter, so it receives less focus.

Or anyway, that's been my impression.

C.S. classes didn't really make me a good programmer. I still don't consider myself a good programmer. In a lot of ways, my education merely helped me understand the scope and structure of my ignorance.
posted by deathpanels at 7:57 PM on December 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


I don't think college was a waste of my time. I think I wasted time in college. If I had it to do again, I would tell myself to buckle down, work harder, don't take no for an answer on the things I really want to learn or do, and make a couple good relationships with professors in my field.
posted by newdaddy at 8:01 PM on December 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Is this all that different from the 90s, when lots of testosterone addled bros quit their jobs to become "day traders," and a 9-5 was only for the most pitiful of losers who couldn't play the stock market?

And then the bubble popped and they filled out job applications at Home Depot?
posted by bardic at 8:46 PM on December 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Interesting article in the BBC today about US downward mobility, shocked to report that in many cases children today will have lower educational attainment than their parents, unlike almost everywhere else in the world: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-20154358
posted by wilful at 10:32 PM on December 2, 2012


Gee, what's with the obsession with character encodings?!

As someone who understands character encodings really well, I can't imagine why this is your litmus test. It's fiddly stuff, but more, most programmers never need to learn it. I look back at what I've done in programming - digital signal processing, options models, music programming, data analysis, animation - and the issue almost never came up.

Generally, one programmer in any organization figures this out early in the process, sets the standard for the team, and then no one else has to bother with this. It just happened that I was once that programmer, so I know the material, but that doesn't make me a better programmer - just older.

If I were setting a curriculum, I think I would in fact have a day or two on character encodings, just because it's easy to fall into traps, and because I think it's important for people to remember that not everyone is in the United States and speaking English - but character encodings are just one small part of localization and internationalization (L10n and i18n, I loves those abbrevs!)

What programmers would I be interested in when hiring? People who know how to write robust code. People who understand how to write maintainable code. People who can debug code. People who can document the code they write. People who have deep understanding of some problem domains that aren't just computer programming.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:49 PM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Character encodings are a good way to test the robustness of your code, and almost all programmers have to deal with text. That's why it's such a common touchstone.
posted by Space Coyote at 11:41 PM on December 2, 2012


I'll just be sitting here, waiting for the story about the single parent who drops out of my city community college and writes a multi-million-dollar app.

She exists. In the U.K.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:55 PM on December 2, 2012


Also, can we fucking kill the word "hack" in all spheres of life that do not involve a hacksaw, please?

I'm with you. At times, I've seen "hack" equated with "read the instructions" (see Gmail hacks, Word hacks, Android hacks ...)
posted by outlier at 1:56 AM on December 3, 2012


From now on I'll refer to him as Gene Man.
posted by telstar at 4:55 AM on December 3, 2012


I started a business while I was in school. It didn't make me wealthy, but it gave me and my partners a life experience we couldn't have had otherwise. I don't buy into the dichotomy of entrepreneur or student because in many cases you can be both if you are disciplined.
posted by dgran at 5:52 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


How does Slashdot cover this? Just Say No To College  lol
posted by jeffburdges at 7:45 AM on December 3, 2012


The bubble has been on the verge of bursting for years. Perhaps we're even closer to it now. The mad world of startup gold is starting to flicker.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:54 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


'After my parents sent me to private schools, I dropped out of Princeton, moved to San Francisco and started a mobile app to make fart aggregator. People want to know which farts their friends rated the best so they don't have to search for it themselves. I make $20 million a year. College is useless. Did you go to college?'

'Yeah.'

'Pfft. Loser.'

'I went back to State U at a later age, worked my way through, got a medical degree, and worked with Doctors without Borders. I've saved thousands of lives.'

'Uh....I could have done that too. I chose to invest and entrepreneur and economy and stuff.'
posted by Smedleyman at 10:16 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'll just leave this here: Let's All Shed Tears For the Crappy Startups That Can't Raise Any More Money.
posted by fatbird at 11:05 AM on December 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


There are certain things that only work if only a few people do them. Being a high-flying entrepreneur is one of them. Another great example is dumpster diving.

In each case, both actors rely on underutilized resources that are ready to be harvested by someone who is willing, able, and lucky enough to find those resources and exploit them.

If everyone dumpster dove, or if everyone sought their fortunes in a killer app, no one would be successful because there wouldn't be the critical mass of people not doing those things. Dumpster diving only works if most people buy and waste food, and high flying entrepreneurialism only works if there are few million people in "managerial" jobs paying $5 a piece to that one person.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:44 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


pwnguin: "midnightscout: "I have also known "Compsci Majors" that didn't understand text file encodings. "

As a ComSci Major, I'm a bit confused about this as your dog whistle. I understand ASCII, but barely understand UTF-8 or ISO/IEC 8859-1. It really hasn't come up.
"

I understand text file encodings only enough to despise and resent them. Does that count?
posted by Deathalicious at 11:49 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Average App Developer 'Earns £70K [$112,721] A Year'. But Hold The Champagne. -- "Recruitment agency says 'the app economy is serious business' but there may be a serious shakeout ahead. "
posted by ericb at 2:35 PM on December 3, 2012


I understand text file encodings only enough to despise and resent them.

Darling, that's all we ever wanted.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 7:45 PM on December 3, 2012


So, I'll join the pile-on. Disjointed thoughts ahead:

eye of newt: "You could also mention other famous, successful, extremely wealthy college drop outs: Steve Wozniak, Larry Ellison, Paul Allen, Ted Turner, Simon Cowell (successful record industry businessman before his television fame)."

Don't forget Brian May, who dropped out of his PhD program to join Queen. He went back, and completed his PhD in 2007. Very different circumstances, but I love bringing it up in these conversations. To my knowledge, he's never bragged about dropping out, and seems like a pretty decent guy.

Mitheral: "Coming from a background wealthy enough to allow you to voluntarily drop out of an top tier university is a huge structural advantage."

Right. Any time we go through these lists, they need to be accompanied with giant asterisks: "*GRADUATED FROM EXETER AND SPENT 2 YEARS AT HARVARD." The only way to have more privilege than that is to spend 4 years at Harvard.

delmoi: "Is it just me or is it starting to seem like Silicon Valley is a huge bubble?"

I got to witness the Stanford Bubble firsthand for the first time last summer. Yup. It's definitely a bubble, and the amount of external cash being pumped into the place is completely messing up the local economy (and God help you if you're not connected to Stanford). It might be completely unrelated, but the Giant Pool of Money that This American Life talked about sprung to mind -- there's an ironically huge amount of excess capital out there, and the people investing that capital tend to be very single-minded. Just like investors went nuts over real estate a few years ago after other traditional investment options started to dry up, domestic capital seems to be almost exclusively focusing on Silicon Valley.

flaterik: "Harvey mudd college calling itself the "liberal arts college of science and technology" sounds silly on its face, but I think their mission to temper a (very rigorous) technical education with a significant amount of humanities subject matter is Important."

Yes. I kind of wish I knew about Harvey-Mudd when I was a wee lad.

I was indoctrinated into the Liberal Arts very early on. To an extent, I also still believe that it's important to be a well-rounded individual who can communicate effectively, no matter what trade you happen to work in.

That said, we need to start rethinking the liberal arts, because our definition of it seems pretty firmly stuck in the 19th century, and the skillset of today's Liberal Arts students don't exactly align with the needs of our economy and workforce.

I knew I wanted to be an engineer, but let myself be talked into a Liberal Arts degree due to some bullshit about it being more "pure" and "well-rounded", and it's been a black mark against me for my entire professional career. While I can say that some of the traits I picked up in school (adaptability; the ability to write decently well) have helped my in my professional career, those qualities aren't exactly marketable on a resume. I don't have the right set of buzzwords next to my name.

That said, I was also turned off by engineering programs that seemed to like its students to fit into neat, well-defined boxes. I don't like fitting into neat, well-defined boxes, and I don't think that those boxes are good for society either.

I'm not completely cynical on the liberal arts, but it currently seems to be a course of study for people who already have enough privilege or connections to already have their foot in the door to a good career. A liberal arts degree doesn't open any doors for you, but is great if those doors are already open.

lupus_yonderboy: "Gee, what's with the obsession with character encodings?!"

EBCDIC 4 LIFE!

FJT: "Wow, a STEM guy who doesn't like liberal arts/humanities types. How novel. I wonder where do interdisciplinary types fall then?"

My late uncle (a Math PhD) always took issue with this characterization, and while I definitely think it's true that there's a fair bit of resentment between STEM students and Humanities students, this clash doesn't really exist outside of academia. However, in the 'real world', I've noticed that the humanities folks looked down on science/engineering more than the scientists/engineers looked down on the arts.

Go walk into a university's Physics or Math department, pick out some random people and start asking them about literature, music, or art. Odds are, you'll find that many of them will actually be proficient in one of these subjects, or at the very least be able to name several great works in these fields and explain why they're important.

Now walk into the English department, and ask somebody why math is important, or to name a famous non-Einstein mathematician or physicist, and explain why their work was important. While the response will likely be cordial ("I respect the sciences!"), they likely won't be able to offer much of substance.

Perhaps this is a failure of our education system to give the general public a basic foundation in science and math, but I do think that it's very unfair to characterize the STEM/humanities clash as being completely one-sided.
posted by schmod at 2:24 PM on December 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


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posted by ericb at 3:38 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just a grumpy pedant here to point out that math and science are absolutely part of the liberal arts.

The day the Quadrivium became STEM is the day liberal education was turned into vocational school.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:52 PM on December 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


However, in the 'real world', I've noticed that the humanities folks looked down on science/engineering more than the scientists/engineers looked down on the arts.

The barrier to entry to the arts is low. You can go to a movie without being able to make one, look at paintings in a museum without knowing titanium white from ocher, listen to an opera even if you can't carry a tune. You can learn that these things have value with little effort and then, with only a little more effort, you can appreciate the much greater effort that went into creating them. You can then embark on a course of appreciation even if you choose not to devote the effort to become proficient yourself.

It is very much more difficult for someone who is functionally innumerate to really appreciate what an engineer does. In fact, it's hard for people who are very numerate, such as technicians; being college educated (if not degreed) and working with technicians I often find myself in the middle of that divide.

It's easy for someone who's casually tried to realize how hard it is to learn an artistic skill like playing a musical instrument or painting.

But it's actually much harder for someone who isn't conversant with the requirements to appreciate what goes into engineering and design -- and by design, I don't mean Design as in "I opened my moleskin and made some sketches," I mean design in the sense that if you fuck up the math the bridge will fall down and kill a hundred people and cost forty million dollars to replace.

STEM people do know that art comes from people who have worked hard to develop their abilities. It's true that they often think those efforts were misdirected compared to "things that matter" but any STEM person will understand that, even if misdirected, there's a lot of effort at work there and somebody values it for a reason.

But in the other direction, artful types often seem to think that STEM is a soul-killing devotion to emotionless machine logic and there isn't a complementary appreciation of the usefulness of such thought. I once tried to explain the popularity of the Arduino among artists to an older lady who has spent her life doing multimedia mixed arts, and she was positively astonished that anyone like herself would find such a thing useful.

There is a little circle of NOLA artists and craftspeople with whom I sometimes run, and I hang with them because I like their work but they mostly can't figure out how I can stand to do what I do. But then again, they're not shy about asking me to fix their computer when something goes wrong.
posted by localroger at 7:03 PM on December 4, 2012


I've certainly observed humanities folk not respecting the sciences as well, but..

I've also observed that truly brilliant people often respect depth wherever they find it, even if they don't posses the background to fully understand it. In particular, artists who casually ignore all science and engineering probably aren't such artistic geniuses either really.

Anyone recall Zak Smith discussing assistants and big art? Why does that trend exist? I'd expect one critical factor should be good artists becoming intrigued by or at least recognizing the engineering challenges. Yes, any idiot can hire engineers to build something big, but the trend needed to start with artists already recognized as brilliant.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:04 PM on December 5, 2012


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