Dale Stephens leads UnCollege, a social movement that aims to turn conventional wisdom on its head when it comes to the role college plays in one’s overall success. At 19, Stephens is a Thiel Fellow and currently working on a book about “hacking your education.” We asked him to answer five questions about the UnCollege movement, as thousands of students prepare to attend college, and thousands more high school students prepare to apply. This is the second in a series where we pose questions to industry and academic leaders on innovation.
1. How does an uncollege experience make someone more innovative? Isn’t the propensity for creativity innate?
Innovations: The 5 Questions Series
Creativity is innate — the problem is that schools kill creativity. Our education system cultivates a mind-set where students are rewarded for following directions. If we still needed public education to fulfill its original purpose — to train factory workers in the industrial revolution — then school would work brilliantly. But times have changed — a May 2010 IBM poll of CEOs found that they deemed creativity to be “the number one leadership competency of the successful enterprise of the future.”
In their 1998 book “Breakpoint and Beyond,” George Land and Beth Jarman refer to a study in which 1,500 kindergartners between 3 and 5 years old were given a divergent thinking test. Divergent thinking tests don’t measure creativity, but rather one’s propensity for creativity. The test asks questions such as “How many ways could you use this paperclip?” or “How many ways could you improve this toy fire truck?” — questions designed to encourage creative thought rather than elicit right-or-wrong answers. Ninety-eight percent of kindergartners tested at the genius level. After five years of formal education, only 50 percent of children tested at the genius level. This study shows the deleterious effects school can have on a child’s creativity and desire to learn.
What Robinson doesn’t mention is that there is an alternative: unschooling, and by extension, uncollege. Instead of sitting in class, unschoolers create their education from the world by finding mentors, taking college classes only when they want to, starting businesses and learning collaboratively. By freeing yourself from the strictures of the classroom and the authority of teachers you escape the system that schools use to inadvertently squander creativity.
2. I see Peter Thiel, an advocate for the uncollege experience, has a B.A. and a J.D. from Stanford. Why should I listen when he says my kid should drop out of school?
The Thiel Fellowship is not about dropping out of school — it’s about making a sound investment in your future. There are a little over 19 million college students in the United States, each of whom are graduating with an average of $24,000 in debt, according to the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success. After college, they are forced to find a job to pay off that debt instead of being allowed to take the time to start companies, projects, causes or initiatives. They are, essentially, mortgaging their freedom in exchange for a degree. What many may find scarier still is that student loan debt is nearly impossible to erase in the case of bankruptcy. The bank can repossess your house, but they can’t repossess your degree.