Education plays a pivotal role in cultivating excellence—although its function is largely misunderstood. Consider the case of entrepreneurs:
Successful entrepreneurs tend to be both more intelligent than average, but also more confident. Perhaps for these very reasons, they are also far more likely to engage in disruptive or even illicit activity in their youth. Fortunately, wealthy children tend to grow up in an environment which helps them cultivate and productively channel these impulses:
Elite schools generally respect students’ drive and intelligence rather than teaching to the lowest-denominator; they are not afraid to challenge students’ pre-existing beliefs, even at the cost of creating controversy or offense—nor are they afraid to teach ignorance and uncertainty. At the same time, these programs tend to have less testing, less busy-work, and less memorization or regurgitation of trivia. This enables students to explore course subject-matter with far greater depth, breadth and rigor. Overall, elite institutions tend to be less-structured, to prize inter-disciplinary pursuits and collaboration, and to give students a good deal of latitude in forming their course of study. In other words, it is the virtual opposite of what the rest of us experience.
Moreover, innovators are often not formally trained in the fields they ultimately revolutionize. In fact, most entrepreneurial visionaries avoided technical fields (such as STEM) and vocational fields (JDs, MBAs, or MDs)—opting instead to pursue the social sciences and humanities. Why? These disciplines can impart skills like data analysis, logic and critical thinking just as well as STEM courses (or better)—but in the process, they also cultivate the ability to look at phenomena through different frames of reference. This enables one to see overlooked opportunities and underexplored possibilities in order to address societal problems.
Conversely, absorbing the dogma of a given discipline can dramatically inhibit one’s ability to challenge its internal logic and upend its status quo. This is why a surprising number of the most successful entrepreneurs are high-school and college drop outs. And it is also why, among those who do not hail from wealthy families, the most successful entrepreneurs tend to be first-generation immigrants–the education process that most of us go through is actually toxic to creativity and boldness.
Consider the current obsession with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics): These programs are great at teaching people how to be logical, practical, and solutions-oriented—albeit narrowly-focused on the task at hand. In other words, how to become productive, competent employees of someone else. While these programs are among the most-likely to help students get stable and well-paying jobs (for now), they don’t do much to impart an entrepreneurial mindset or skillset. For instance, STEM specialists are typically unable to shed technical jargon or explain to laymen the value, implications or applications of their work. This makes it very difficult to sell an idea.
In fact, for virtually any field or institution, the people who advance farthest and fastest are not the most skilled, the most knowledgeable, or the hardest working—but those who are best at establishing rapport, building and leveraging relationships, or generating interest and excitement. This is why even among STEM graduates, the most competitive candidates also have training in the liberal arts.
In short, transformative ideas are more likely to be realized by those with flexible, adaptive, and open minds, ambitious and resilient personalities, a suite of generalized skills and knowledge which are useful across contexts. Put another way: if our societal goal is cultivating successful and dynamic entrepreneurs (as opposed to useful specialized employees), then the educational priorities in the United States are completely misplaced.