Saying No (Loudly) to Michael Ellsberg

I can hear the disgust in his voice.  When Michael Ellsberg tells us that college is a waste of time for many creative Americans, based on his observation that our most successful inventors and entrepreneurs (such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg) typically never finish their undergraduate degrees, his contempt for higher education is palpable…even before we get to the point where he says that for the sake of our flailing economy students need to learn about sales in college, but are “more likely to  take a course on why sales (and capitalism) are evil.”

“Evil”? Really?  I’d love a list of the professors Mr. Ellsberg has heard, first-hand, actually making such claims.   The New York Times published Ellsberg’s latest op-ed about the shortcomings of  U.S.  higher education on Sunday under the title, “Will Dropouts Save America?” and I do have to thank the paper for framing it as a question.  But I have no patience with the crude and self-serving picture Ellsberg  paints of the American university in his answer.

The folks he mentions are in some ways grand role models, sure…. ingenious, self-motivated and energetic as can be.  But the idea that we can characterize the entirety of post-secondary learning and teaching in U.S  as an impediment to such vision and creativity is below contempt. This is the same higher ed system that has  for generations carried countless children of farmers and factory workers into science and technology and business careers;  that has –hellllooo!?—brought us the highly educated thinkers that design and build the devices conceived by a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates,  and  the massively complex data-handling  systems that enable a global-scale social network like Mark Zuckerberg’s.

Most pertinent: Many of those enabling technologies, not to mention hugely profitable pharmaceutical, biotech, and material innovations of recent decades, were born in start-ups run by university faculty members, themselves holders of college degrees…all apparently in spite of the “creativity stifling” character of our university classrooms detected by Mr. Ellsberg.

With his strong message that American college-goers are being duped, I can’t help but think Ellsberg starts out not simply from an excited appreciation of human inventiveness, but also from a sense of distaste for the people who teach in universities.  Such as myself. But here’s why I’m bothering to write about him… A few days ago, the Chicago Tribune published an article by Jesse Washington titled, “What’s behind the declining numbers of blacks in science, tech, engineering and math fields?” The article documents woeful statistics:

In 2009 African-Americans received 1 percent of degrees in science technologies, and 4 percent of degrees in math and statistics…

As many others have found, Washington reports that the reasons for such low minority representation in STEM fields are complex: students’ self-doubt, a lack of role models and mentors, pressure to earn money quickly, and discouraging academic environments rife with racial stereotyping.  But if the causes are complex, the results are clear:

The percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degree has fallen during the last decade.

Horatio Alger stories like the one Ellsberg disseminates, that find the sources of American technical innovation primarily in the efforts of self-taught individual geniuses, do not merely mislead about the origins of most new technologies. Such stories also deny the role played by class, race, gender, national origin and a host of other identities in bringing about both the presence of some entrepreneurs and the absence of other Americans in the world of technical innovation.

Surely Ellsberg’s selective logic  would do little for the folks at Boeing, GE and Xerox, cited by Washington as worried about the nation’s scientific talent pool and dedicated to raising black STEM participation.  Those companies aren’t merely worried about their own hiring needs;  they know a nation without a thriving tech sector won’t support markets for their own products.  These corporations are as eager for innovation and as savvy about its wider effects as anyone in the country. Hard to imagine they  would find Ellsberg’s derisive approach to formal education, to the social and intellectual empowerment provided by the college classroom and lab,  any more constructive than I do.  We need far more opportunities for such empowerment in America, not fewer.