Thiel (& friend) on Education

I caught Peter Thiel’s interview on Tim Ferriss podcast last night. It was, as expected, a thought-provoking Q & A from one of the more intelligent and experienced names in Silicon Valley.

And while the whole 23 minutes is worthwhile, I wanted to blog on one part of it. Thiel is asked about education, a subject he’s familiar with as he’s invested in university-busting startups and talked long and passionately about disturbing the one-size-fits-all trend in higher Ed.

The comment stemmed from something Thiel’s friend said to him — that Higher Education right now in the US is akin to the Catholic Church in the 16th century in the years leading to the Reformation.

And how it true it seems. The Church, at that point, was greedily taking money for repentence, convincing people that it could only be saved by going through its doors. It was a ‘too big to fail’ type deal, and too big, really, to even disrupt.

Until Martin Luther did something bold and changed people’s minds around him and elsewhere and changed the history of the world in doing so.

Education could use its Luther, that’s for sure. But that’s not the important part. The important part is whether our society is ready to take the leap to get behind a bold action that takes a system down. The University system has become, in modern nations and especially the US, a seemingly untackle-able beast.

Businesses consider it necessary and base salary and financial offerings on accreditation from these places.

Adults think their kids need it. (In one study, parents were asked if they thought US students needed to go college. 54% said yes. Then they were asked if their kids needed to go to college. 89% said yes.)

And, we’re defining childhood success based on this system which ultimately is made to get you into a college.

We need something to pull the fabric away and offer a (what will seem radical but will soon cease to be) alternative. There have been some intriguing ones offered, but none that have convinced a skeptical (and compliant) public that its viable.

Investors like Thiel have helped carve some spots in adult and continuing education. To be blunt, that’s cute, but it’s a far cry from taken down the bloated beast that is tuition-starved institutions.

So what’ll be? Well, I hope to see it soon. My inkling is that it will. And then we’ll be the fun part — the slow dismantle and reformation of another great institutional titan. And then all the cards are in the air.

Data Correlation, Education, and Cannabis

I can’t imagine this is the last time I’m going to see the contents of this article brought into discussion.

I’ll sum it briefly: a study found that kids who smoked marijuana were significantly less likely to graduate high school and even less likely to graduate from college. The likelihood decreased with more consistent use of the drug.

The study implies correlation and causation. The journalist in the linked article does a good job of at least addressing why this might be a misconception and, more importantly, how easy it’s going to be for this data to be misinterpreted. His sentence, “You can expect these findings to be highly cited by opponents of liberalized marijuana laws, like the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Smart Approaches to Marijuana project. But it’s important to put them in proper context.” is spot on.

I hope the causality idea is at least questioned. Is it the marijuana smoking that makes a student less likely to graduate? Or are students that might, for one reason or another, be destined not to graduate drawn more to using the drug? It’s worth asking as a qualifier to this.

A few more things come into play here. Education is used as a hallmark here of accomplishment in a completely one-size-fits-all manner. I don’t have to list the accomplished people we know that didn’t graduate from school (or *cough* the famous folks who have admitted to smoking marijuana). (In this way, the finding that smokers were 7x more likely to be depressed is much more important — but, again, what’s the causation here?).

If we can continue to look at educational achievement as the only standard idea of success, we’re not going to do any favors for our youth. The education system already does a disservice to rebellious minds. It clenches these students in its fists and attempts to squeeze out the creativity in them ( to be so emphatic about it) — so it’s no wonder that the lost souls look for other avenues for that creativity. This where the study comes back to. What sustains these kids? And how are we so damn sure that they won’t be successful — so much so that adults are telling other adults to look at marijuana smoking as a sign of some kind of failure.

But this is a system-based assessment. In the pantheon of American life, education still remains king. Learning does not. No one seems to care if one discovers something wonderful outside of school. Or learns a skill late one night while doing something that might be considered mischievous. Why can we not look at learning as something outside of education? What hurts most about this study isn’t the correlation problem, it’s this idea. Personal success can be had outside of our precious system, can it not?

So we continue on (like boats against the current) thinking that the only judge of a successful kid is his/her success in this system we went through ourselves. We see it as a future-looking prism to cast life success (and we won’t get into what the hell that means).

I suppose it’s summed up like this: we label some students as “underachievers” without considering that the system has failed them. The system, rarely, is called out for its own under achieving, but that weight is put constantly on students and faculty alike.

The kicker is that this actually relates to the study aside from just illuminating our ability to separate a system from a reality. It also shows what damage that system can have. Now we have a somewhat demonized group of kids, who are experimenting with drug use — and I’m certainly not condoning that here — but are further being ostracized and pushed away because they aren’t doing well in schools. The system isn’t going to enhance those that are failing at it. It’s not built that way. It merely sustains the class system it’s rooted in and meant to continue on.

My worry is that all of this is combined into one big misunderstanding. There are the “underachievers” and the “potheads” and this study makes it too easy to loop those together — with one big group that the system can reject. And with the large majority of us complacently buying into that system, we’ll leave them behind. My hope, then, is that this group — rejected at such a young age — can figure out not to define its own success of these silly metrics.

Jonathan Taplin’s ‘Letter to The Millenials’

The article, originally found on Medium, can be found here.


The article is subtitled ‘A Boomer Professor talks to his students’ but it was clearly posted for a larger audience. What the article does, instead of connecting professor and students, is connect the generations — OR, really, illuminate the misunderstandings that these generations have long held about each other.

That’s what convinced me of the beauty of this article — the transparent confusion that the professor feels about his students generation, and the wonderful honesty and vulnerability he displays about the lessons he’s learned in his time.

The Boomers were the wave that brought the most precarious, tenuous, and perhaps important, change in American cultural history. Taplin touches on why this was so — and what was left in its wake. It’s not pretty. But what we (Millenials) see is the history books, the pictures, and the consequences that inform and shape our time now (the large population of Boomers combined with current political power have really shaped our time). With these, we make our narrative.

With even more pictures, and social networks to exploit the journeys of millenials, Boomers are able to weave their narratives about the young people joining their workforce, marrying their sons and daughters, and, sadly, showing apathy toward their government(s).

It’s these stories that so often contribute to our misunderstandings. Our confusion with why that generation chooses to act a certain way. We love our technologies; but hate when Boomers join in on them. We hate the state of the Boomer-influenced economy, but love blaming Boomers without doing much about it. Boomers see our stagnant politics and don’t understand why we don’t protest, rally, cry out….We saw Boomers doing all of that and wonder what they actually accomplished.

(Warning; that was all grossly over stereotyped. I’m aware. I won’t speak for two entire generations, but I do want to make a point).

I think ultimately that’s what Taplin is doing — and why I found his letter so effective. He’s extrapolating some of the storylines, without blaming anyone for misunderstanding. He’s asking, earnestly, for millenials to work with him to uncover the mysteries he sees in today’s world.

Napoleon called history “a fable agreed upon” — and its Taplin that is taking the first steps with his students (and inviting all of us) to start coming a consensus now. Even with today’s overdocumentation of everything, he sees the lack of conversation about what is really happening here. Perhaps its his own history, of his generation coming-of-age that he saw get distorted in later years. Let’s not let it happen again, he seems to say. ‘Come together’ must have been a motto then, and it seems just as fitting now.

It’s a great challenge to my generation.


Engaging Your Virtual Learners

Learner engagement isn’t unique to virtual environments or “elearning”. It’s a problem in classrooms, training centers, and seminars across the world. For a long time, the rule has been: the Learner will get out of this what he/she is willing to put in.

I can’t refute that logic. One needs some kind of buy-in or commitment from a Learner. But there are ways to increase the likelihood of engaging these learners — and some that do so specifically in a virtual environment. Let’s chat about a few of those that might not be as well documented as others.

Promoting The Peer Environment

Learners are people. People want to connect. Some writers built their careers writing about this. Teachers should dedicate some real thinking time to how their content promotes, or disables, this basic instinct.

In a virtual environment, peers can be thousand miles away. Peers can be from different age groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc…But what they have in common is being in the same “place” at the same time. In this way, your job is to remind them they are peers. It may not be immediately obvious. Remind them they’re in this together. Create an environment dedicated to their belonging, even if there isn’t so much tying them together outside of your content.

If you can attach the content to the connection (the actor to his cast), engagement will grow simply because its at the core of the relationship. Think about it this way: when you’re out with a friend of a friend, or an in-law, what is most commonly talked about? Your shared friend or family member. It’s the object that ties that remains at the center. Make that your learning content.

‘How’ not ‘What’

If you’ve Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People, this idea might sound familiar. If you want a real response from a Learner, ask a ‘how’ question not a ‘what’ question.

What I do mean by that? Ask for the bigger picture. Don’t stop at “what would you do here?” Instead, ask “how would you solve this?” Let Learners start completely anew. Have them talk about their thought process before the actual doing. This will have them engaged in the process, because they are intuitively tying themselves to it. A ‘what’ question can separate the person from the action. That’s disengagement. We’re not here for that.

We ask about personal systems in our Training program. Instead of asking what a Learner’s system is, we ask how they designed it, how it works for them, and how they see it scaling in the future.

This gives Learners an opportunity to talk about their own creation. Not the system itself; but how it came to be, challenges along the way, and ultimately the success of it emerging. You can see some love and beaming in their responses. This is a good thing.

Let Them “Cheat”

I often wonder if schools could take a different approach to “cheating” (by which I mean copying or collaborating on answers or homework or tests). There are some tactical positives to it. A focus on the results and not the process is one. And while that’s not what you want an education system based on, it’s certainly not an automatic “bad”.

Ultimately, in corporate learning, we want problem-solvers who produce something good or valuable. How that’s done, in certain situations, is an afterthought. Still, cheating has a dirty name in the education system and children are discouraged from thinking outside the system. Add to this that as education has gotten more competitive, cheating is on the rise. What if we embraced it somehow instead of outright discouraged it?

And let’s not ignore the possibilities it has for engagement – the topic of this blogpost. There’s still some interaction that has to come from cheating, and these interactions can range to full-on learning endeavors. Sometimes, increasing engagement means giving up some control as the ‘trainer’ and letting peers teach peers.

Waxing [Musically]: Lucinda Williams’ ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’

It took me seventeen listens to realize that Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is the story of a breakup. It took my slightly fewer listens to realize the lyrical genius of Ms. Williams. See, when you start on the album, and you get that twang, but like a late-90s twang, that she sings with, and you see the lyrics as simple. Basic rhymes. Not realizing the story happening underneath. That couldn’t be less true — it just takes a few listens. 

I started on this album two years ago. That was ‘I Lost It’ and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It became one of those songs I couldn’t listen to twice in the same week, but if I came on randomly, I sang loud and rekindled a love for it. Same goes for seeing it covered.

The other songs came slowly in. First was ‘2 Kool 2 Be Forgotten’, the awkwardly named jam that comes right at that sweet spot in any relationship when you think someone is beyond god — can’t believe the whole world isn’t in on the secret of who this person is (and how happy they can make you). On ‘Metal Firecracker’ when she says “I used to think nothing could wrong,” it’s not hard to imagine the scenes painted in ‘Forgotten’. 

I found the title track soon after (“found” meaning it stuck with me and I listened to it on repeat for hours). Then ‘Greenville’ the slow, dripping, almost too-close-to-the-bone track that comes at the end of album (and the relationship). “Go back to Greenville” seems about as close to a bootkick in the ass as it comes in Lucinda Williams’ world. 

‘Right in Time’, ‘Lake Charles’, ‘Can’t Let Go’ all came in their own time. It’s such a great album, I’m almost astounded that I found so many tracks individually (listening through the album and finding one track has stayed with you after….or having to replay that track on a full album listen), and not the whole thing in one swoop. Instead of “wow there are MORE great songs on this,”…it was “well, this is my song for the week now” and isolated the others behind.

Ultimately, Car Wheels is one of the best form=function albums I’ve ever heard. For one, Williams voice sounds like the title track (let’s come back to that). So do the guitar tracks, which aren’t quite poppy, not quite full-country, not quite alternative. It’s all quite undefinable, until you hear that phrase. It’s the oh-so-distinct sound of car wheels bursting through a gravel road. Rough, kicking up rocks, but still getting there. That, too, a metaphor for any relationship. It’s perhaps the best named album of the 1990s. 

The idea of roads, curving into something (a mystery, a moment, a yellow el camino playing howlin’ wolf…) is depicted on the front cover and you wonder if the whole album might have been written just by staring at that picture (pre-album). It’s possible. Roads are so prevalent in the album’s songs, we’re never too far from that blue-skied scene. This idea that gravel roads exist at all moments in a relationship (getting back to Lake Charles on a getaway, on the way to eat some bacon in Macon, or going back to Greenville broken-hearted), stays with you. If it’s all the same road then the rest is just details. You can drive the same gravel county highway in love or out of it and it ain’t gonna make much difference. Same sound. Memories are a’coming.

Back to her voice. I didn’t know Lucinda Williams before this album. (And a thanks to Captains Dead and his albums list) I’ve tried to watch some of my favorite tracks live on Youtube. It’s not great. The voice carries so well on record, backed by that country ramble of guitar winding down the road with her. The voice itself is like that gravel road. Rough until your ears smooth it over. The simple songs (mostly same lyric progression, lots of choruses…) gives that simple Southern feel and probably some of the smoothness needed to take the edge out of the voice. One gets so trifled with Bob Dylan, perhaps, because of his insistence on complexity AND a rough voice to start with.

Needless to say, the voice is no longer an issue (if it once even was). It’s beautiful in its own skin and grit. Car Wheels has worked its way up in my book. Quite high, actually. It’s the perfect accompaniment when you need some attitude without the angst or snottiness. Williams is a straightshooter with a pistol of beauty on this one. Simple, country songs that escalate a mile (or, in this case, take you a mile down the road). I’ll be singing that ‘Metal Firecracker’ chorus for years to come. Don’t tell anyone my secrets might be the saddest declaration of a relationship burnt out, and she captured that on the same road as the man she sings ‘Right in Time’ about. That’s a journey.


Ranking If I HAD To Give One (RIHTGO) — 9.1/10