Yet the Thiel Fellowship is, on closer inspection, radically subversive—as much an attempt at delegitimizing the contemporary American educational landscape as it is about rewarding young would-be founders. The American collegiate system, Thiel, his staff, and his fellows unanimously affirm, has become a giant scam, transforming potential innovators into subservient drones; indoctrinating the disrupters of tomorrow into Marxist myths of resentment; and using the social-justice buzzwords of class privilege and structural oppression to crush the spirit. Like American progressivism, they say, the university is rotten from the inside out, on this view—and it needs to be burned to the ground, figuratively speaking, so that something new and better can be built from the ashes.
“The American collegiate system, Thiel, his staff, and his fellows affirm, has become a giant scam.”
The college-to-workplace model is also expensive and time-consuming, and it doesn’t reflect the dramatic changes in educational technology that make information accessible to anyone with a smartphone. Strachman compares the current state of such technology to earlier advances in transportation. “If you were gonna walk across the states, that would take a long period of time,” she observes. “But then with the invention of high-speed rail, let’s say, you can move orders of magnitude faster. So now, likewise, if I’m a young person today and I have a laptop, I can move so much faster than I could even when I was going to school, you know, 20 years ago. The opportunity cost for young people is that much higher. If they have this burning desire to do something right now and they can get started on it, why would you wait four years of a long slow process when you can just start in your dorm room right now?”
The very skills and values that Gibson and Strachman see college as currently rewarding—diligently completing assignments, checking off requirements, and producing work to a narrow set of specifications—run counter to those that the Thiel Foundation emphasizes. One of the biggest early predictors of failure in selecting Thiel Fellows, notes Strachman, was whether a candidate had received an Intel Science Award—a prize for high schoolers often considered catnip to prestigious colleges. “Anyone we met who won that did not seem to fare well in the wild,” she says. “There’s a difference between striving to gain accomplishments within an existing institution where all the parameters are set and transparent and known, where people are giving you commands about what to study and testing you on it, and building companies from scratch, which requires a whole different type of character and set of skills.”