Who isn’t interested in any random pronouncement that Elon Musk makes? After all, he’s smart and he’s rich and getting richer every day. He also acts like a media celebrity, saying provocative things in public, which most smart or rich people — who don’t seek to be known as brands — don’t bother to do. They do it privately.
Like the rest of the media, The Guardian tunes in when Musk speaks. Here are his latest quotable ideas: “The Tesla billionaire Elon Musk thinks people ‘don’t need college to learn stuff’ and says jobs at his companies should not require a degree.” To prove his point, Musk asks, “Did Shakespeare go to college?” before helpfully providing the answer: “Probably not.”
We are tempted to ask Musk a follow-up question: Would Tesla or any other of his forward-looking companies (SpaceX, The Boring Company, Neuralink) hire William Shakespeare? The answer would be: Probably not. And the reason is twofold: Shakespeare understood society and considered it more important than technology. And he explored the questions he wrote about from multiple perspectives, which means he clearly lacked the focus required to appear smart and productive to Musk’s companies, with or without a college diploma.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An institution seen by teenage US consumers as a place to purchase the credentials needed for their future adulthood. This is a lengthy stretch of their lives in which they will attempt to sell themselves to employers in the hope of eventually being able to pay off the debt acquired in the three or four years they spend as consumers of education. During this time, they dedicate themselves to learning the art of reconciling having fun with finding clever ways to get passing grades.
Musk’s irony may not be Shakespearean — it lacks both a sense of perspective and a dramatic context) — but he has a point. Americans have every reason to distrust their educational system and seek to liberate themselves from the belief that it provides the formulaic plotline to their life narrative. It has become increasingly clear that a university diploma no longer guarantees a well-remunerated job.
As far as learning itself is concerned, the smartest people end up in adulthood understanding that the key to their own success will be to detach themselves from most of what they learned throughout their schooling. They’ll find very little of it useful in their professional and adult lives. And those who are interested in real knowledge will soon discover that their education, starting at elementary school, provided them with a steady diet of fake news associated with the facts and factoids that students are expected to have remembered long enough to pass a test and get a grade.
Was the world flat until Christopher Columbus proved it was round? Most Americans were taught that at school. Those interested in the truth of history can seek it on Google, hope to happen upon an article clarifying the myths they learned at school or ask questions on Quora.
Columbus wasn’t a hero of science or a daring pioneer of geographic theory, an idea that distracts children from learning about the nature of his true ambitions and the long-term consequences of those ambitions. But it’s important for Americans to believe that part of their nation’s providential destiny — its very coming into existence (since it didn’t really exist before Columbus) — was to correct the errors of Europeans, starting with the superstitious belief that the Earth was flat. The irony has now come full circle as the US seems to have a monopoly of latter-day flat-earthers, who regularly make front-page news.
Musk is right to distrust the fundamental premise of higher education. “I think college is basically for fun and to prove that you can do your chores, but they’re not for learning,” he said. If the purpose of college is essentially to find ways of having fun and prove one’s capacity not to wilt in the face of discipline, Musk nevertheless fails to make an important complementary point about the role education plays in society. The schooling that leads up to university is essentially dedicated not to acquiring true or useful knowledge, but to instilling cultural values (including the belief in exceptionalism) and ideological beliefs (such as the virtues of free markets), even when contradicted by facts.
Elon Musk pushes his provocation further when he says that his criterion for hiring has nothing to do with education and everything to do with identifying people with “exceptional ability.” Not only doesn’t he “consider going to college evidence of exceptional ability,” but he adds, “In fact, ideally you dropped out.”
Musk’s message can only be confusing for young Americans. They know statistically that people with a college degree have significantly higher earnings (estimated at $30,000 a year) than those without a diploma. Their families and often the youngsters themselves make a simple calculation: However significant the student debt they acquire in the process, they are betting on what they see as the favorable odds of being able to pay it back thanks to their magic diploma.
It’s just like playing the stock market. You put up the money and hope your stock performs well. But the effect on the students themselves and the entire atmosphere of education is ultimately devastating in social and even educational terms. It means that the focus is on money and not learning. As a student, you are paying for two things: the diploma and the belief in your right to a higher income. Universities themselves morph into commercially managed enterprises that see the students as customers rather than learners. Worse, they develop the mindset and strategic operating procedures of corporations who will be judged and who will judge themselves essentially on their ability to turn a profit rather than their service to the community.
Thinking this way also reinforces the complementary idea, essential for the economy, that everyone is at the mercy of their future employers, that their lives will depend on pleasing their future corporate masters. That is simply how the economy is structured. Nobody needs to go to college to perceive that reality.Embed from Getty Images
That’s why Musk’s advice is confusing. He himself is a corporate master in a position to offer young professionals a job. But, in contradiction with his own human resources departments, he says he doesn’t want to see a diploma. He wants excellence. He even suggests that dropouts are more likely to show excellence.
A cynic might reason that Musk prefers dropouts because it weakens their negotiating position, meaning that he can offer them a lower salary. There may even be some basic economic truth to that, since the people recognized as excellent after having worked for less than their proven worth will have the opportunity to prove their worth and will subsequently be rewarded. That’s how the system is designed to work.
And that’s why Musk’s description is confusing. He represents the logic of the system but appears at the same time to be undermining it. But that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Self-contradiction is a privilege that hyperreal personalities now have in this increasingly irrational celebrity-oriented economy.
In his role of hyperreal visionary focused on the future of civilization, Elon Musk turns out to have absorbed many of the lessons that children learn in school and often amplified by the media. He too has been conditioned by the historical myths of the past that constitute the source of the values that schooling instills in American children. Musk clearly plays the public role of a “self-made man.” The meme is a staple of US culture linked to the notion of pioneering and exploring new frontiers. It also includes the idea of the self-taught genius, the greatest example of which was the inventor, entrepreneur and political thinker Benjamin Franklin.
As the author Irvin G. Wyllie pointed out in his 1954 book, “The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches,” the idea of learning on one’s own is specifically related to the quest for financial success. Musk tells us that we “don’t need college to learn stuff.” He doesn’t tell us what is the “stuff” he’s referring to.
What he appears to mean is that in his companies, the stuff that you will learn is very different from anything you’re likely to learn in classes at a university. He’s probably right if he thinks that some of the stuff taught at universities will have to be unlearned by anyone seeking to excel in a cutting-edge technology company. Even the science taught at university may be out of date. But what you need to know in a modern technology company can only be learned by becoming involved in building things to sell to the outside world. It requires working on them pragmatically rather than just studying how they work theoretically.
This recalls another founding myth of US culture and its consequences: that because practice will always trump theory, theory itself becomes dispensable if not suspect. Everything you need to know to succeed in life can be achieved through trial and error without paying attention to theory or wasting time on it. And the nice thing about the US system is that, when you achieve an adequate level of success, you no longer have to pay for your errors. You become too big to fail, too important for the economy. That means that someone else, including the taxpayers, will bail you out because you have become a national treasure.
That is the essential message people of “excellence” learn. And it’s a practice they want to see continue.
As for the “stuff” Musk refers to, Shakespeare had his own take on that, when in the closing act of “The Tempest,” Prospero reminded us all that, “We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep.”
This article was first published in Fair Observer
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