Breaker of idols

Jacob Weisberg, Yale graduate, and defender of the Center-Left Establishment (e.g., In Defense of Robert Rubin), has a long piece out in Slate attacking Peter Thiel. Thiel’s heresy is to encourage young university-aged students to work outside of traditional educational institutions by offering monetary inducements. Weisberg concludes:

Where to start with this nasty idea? A basic feature of the venture capitalist’s worldview is its narcissism, and with that comes the desire to clone oneself—perhaps literally in Thiel’s case. Thus Thiel fellows will have the opportunity to emulate their sponsor by halting their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood, maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible, and thereby avoid the siren lure of helping others or contributing to the advances in basic science that have made the great tech fortunes possible. Thiel’s program is premised on the idea that America suffers from a deficiency of entrepreneurship. In fact, we may be on the verge of the opposite, a world in which too many weak ideas find funding and every kid dreams of being the next Mark Zuckerberg. This threatens to turn the risk-taking startup model into a white boy’s version of the NBA, diverting a generation of young people from the love of knowledge for its own sake and respect for middle-class values.

Knowledge for “its own sake”? What planet does Jacob Weisberg live on where American university students are seeking knowledge for “its own sake”? The American university racket is by and large one of credentialing and signalling. Most college graduates are unabashed philistines. Their primary goal in life is to seem intelligent, not be intelligent.

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22 Responses to Breaker of idols

  1. Joel says:

    I can’t believe that Weisberg describes dropping out of college as “halting [one’s] intellectual development.”

    For me, at least, I think that’s completely backward. In college I was overly concerned with girls and grades and prerequisites and the bursar’s office. I’ve become much more interesting (and interested) since I graduated.

  2. CONSVLTVS says:

    …or to be educated. The humanities are the worst afflicted with militant PC, but it’s systemic in the university plant. What? Literature? No, you have to study “Marxism and Shakespeare.” History? No, you have to study “Women’s Oppression in Gibbon.” The PC syllabus compels rigid compliance of thought and morality. It is probably still possible to obtain an education in an American university, but it would be in spite of the curriculum.

    What keeps the indoctrination under control? The fact that most of the philistine students are not there to be educated. Thank goodness.

  3. Mark says:

    I learned more about literature reading Sexual Personae over the course of a week and a half than I did in my entire four years as an English major. Now I’m in law school, proving that some people never learn.

  4. Mark says:


    I took a class on Shakespeare in college that was *advertised* as a straight-up class on Shakespeare and got a militant dyke (I’m gay so I can use that word) professor who made the entire class into one long tirade about how Twelfth Night proves that gender is just a social construct and her niece is androgen insensitive which also proves that gender is a social construct (I’m not making this up, except she didn’t know what “androgen insensitivity” is, she just mentioned that her niece was XY) blah blah blah. Also, she spent the last week of class reading from her book of short stories revolving around a convent of lesbian nuns. I thought of writing a letter to the school newspaper warning people about the class (I was going to entitle it “Beware of Pit Bull!”) but I decided against.

  5. kurt9 says:

    I think Weisberg’s article is the worse piece of rubbish to be published by Slate.

    Theil is correct that the university system has failed to provide value for money. The cost of a university education has increased even faster than health care costs over the past 30 years. At the same time, it produces more and more graduates that end up working in low paying jobs with no opportunity for upward mobility and, even worse, deep in debt. Defending this kind of system is complete criminality.

  6. CONSVLTVS says:


    I went to law school, too. It’s one solution to the problem of having an expensive sheepskin that has no value apart from the signaling DH mentioned. Had I majored in English (or French, for that matter) it would have been hell. If you were out in college, you at least would have had some cred with the mandarins. In the Classics department, there were few enough of us that a married, right-wing atheist was just another eccentric. The ideology was there, but the discipline of learning the languages seemed to crowd it out. That left us free to interact with the texts in what I think was the best way. You can get a sense of the rich continuity of western literature, which struck me one day walking back from classes. I was reading the Hippolytus in Greek and l’Hippolyte in French. Click. So, I do think there is value in (real) education. The sad, sad thing about colleges today is that they have abandoned the idea of that education as “imperialistic” or whatever. Conservatism, for me, is about conserving some of that stuff along with conserving liberty. Sometimes I think hardcore libertarians are, well, philistines. That leaves a small but real niche for secular right/skeptical conservatism. Cheers, C.

  7. Christopher says:

    Generally speaking, most people probably value knowledge far more for its instrumental than its its instrumental worth. This fact, I believe, goes a long way in explaining higher education’s woes.

    For example, pundits complain about how universities have become more about getting a job than learning for its own sake. They fail to realize that just better reflects the concerns of the student body (which as ballooned over the 20th century), who are there because either (a) in a program leading directly into a job, (b) need a bachelor degree just to get a job above minimum wage or (c) they don’t have any really direction in life and university is the “natural” socially acceptable way of wasting four years aimlessly.

    Of course, this assume there was once an age where undergraduates were mostly academic in orientation, which I doubt. IIRC, an liberal arts university education before the 20th century was the province of the rich. Academically-oriented students were, are and will be forever a minority of most universities I believe.

  8. David Hume says:

    Now I’m in law school, proving that some people never learn.

    …a mind is a terrible thing to waste….

  9. Susan says:

    An undergraduate degree in liberal arts from one of the Ivies, particularly Harvard or Yale, still has some commercial value. An undergraduate degree in Gender Studies from Pinecone State College and two bucks will get you on the subway, unless fares have gone up since I last rode the subway.

  10. Peter Thiel would prefer folk to be productive than credentialled, time-wasted and pseudo-indoctrinated. Good on him.

    Jacob Weisberg is just complaining that someone is providing competition, and showing the finger, to institutions controlled by people who think like, well, Jacob Weisberg.

  11. Bob_R says:

    The credentials racket is a confidence game, so it is very much in Weisberg’s self interest to denigrate any alternative to lockstep conformity with the credential system. If people didn’t accept a Yale degree as a sign of intelligence, they might start to read what he writes and find that he is a fool.

  12. Stephen says:

    Susan says:
    “An undergraduate degree in liberal arts from one of the Ivies, particularly Harvard or Yale, still has some commercial value. An undergraduate degree in Gender Studies from Pinecone State College and two bucks will get you on the subway, unless fares have gone up since I last rode the subway.”

    Ok, but what about an undergraduate degree in Gender Studies from Harvard? Which is more important, the degree or the institution?

  13. Susan says:

    Oh, Stephen, when it comes to liberal arts degrees, it’s the institution that counts for everything, in the northeast anyway.(I don’t actually know if Harvard awards degrees in Gender Studies, or if GS falls under the all-purpose rubric of English, but I’ll check.)New York publishing is overrun with English majors who went to Bennington or Barnard/Columbia. The Boston Globe used to not hire any reporter who wasn’t Harvard-educated, although an occasional exception was made for a Yalie or Columbian.

  14. dfhjdh says:

    Agreed, Weisberg is a jackass. The comments here are good but Razib said it best.

  15. Polichinello says:

    To give Weisberg some credit, there is value in learning for learning’s sake. The humanities do improve the quality of life. Where Weisberg goes wrong is in believing that this has to be done at the post-secondary level. He should really be focusing his ire on the public school system which sends kids in need of “remedial” English to college every year.

  16. Polichinello says:

    Reading the full piece, I’m shocked at the intensity of the nerd-on-nerd rage. This may escalate into a full out slap fight soon.

  17. kurt9 says:

    What astounds me is the utter hostility that many of the commenters have towards any attempt to do anything outside the system to to think outside the box with regards to education issues. Its like the conventional education system is a sacred religious artifact and that anyone who questions it is bad and evil.

  18. kurt9 says:

    The ranting and raving in the comments section demonstrates a lot of hatred towards silicon valley start-up entrepreneurs. Yet, I never see such hatred directed at successful movie stars and athletes. Since many of the successful tech bubble people are nerds or semi-nerds, perhaps this is really hatred of nerds in general?

  19. David Hume says:

    To give Weisberg some credit, there is value in learning for learning’s sake.

    i don’t deny that at all. i value learning for its own sake, and have taken a less remunerative path in my life because of that. but most people aren’t like me, and it’s delusional to pretend they are. and frankly, most harvard people i’ve met are more interested in seeming smart, not being smart. MIT is different.

  20. Polichinello says:

    I didn’t mean to imply that you thought otherwise, Hume. I was more interested in pointing out that Weisberg would have a more serious case if dealt with the fact that most kids come out of high school woefully unprepared (even accounting for very real IQ differences). Sending them on to college is just papering over that deficiency with taxpayer funds.

  21. panglos says:

    Easy fix – a dual major in Philo/Poli Sci with an MBA in finance.

  22. MKH says:

    The issue isn’t just the student not wanting to learn, it’s the faculty as well. Too many faculty members aren’t where they are because they are truly the brightest members of society who decided to forgo riches in other professions but rather because they preferred academia to the real world so they just stuck around, chose the right academic fad at the right time and knew and blew the right kind of people.

    And of course, those who have rightly or wrongly acquired the best positions and reputations seldom lower themselves to the chore of actually teaching.

    As a consequence, even a student desperate to learn may find college, at least a humanities or social sciences degree to be very unsatisfactory and a waste of money.

    People spend many thousands of dollars to get into a “name school” as they were taught to desperately want all their lives as achievement-oriented kids from the white collar middle class and what do they get, a cocktail of Marxism, homosexuality/transsexuality and minority racial supremacism with very little knowledge actually being required or acquired.

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