To Entrepreneur or Not to Entrepreneur
It’s really unfortunate that the Atlantic feels compelled to publish dribble like this. On just about any given week now, you can find one or two policy screeds delivered in the can-do voice of a motivational speaker taking up space between the rest of the site’s actually respectable content.
“Scott Gerber,” according to his byline, “is the founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council, co-founder of Gen Y Capital Partners, and an internationally syndicated columnist.” He is here to tell us about the wonders of programs like his, and how the status quo is failing, specifically in higher education. Yes, it’s another rant about “Liberal Arts” colleges.
His audience is clearly parents, as evidenced by the first line, “A degree does not guarantee you or your children a good job anymore.” With them hopefully left shaking in their boots, Gerber launches into a confused first paragraph. In short, he demonstrates that the economy is tough, and there aren’t enough jobs out there, not even for those with a Bachelor’s degree. He then follows that with, well, something that doesn’t follow, “old-guard academic leaders are still clinging to the status quo — and loudly insisting that a four-year liberal arts degree is a worthy investment in every young American’s future.”
A few trademarks of bull$#!% are present, like “old-guard,” and “clinging to the status quo.” But the larger point is that despite everything he just said, a college degree is still worth the investment if you’re willing to work hard at it. All. The. Data. Shows. This.
The buzzword littered throughout Gerber’s piece is “entrepreneurship,”
“As someone who works every day to give more people access to entrepreneurship education, it’s refreshing to talk to educators who are adapting their curricula in the interest of actually preparing students for a new economy.”
The “new economy” isn’t something Gerber is interested in explaining to us though. He’d much rather get his blood boiling about “a college president who recently terminated his institution’s entrepreneurship education program. Not because of budgetary constraints or poor enrollment, mind you — but because he ‘didn’t understand the tangible value of such a program.’”
Gerber responds by challenging this professor, or most likely any other, to name the “tangible value” of four years of liberal arts education. This is odd for two reasons. One, it doesn’t actually address the issue. For any entrepreneurship guru to be worth his or her salt, one would expect them to retort with some kind of hard data. After all, entrepreneurship is all about what works. But Gerber doesn’t. Indeed, he resorts to putting “tangible value” in “quotes,” a move that would seem to undermine the very point he’s trying to make with this construction.
Instead, Gerber seems to settle for “entrepreneurship” being just as intangibly beneficial as “liberal arts.” Continuing this strategy of the best defense is a good offense, he continues to malign college education.
“We keep telling young Americans that a bachelor’s degree in history is as valuable as, say, a chemical engineering degree — but it’s just not true anymore. All degrees are not created equal.” Once again there are two things going on here. First, is there anyone, literally anyone, who thinks they’d make as much money, or be as employable, if their degree were in either history or chemical engineering? Who is telling anyone that?
The second point is that “created equal” here is very reductive in this context. Of course they are not equal in employability or income prospects, nor are they equal in actual effect, since both modes of study emphasize radically different subject matters and methodologies. But neither of those two facts means that one is necessarily more “valuable” than the other. There is an argument to be had there, but it’s not one Gerber seems willing to commit to.
For Gerber though, the kind of arbitrary credential chase reinforced by the status quo is bad not just for individuals, it also harms, “the long-term vitality of our economy.” In that case however, the question of whether a liberal arts major or a chemical engineer are better prepared address the changing needs of the economy decades out is an open one. There are many reasons why a more generally educated person will have more of the flexibility required to adapt to the structure of the workforce as it evolves. They are many of the same reasons why, in theory, someone trained in entrepreneurship would be better for the long-term sustainability of the economy as well.
Gerber doesn’t ever really say what he means by entrepreneurship though. Only that most students don’t have access to “entrepreneurship classes.” I use quotes because the idea of “entrepreneurship classes” sounds somewhat contradictory. Isn’t the idea of entrepreneurship to get up off your arse and go do it? How do you prep people for that via the conventional lecture/project model?
Gerber champions Babson College, which he notes is,
“consistently ranked #1 for entrepreneurship. Since current president Len Schlesigner signed on — in the midst of the Great Recession, no less — Babson’s faculty has pioneered its own teaching method, applying entrepreneurial thinking and hands-on learning to every aspect of campus life.”
Here he enlists the meaningless “entrepreneurial thinking” only sentences after just having admitted it’s emptiness when he wrote, “what parent wants to hear they are paying tens of thousands of dollars for their child to be an ‘entrepreneur’?”
So what are Babson entrepreneurs doing?
“Today, every freshman who walks into Babson goes immediately to work with a team to create, develop, launch and manage a new business (and they donate their profits to nonprofits). Students spend just 14 hours a week in class — the other 154 are spent elsewhere, in special interest housing or working on student-led initiatives. Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle, not a course.”
At one point, so were the liberal arts. And 14 hours a week is no less than any other college student spends in class, so the “just” is purposefully misleading. The rest just sounds like the weekly life of any other extra-active student.
Which leads me to wonder, what are the entrepreneurial skills that students learn at Babson, but not, for instance, while working on and managing a college newspaper or undergraduate journal, while searching for and creating new volunteer opportunities and programs, while organizing a theater production, art gallery, or concert, even just organizing a club sports team requires a lot of abilities (organizational, interpersonal, leadership, teamwork, problem solving, etc.) that I would assume are the basis for entrepreneurialism? What is entrepreneurialism if not those things dressed up in the assemblage of a business degree?
Gerber goes on and on though, never identifying what the heck he’s actually talking about, and settling instead for gems like this,
“Programs like Babson’s are worth emulating not merely because they create the next generation of business owners and freelancers (independent workers are an especially fast-growing category). These programs enable students to think entrepreneurially — to seize opportunity, take risks and create wealth. Simply put, entrepreneurship education gives young people a toolkit to apply their field of study to the real world.”
Did you know the “gig-economy” is the new thing? Never mind that it consists mostly of professionals and laborers that companies have decided to contract out to rather than keep on staff, it’s a growing part of the labor economy! In addition, I had no idea that there were actually courses out there in how to seize opportunity, take risks, and create wealth. At least not ones that existed outside of late-night infomericals.
Now I’ve been harsh. So let me end on a more conciliatory note. When Gerber states that he’s not suggesting we get rid of the liberal arts, but rather that, “’Well-rounded’ and ‘self-sufficient’ shouldn’t be mutually exclusive concepts, and combining experiential learning with access to business role models and public/private partnerships can fundamentally transform the way we think about workforce development,” I’m with him, to a point.
If you are going to college primarily to learn how to seize opportunity and create future wealth for yourself and the rest of the economy, then profitizing majors like communications, marketing, and design, and especially creative ones like theater, visual art, music and creative writing (which is not the same as English, which is not the same as literature—“English Major” is as precise a label as “Engineer” at this point) makes sense. But that is not the same thing as making all majors more self-sufficient.
Degrees in all of the above would benefit from an increased emphasis on actual creation, collaboration, and distribution. Thanks to new media, everyone has to try and be their own brand. Corporations just aren’t people, people are increasingly forced, at least in the labor market, to act like corporations, with images to be managed and contacts to be maintained. But there’s a difference between taking a course in how to set up a website, market your historical fiction e-book, and reach out to venues for readings and publicity purposes, and gaining experience in how to organize a poetry reading at a local bar, put together a neighborhood newsletter, or start a non-profit to address some social issue that’s going unaddressed by the respective branches of government.
The latter is about how to channel academic curiosity and learning into actual creative endeavors, the former is about how to make a buck in a way loosely related to a subject you once liked. I think we need a lot more self-starterism, but my suspicion is that Gerber is talking mostly about self-profiteering. He never outlines the new class of entrepreneurs he’s envisioning, or what they would be doing, so I can’t be sure. But his buzz-phrasing and rejection of the liberal arts (which spawned everyone’s favorite kind of Jobs), leaves me thinking what he really wants is to see the business school, with its record level of young undergraduate recruits, begin infiltrating the rest of the college campus.