Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, has lately been penning the occasional editorial in the Wall Street Journal, usually in its Weekend edition. This week, in How To Get A Real Education, he claimed that B students should quit wasting their time on all the abstract classes in fundamentals, and simply learn how to be entrepreneurs:
I understand why the top students in America study physics, chemistry, calculus and classic literature. The kids in this brainy group are the future professors, scientists, thinkers and engineers who will propel civilization forward. But why do we make B students sit through these same classes? That’s like trying to train your cat to do your taxes—a waste of time and money. Wouldn’t it make more sense to teach B students something useful, like entrepreneurship?
I speak from experience because I majored in entrepreneurship at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. Technically, my major was economics. But the unsung advantage of attending a small college is that you can mold your experience any way you want.
Education is usually described, or perhaps one should say defined, as a preparation for life; but like all general statements, this one will stand a little sifting to make sure we know what we mean by it. My fellow students and I were sent out from college with the equipment [training in the classics of Greek and Roman literature, mathematics up to the calculus, logic, physics and history] I have described. Over and above that, I do not think any of my fellows had any more in the way of special particularized equipment than I had, which was virtually none at all. If preparation for life means accumulating instrumental knowledge as a means of getting a living, our equipment was defective. If it means laying a foundation of formative knowledge on which to build a structure of instrumental knowledge, our equipment was as complete, I believe, as could be devised. Our preceptors painstakingly kept clear the difference between formative knowledge and instrumental knowledge. Their concern was wholly with the one; with the other, not at all. They had the theory that a young man who had gone through their mill could turn his hand to anything in the whole range of intellectual or manual pursuits, and do it to better advantage in the long-run than one who had not.
Education prepares one for life. Training prepares one for a job. Adams proposes that less-skilled students be trained, i.e., not educated, to become entrepreneurs. But education is precisely what should comprise preparation for entrepreneurship. What is life but a series of entrepreneurial flourishes, whether working at a job within an organization, or creating a job or organization of one’s own? Thus it is these less-skilled students, if they will become entrepreneurs, that should be the ones receiving a general education in knowledge, not the specialists whose training is so particularized until they, and their occupations, necessarily acquire a bit of robotized skill at recall and task accomplishment. The entrepreneur’s world is not so restricted. He lives in constant flux, where knowing how to think and see the world as it is may mean the difference between survival and failure. Entrepeneurs need an education. Chemists, engineers, classical pianists, et al, need training. Adams has things backward; though he gets the terminology correct, it is because he misunderstands the terms.
Adams’ proposal that entrepreneurs need training in entrepreneurship is a bit preposterous taken at face value. What training does he suppose one needs to get in order to have the desire to survive? Isn’t survival what entrepreneurship is ultimately about? The desire to survive is not amenable to training, but learning how to think such that one might have the greatest chance at long-term survival is amenably accomplished through an education.
What is the mark of education? There are several perspectives from which to gauge the level of education, but it boils down to this: Being educated means having the ability to ascertain the difference between fact, and dogma, or opinion. It means always groping to see things as they are, not as one wishes them to be. For example, it is an objective fact that Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States during the American Civil War. It is not an objective fact that he was a good, poor or average president during that time. Objectively, any consideration of value is always subjective.
An educated person would innately grasp that the idea that economic growth is a good thing is a normative assumption–an opinion–whose truth can not be objectively determined.
The educated person absorbs information, and tries to filter out biases and understand underlying assumptions so that he can get to the matter as it is, not as he, or someone else, or some distorting noise between reality and observation, have made it appear, or wish it to appear. Education and entrepreneurship go hand in hand. An educated person is very nearly always entrepreneurial in that he zealously seeks understanding from which he may thereby profit. And an educated person inherently understands that profits are not always calculable in dollars.