The Strategy of Dropping Out?

Between running around to seminars and taking in the Sunday New York Times, I find myself faced with interesting and diverging perspectives on educational and career options for Millenials. The activity of movements like Occupy Wall Street, associated microblogs like We Are the 99 Percent, and stories like this one from NPR – college-educated Americans who are so deep in debt it is unlikely they will ever be able to have children because of crushing student loan payments – has thrown a much-needed highlight onto these issues.

One example of a 99% - so much debt that starting a family is now impossible

Being at Oxford with a bunch of high-achieving people, or corresponding with friends in sweet jobs at Silicon Valley firms, one can feel a bit out of step with these issues, or at least recognize a weird disjuncture between the news stories and the stories one hears from their friends. On the one hand, you see countless 99%ers, often first-generation college students, ruined by student debt loads; on the other hand, you know plenty of meritocrats going to élite law schools and business schools and getting what seem to be good jobs afterwards. And this is not to mention the cases of prominent tech entrepreneurs who dropped out of college to get huge sums of investment and hype. What’s a young American to do? Depending on whom you ask, you should either try to kill it in school and go to the most élite institutions, drop out and start your own business, or, sometimes, do something completely different. Who’s right?

Some events and reading this week provided an interesting roundup of opinions. For one, as part of Oxford’s Changing Character of War seminar series, I was able to attend an excellent talk by Commodore Steve Jermy, a retired British naval officer who retired from the military in 2010 after a stint in 2007 as a Strategy Director in Kabul, Afghanistan. (The talk was in part conceived as a promotional event for Jermy’s recent book, Strategy for Action: Using Force Wisely in the 20th Century.) To be frank, as someone whose primary academic training was in history – and at a school where there was a strong focus on cultural and intellectual history – I can find talks on “strategy” or military history a bit tiresome. There can tend to be, as Jermy himself critically pointed out, a fetishization of military history as the only useful topic of study, compared to flabby and useless studies on, say, media in the USSR (to name a book that I’m actually quite excited to pick up and read soon). Fortunately, Jermy’s talk avoided this discourse. Indeed, what he had to say was quite substantive and related to a lot of issues I had been bandying about myself.

Commodore Steve Jermy

The main theme of Jermy’s talk was that there has been a systematic failure among Western élites – especially in the UK, but also in the USA – to provide especially young officers, but also diplomats and other government officials affiliated with major operations (think Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya) with an education in strategy. Jermy defines “strategy” by following in the tradition of Clausewitz. The great German strategist wrote the following: “No one starts a war – or no one in his sense ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Strategy, suggests Jermy, is how an army or a state conducts that war: “How are we going to do this?” He writes: “At its starkest, strategy should explain how a state or coalition will fight a war, then guide the actions of its forces once operations begin.” Fair enough.

But during his experience in Afghanistan – and especially comparing such a major military engagement as that one with the relatively tiny operations in the Falkland Islands in 1982 – he was shocked by how little thought commanders put into not only how they were fighting the war, but what or for what they were doing there in the first place. British commanders liked to tout their Helmand Province operations as an example of strategy, Jermy noted, but military tactics in one of 34 provinces of a country the size of France is evidently not a strategy. Nor was he satisfied with the British decision to support operations in Libya against the now-deceased Colonel Qaddafi. The Libyan rebels might have been worthy of support in the abstract, but deploying British resources to North Africa would mean (with other assets in Afghanistan) that the UK had no reserve capacity to devote to, say, rebellions, revolutions, or massacres in the Persian Gulf. There simply wasn’t enough big-picture thinking: not at the military level, nor at the diplomatic level.

Part of the problem was the simple fact, Jermy underscored, that there were not enough resources devoted to providing younger officers or diplomats with a strategic education. Military and civilian institutions could provide up-and-coming officers and diplomats with, say, intensive courses in reading thinkers like Clausewitz, Beaufré, or Bernard Brodie. But they didn’t. In doing so, major industrial nations like the UK, or the USA for that matter, were willing to put their fate in the hands of (respectively) former Oxbridge undergraduates and graduates of top law schools. The people who emerged from these institutions were certainly talented in subjects like Classics, Greats, or editing legal journals, but what connection these subjects had with running military operations, or determining US strategy worldwide vis-a-via China, Russia, or Pakistan remained ambiguous.

David Cameron (top right) at Brasenose College, Oxford: getting a strategic education?

Back to the central question of this post. I got a lot from Jermy’s talk, and I aim to check out authors on strategy like the ones he recommended in good time. But he left me with a disconcerting picture of the tension between the élites, both military and civilian, we tend to get in the USA and UK today, and the élites (i.e. people running major government institutions) that we’d like. His remarks also connect with developments in education and career trajectories in, at least, the USA since the early 20th century. Today you hear about personalities like Craig Mullaney who seem to be doing a reasonable job of combining rigorous academics, military service, and policy experience in a way that hopefully gives them a broad perspective should they be placed in the position of making more important decisions in the future. One focus in the podcast for future episodes will be on younger Americans who are trying to find ways to mix and match academics, work experience, and (admittedly in fewer cases) military experience to get this perceived total package of skills that a run through HYP-HYS (undergrad and law schools, respectively) might not get you.

But look at the complaints people often make of American education today and what you’ll find is a more Balkanized, more über-specialized education that can often hinder the kind of strategic Jermy was advocating for. One perpetual challenge academia struggles with is finding a balance between scholars who can produce really interesting books and articles (hopefully for audiences beyond other professors / scholars) while also giving younger students an education in, say, area studies, history, or literature, all in a way that contributes to their formation as broad holistic thinkers. Instead, often what one gets reading the 99%ers’ stories and the tales from scamblog sites and forums about over-entitled faculty in law schools, gender studies, and cultural studies departments essentially financing their positions through students’ debt. One challenge for all of those departments which don’t have a direct business or industrial application, then, might be finding a way to re-invent themselves as relevant for a broad, strategic education: perhaps something like the education a lot of Ivy League élites during the Greatest Generation received. The less humanities departments go in this direction – i.e. literature departments morphing into “cultural studies” entities, history departments not changing training practices as employment dries up, a proliferation of “international relations” or “global governance” programs that don’t combine coursework with language skills and work experience – the more problems we’ll have in the future.

Part of your child's strategic education?

A second piece on the question of education that appeared recently was Michael Ellsberg’s “Will Dropouts Save America?”, an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times yesterday. Ellsberg, an essayist and author of the books The Education of Millionaires and The Power of Eye Contact: Your Secret for Success in Business, Love, and Life argues that it is start-up businesses, as opposed to small businesses per se, that will be the engine of job growth in 21st-century America. And yet, he argues, the traditional route for most students (high school followed by a four-year college degree, maybe some professional school afterwards), while “good at producing writers, literary critics and historians [and professionals with degrees,” is not good at producing what he calls “job creators.”  This is in part because the skills one needs to start a business, he maintains, aren’t typically learned in the classroom. He adds: “You don’t learn how to network crouched over a desk studying for multiple-choice exams. You learn it outside the classroom, talking to fellow human beings face-to-face.” Surprisingly, in spite of the fact that Business is the most popular undergraduate major in the USA (about 20% of students, compared to 1-3% for most humanities fields), he also states: “students learn nothing about sales in college; they are more likely to take a course on why sales (and capitalism) are evil.”

There are, I think, on face, a number of problems with Ellsberg’s argument. Fortunately, Abdulrahman El-Sayed, an epidemiologist and physician by training who also happens to be a good friend of mine, has dispatched with some of the major issues in a post at the Huffington Post. El-Sayed points out that many of the most prominent examples of successful drop-outs, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, were outliers rather than your average dropout. Gates had the fortune to attend a posh Seattle high school with access to computers at a time that that was rare, and Facebook notoriously started as a college social network. El-Sayed further adds that there’s no reason that universities can’t just try to make themselves more like start-up incubators. He points to an initiative at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, to which I might add the example of Ed Zschau’s popular “High-Tech Entrepreneurship” class at Princeton. Finally, Abdul points out that higher earnings aren’t the only benefit of greater educational attainment. And this isn’t just the argument you’ve heard about how studying Russian history will give your life new meaning. Instead, he points to the health literature, which suggests that low levels of educational attainment correlate to increased risk for mental disorder, cardiovascular disease, and mortality – even independent of income. If not on an individual level, then on a society-wide level, having more people with a good education (measured in these studies by degree attainment, which pro-entrepreneurship types could quibble with) can be a powerful tool to lower health care costs and have a healthier society.

Michael Ellsberg

I find El-Sayed’s arguments against Ellsberg compelling, but to them I would only add a couple of observations. One observation – and one that I hope will not be too petty – is to examine Ellsberg as an example of the startup mentality himself. According to his about page, he went to Brown for his undergraduate education before beginning a career as a writer of business books like the ones listed above – not a career path that I personally find attractive but that is nonetheless legitimate and fine to pursue. Mr. Ellsberg has shown some dexterity in getting his copy into the New York Times op-ed page, in any event. Yet for someone like him, or for a Timothy Ferris – who also thrives on his writings and media presence – isn’t it rather naïve to argue that “writing papers with properly formatted M.L.A.-style citations” was a totally useless exercise? I have authored books myself, and I can say with certainty that the attention to detail that good writing instruction and experience fostered was invaluable as I went over drafts of my work and worked with copy editors to make my writing more concise and to the point. Sure, you can argue that an independent writer-entrepreneur is not the kind of start-up Ellsberg is talking about, but I still find it ironic that someone can pursue an education at one of the best universities in the USA to pursue a career in letters that … demeans and belittles the university experience. (True, universities are way too expensive in the United States today, but that’s a separate argument, and one that Ellsberg does not engage with in depth in his op-ed.)

Abdul El-Sayed, whose critique of Ellsberg you can read on the Huffington Post

Another issue with entrepreneurship and the way pro-business authors like Ellsberg can occasionally miss the bigger picture is illustrated by someone who might be an example of the kind of entrepreneur Ellsberg admires – namely, his wife, Jena La Flamme. Ms. La Flamme runs a weight loss company, Pleasurable Weight Solutions, whose pitch is that most weight loss solutions are not cognizant enough of women’s biological needs, and therefore if you are an overweight woman, you should go with her. From her site:

Women like you, trying sooo hard to lose weight through restrictive eating plans, calorie-counting and punishing workouts, and all kinds of no-fun rules and regulations… Yet still they get no results, all because they are using the wrong strategies. I call these common strategies the “masculine strategies for weight loss” and they are failing women far and wide and we’re told it’s our fault…but it’s not.

In order to make money, Jena runs intensive weight loss camps, does one-on-one fitness consulting, and sells CDs of her “Weight Loss Pleasure Camp.”

Now, to be clear, I would not want to impugn La Flamme’s enterprise, which appears to be professional and well-run from all appearances. What I worry about, however, is the celebration of the American entrepreneur and businessman without putting his or her activities in broader context, and asking what value is really exchanged or had in a transaction, and why. I’d use myself as an example: for several summers, I made some extra money by running a college counseling business in Los Angeles, giving students advice on how to write their CVs, how to fill out applications, and tips on how to improve their essays. Similar to Ms. La Flamme, I sought to leverage a comparative advantage I had (knowledge of the college admissions process, experience with essay writing, a proven track record insofar as admission to Princeton and the Rhodes “proves” anything) in order to provide a competitive service to clients. And I did indeed feel like I was offering value to the parents who employed me. Similarly, I am sure that many of Ms. La Flamme’s clients have been satisfied with her services.

Jena La Flamme, fitness entrepreneur

At the same time, however, as entrepreneurs, before we go around congratulating ourselves, I think it is important to put what we do in the context of a broader social contract. Many parents explicitly turned to someone like me because they felt let down and under-supported by their public schools’ college counseling officers. Many of the college counselors employed by these schools were difficult to fire or had gotten their jobs through nepotism, and did not have to compete on results or qualifications the way someone like I did. More saliently from the parent’s point of view, they were overwhelmed with literally hundreds of students to advise. Even a superhero could not have provided detailed advice to all of those students on the individual level that I was able to – hence the value of the business. However, part of what was going on in that transaction was the modestly talented entrepreneur being able to pick from the carcass of failing public school systems. Needless to say, there were hundreds of poorer students, mostly African-American and Latino, who could not afford my individualized services, and they were shut out. I offered pro-bono classes to at-risk student populations elsewhere in Los Angeles, but the “tangle of pathology” in many lower-income communities meant that it was difficult if not impossible for the lone entrepreneur to fix the whole situation there. While I am proud of my business experience, I also believe that in an ideal world there should be no commercial space for people like myself to operate – we should aspire to provide public counseling goods so that all young Americans regardless of race or income can figure out the best college (or non-college) path for themselves.

Similarly, with weight loss companies, while on the individual level I am sure that many of them are honest enterprises, before celebrating the American genius for entrepreneurship, I think we need to ask ourselves: how and why does this business have space to exist? In the case of weight loss, in large part I would argue that this is because of lax regulation on the advertising of food, on the use of obesity-inducing ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup in virtually any food product in the USA that has been sweetened, and a complex of tax, zoning, and financial policies that caused most American cities to sprawl into suburbs with limited public transportation and little option to bicycle or walk around the city. Indeed, work like El-Sayed’s touches on the complex of factors in American life that make us, persistently and annoyingly, one of the fattest nations in human history.

Parents have to be the first line of defense against childhood obesity, but insisting that the market alone will solve this issue is naïve

Now, is there a space for the individual entrepreneur like La Flamme in the middle of all of this? Sure. People who are overweight want to look better, and they hire someone like her. That’s fair game, and something I have nothing against. But at the same time, it is important to realize – and try to agitate for policy changes within – that the obesity epidemic isn’t just an issue of personal responsibility. Even if entrepreneurs like La Flamme find creative ways to find value from the problem, we still find ourselves with growing rates of childhood diabetes in the United States, as well as other obesity-linked health problems. Without taking action (whether health care reform or harsher regulation of food in the USA, or both), this food-industrial complex will kill Americans and likely bankrupt our health care systems. Entrepreneurs like myself in the case of education, or La Flamme in the health space, are certainly welcome to find ways to add value and contribute to greater welfare here.

However, what I find tiresome is the tone of Ellsberg’s article, which gives one the feel that only entrepreneurs can save America and makes dismissive remarks towards education in general (even as the author has benefitted from that education to build his own career). Needless to say, Ellsberg’s critique of education doesn’t get to Jermy’s points on more strategy. In fact, the self-congratulatory tone for entrepreneurs he strikes might be indicative of the broader problem. When it comes to massive pathological areas like education or health in the USA today, precisely what we need is more strategy – a sense of a big plan that tells us how we’re going to do this.

Rugged entrepreneurs: great! Idolization of them to the point of ignoring market failure: not so great.

Sure, individual entrepreneurs like La Flamme can do well for themselves in chipping off on the problem, and in identifying inefficiencies in the public provision of these goods, and finding areas where markets do indeed work a lot better for securing them. But 21st century America will require coordinated action on education, health, or foreign policy and military strategy if we want to remain competitive and dynamic as a country. For that, we’re going to need not just a business community (one which recognizes not only its own value but also the value of a professional class and education as something more than industrial training), but also professionals, professors, and military officers. Making sure that all of these groups work together effectively and respectfully probably requires a more strategic approach to education and deep reforms of American education, but I’m afraid that I’m unconvinced that dropping out is really a strategic solution here.

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