The New 95 Theses? It's Time to Reform Education

3 Dec 2022


It was on the 31st October 1517 that Martin Luther approached the Castle Church in Wittenberg and nailed a piece of paper containing 95 revolutionary, staunchly anti-Catholic religious beliefs on the Church's door. These 95 Theses, as they were soon termed, strongly criticised the Catholic Church on grounds such as Church indulgences and endemic corruption within the clergy. Later, the 95 Theses would go on to spark the Protestant Reformation and change the landscape of Christian theology. 

In the spirit of Martin Luther, I recently stumbled across "The New 95" theses written by venture capitalist firm "1517 Fund" which advocated for reforming college and university education. Lead by eminent entrepreneurs such as Peter Thiel, the 1517 Fund provides funding to aspiring entrepreneurs and has funded household names like Ethereum and Figma. Their goal:

"In 2010, our team cofounded the Thiel Fellowship with Peter Thiel to prove out a simple belief: great founders don’t need university degrees."

So obviously 1517 has the gall to call out that it is time for a reformation in university education; a reformation that I strongly concur with. While university education can be fruitful, unfortunately it has descended into a destructive spiral of competitive elitism where 'brand' and 'status' are championed more than learning anything 'useful' for the 'real world'. University education is expensive, out-dated and is in desperate need of reform. 

1517's "New 95" capture the essence of why reform is necessary. Education should not be expensive, irrelevant and for the "few"; education should be accessible, empowering and for all. 

If you haven't read 1517's "New 95" I suggest you do so here. These are my top 5 favourite theses and my thoughts on each of them. 

Thesis #8: Universities lack intellectual diversity

Thesis 8 is as follows:

8. Why are there some 5,300 universities and colleges in the U.S. but only one point of view?

Immediately this made sense when I read it. Even in Australia, the number of universities has grown over the past few decades yet the academic diversity within each of these universities is lacking. How business and economics are taught at one university is quite similar to another university. 

It's a scary thought: How can there be so many tertiary institutions but they all teach the same thing in a similar format? It's time that universities start diverging in the material they teach so students can gain exposure to competing theories and different perspectives. 

Thesis #26: Boredom in 'school' is associated with 'illness'

I had to laugh at this next one: 

26. In most schools, boredom with tedium has been diagnosed as a psychological disorder. It is as if we diagnosed orca whales as mentally ill because they lost energy floating in tiny tanks at SeaWorld.

Going to school can be quite draining. Sitting in a classroom for 6 hours a day is rather unnatural given that we are designed to be active and to learn 'physically'. After all, you don't learn how to cook by reading stacks of cookbooks or by analysing the theory behind why heat cooks a piece of meat; you learn by doing. Unfortunately, however, the idea of 'learning' by sitting in a classroom at school doesn't stop at university, where 'death by lecture' remains the norm. 

Rather than questioning why students are constrained to learning within a classroom or by lectures, teachers and academics simply tell themselves that students who don't like learning in these formats are "disruptive", "have attention problems", "are unfocused" and have "behavioural issues". The onus is put on the student to conform to learning in an unnatural environment when in fact the onus should be in the educator to make learning as practical, natural and as engaging as possible. 

Indeed, the educator is the one who is mentally deluded; not the student. 

Thesis #28: The ROI for education is extremely low

Thesis 28: 

28. The problem in schooling is not that we have invested too little, but that we get so little for so much.

Let's think about it. In Australia at least, your spend 13 years in the school system. While there is little doubt that you walk away with many great things like lasting friendships and academic achievements, my question is this: How often do you use what you learnt in school?

Yes, you learn how to read, write and do basic maths, but how often to you need to use differential calculus (Maths), your knowledge of coastal management (Geography) or Ancient Egypt (History), or your knowledge of all the different types of simile, metaphor and imagery that arise in Shakespeare's Othello (English)? 

Similar things can be said of university. You spend several years earing an academic qualification but this is not what you remember. Personally, my fondest memories of university don't involve me learning a particular course (in fact, I've forgotten 95%+ of the material I've learnt in my degree) or sitting exams; I remember the 'social' element of it more - The friendships, the laughs and the fun. And these are things that no one should have to pay $10,000+ a year to access. 

At the very least, universities could revamp what they teach so students engage with the material more and at least remember more of it. For many, $10,000+ a year isn't worth the investment. 

More concerningly, the ROI on a degree will only get lower and lower as more people obtain degrees. This in turn reduces the "value" of having a degree in that job markets become more competitive and having a degree is "not enough" to land a career in a particular industry. 

Thesis #36: Universities haven't improved their educational programs despite charging more for them

Thesis #36 resonated with me a lot:

36. There’s no iron law of economics that says tuition should go up — and only up — year after year. By many measures, universities are the same or worse at teaching students as they were in the early 1980s. But now, students are paying four times as much as they did then. Imagine paying more every year for tickets on an airline whose planes flew slower and crashed more frequently, but that spent its revenue on one hell of a nice terminal and lounge instead. Would you put that sticker on your car’s back window?

Let's think about it: In general, universities really haven't changed how they teach over the past 40 years. Content is still delivered in a lecture-tutorial format, exams are still the dominant mode of assessing students and an emphasis is still placed on assessing theoretical knowledge as opposed to building "skills" through project-based learning. 

Despite this, the cost of university degrees has only skyrocketed. It's almost like Apple releasing the first generation of the iPhone year on year and charging more for it with each new release. If Apple did this across all its products, they would be out of business. 

The only significant improvement to university education would be that options for online learning have been offered. Funnily enough, the only reason for this was because COVID forced universities to modernise. Even then, a number of universities are now retreating back to pre-COVID methods of teaching rather than driving the digital revolution forward. 

Thesis #64: Universities kill creativity. 

Thesis #64:

"64. The more PhDs we mint, the fewer scientific revolutions we seem to have. There are more scientists working today than in any time in human history. It could be that science is harder or it could be they’re not all really scientists."

This sentiment isn't just localised to PhD students and 'scientific discoveries'. We have record numbers of students doing business degrees, law degrees, science degrees, you name it! Unfortunately, however, this hasn't lead to any observable increase in new discoveries or 'revolutions'. 

It's not an accident that some of the world's most successful entrepreneurs are college dropouts or at least pursued things in their own free time. Universities don't encourage creativity; they kill it by placing an emphasis on learning content rather than developing skills and learning to make mistakes. What's more is that how assessments are marked can often depend on the vicissitudes of the lecturer: Agree with them and you're fine; don't expect anything great if you disagree with them. 

Like most things, academic institutions also have their politics. It's why the best innovations happen outside of the system. 

Now, it isn't just the "politics" of it all that kills creativity. Forums outside of university lend themselves to more opportunities to experiment in a "hands on" approach. This is what generates learning and discovery. In the same way that you can't lecture someone on how to cook, you can't lecture birds on how to fly (to quote Nassim Taleb). 

Moving Forward: What Should Education Look Like? 

Clearly, education needs reform to make it more relevant, innovative, liberating and effective. Fortunately, we are in a time where the internet has the capacity to disrupt the way we do things in multiple industries, including education. 

For a start, education should be decentralised. Why should you need to go to a centralised tertiary institution to learn new skills when you can pay for online courses or even watch free videos from people who are sharing their knowledge? Most importantly, the people sharing their knowledge have often "been there and done that" and are talking from personal experience rather than book knowledge.

Secondly, I think the internet will also welcome the age of microcredentials. No longer should anyone need to spend several years acquiring a degree. Why not gain competencies in small niche areas and build from there? As a law student, imagine if I can just spend time learning the areas of law I am interested in as opposed to needing to spend 5 years doing a combined degree with the "Priestley 11" law subjects that every student needs to learn to gain admission to become a practising lawyer? Another example: If I am learning about marketing, I might take a short course on social media marketing and come back to learn more when the need arises. 

Most importantly, education needs to move beyond lecture-tutorial formats and exams. Education should be hands on, practical and project-based. Rather than lecturing students about methods of innovation or what makes a company successful, why not get students to start their own online business? You don't learn until you "do". 

So while education has its many problems, I am excited about living in the age of the internet. Education has never been more affordable or accessible; it's just a matter of reform. 

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