Paper Belt on Fire: How Renegade Investors Sparked a Revolt Against the University
Philosophy PhD dropout Michael Gibson co-created the Thiel Fellowship with former school principal Danielle Strachman and entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and Bogeyman of the left Peter Thiel. A motley crew to be sure. Paper Belt on Fire is at its best and most differentiated when describing:
The birth of the Thiel Fellowship, a controversial program encouraging exceptional young people to forgo a university education in exchange for $100k over two years to pursue their ideas;
The subsequent launching of Gibson’s and Strachman’s venture capital firm 1517, which invests exclusively in individuals without a college degree; and
The thoughts and actions of Thiel from someone who worked with the man intimately over an extended period. Given that Thiel is notoriously private, Gibson serves as a rare primary source willing to go on the record with accurate Thiel anecdotes. This stands in stark contrast to most of the “journalism” about Thiel, which primarily consists of aggrieved establishment reporters who cannot imagine a Trump supporter producing anything of value (see Max Chafkin’s 2021 The Contrarian).
Unfortunately, Gibson spends about a third of the book on content that is only tangentially relevant, like rehashing innovation stagnation already well documented in books like J. Storrs Hall’s Where Is My Flying Car? He also leans away from rather than into his most ~contrarian~ arguments. Still, this is a worthwhile read for anyone with the sneaking suspicion that $70k/yr college increasingly resembles a boondoggle. It is also timely, as OpenAI’s release of the GPT-3 chatbot challenges our conventional education model in a world where any student can generate mediocre but passable content.
Would you rather have a Princeton diploma without a Princeton education, or a Princeton education without a Princeton diploma?
- George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan
This is one of the 95 theses Michael Gibson tapes to the doors of university administrators, in homage to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517. That most people desire the former is a damning indictment of higher education today and the principal reason for the creation of the Thiel Fellowship.
Gibson succeeds in proving the Thiel Fellowship is an unambiguous success. Collectively, the fellows have generated hundreds of billions in value with their startups. Notable names and endeavors include Dylan Field and Adobe’s $20bn acquisition of his design company, Figma, Austin Russell and Luminar (NASDAQ: LAZR), building autonomy technologies, and Vitalik Buterin and Ethereum. A Harvard sorority sister of mine was a Thiel Fellow who founded Legalist, a hedge fund investing in litigation claims. These people are impressive, and Gibson and Strachman deserve major kudos for talent spotting and incubating said talent. One of the biggest surprises of the book is that Gibson and Strachman aren’t content to let applications to the fellowship flow in. They visit college campuses all over the country, crashing hackathons and staying in dorms. That last part sounds awkward, but I admire the hustle.
Where Gibson loses me is with his argument that the Thiel Fellowship model is extensible for everyone. “[The Thiel Fellows] represent not some group of extraordinary outliers, who cannot be taken as a model for the average student, but the beginning of a new era in education (pg xv).” This is a bold claim Gibson does not properly defend. I am largely in agreement with Gibson that a college degree does not improve the skills of most students. This doesn’t change the reality that the degree is still a necessary signaling device for most employers. Moreover, Gibson does not acknowledge that the Thiel Fellowship is itself a high-status credential and therefore a valuable signaling device; in this case, to investors, not employers. I find this pretty ironic, and I would have expected Gibson to walk us through a hypothetical path for an average student who forgoes college. Is everyone supposed to become an entrepreneur?
Paper Belt on Fire also would have benefited from a chapter on how the university system degenerated to its current state. It would have been relevant to include information on tuition consistently rising while wages stagnate, student loans that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, the spike in administrative staff on campuses, the proliferation of irrelevant majors, and ideological homogeneity of professors, among other factors. The macro trends are very much in Gibson’s favor, and he should leverage them.