Lessons from Dotcom U

Three years ago I passed up an opportunity to shatter a student's dreams. Now I wonder if he wishes I had.

The young man in question came to my office near the end of the term to tell me he was dropping out of school. The usual reasons for such an intention are stress, funding, or family crisis. For each I have a ready speech about the importance of getting one's college degree despite life's difficulties.

But to this man's proposition, I had no rejoinder. He was quitting college because it was "nonrelevant"; he said he planned to "go to Dotcom U." (i.e., start an Internet company). In short, he was telling me that he was going to become fabulously wealthy and he didn't need college to get there. I wished him the best.

At that time, in the heady year of 1998, I had been wondering myself about the continuing relevance of "higher" education. Maybe most jobs in the future would be purely technical, and thus knowledge of anything but program code or electronics would be nice but essentially unnecessary to the career-minded student. Will universities and professors be replaced by course outlines on DVD, e-classes, and interactive software? Why not just make everything vocational school? What does a doctor of philosophy in anything have to say that these people will need to know someday?

Fast forward to a few days ago. I saw that student on campus and we chatted. He was back taking classes. That dotcom startup and initial public offering had not worked out. He had been laid off several times in the past few months. He said, "I think it would be good to take a few years off and get my degree." He added, "This was a learning experience for me."

The recent collapse in the dotcom industry is a useful reminder of old-fashioned education's basic worth. Lots of tech folks who claimed they didn't need traditional schooling started supercapitalized companies on the Internet. Many of these companies have died; most are failing. (Eighty percent of dotcoms in San Francisco have gone out of business.)

What happened was that tech wizards forgot (or never knew how) to produce content that someone actually was willing to pay for. Who cares, sniffed the public, how fast you can stream useless garbage at me? So I tell my students now that the dotcoms would have been a sustained success if their CEOs had been liberal arts majors - that is, people who are educated and adaptable and can bring previous knowledge to an issue - instead of programmers and technicians.

It speaks volumes that the only Web content that makes substantial profits is pornography - creative content that people want to have and can't get easily elsewhere for free. Recognizing this, Yahoo has quietly announced that it will expand into the porn content delivery business.

Moreover, business people - real ones, not the naive spendthrifts behind many of the dotcom collapses - understand the need for well-rounded content creators. A colleague and I did a survey a few years ago of the membership of the American Association of Political Consultants. It would be hard to imagine a group of men and women whose profession demands more applied knowledge and street smarts.

But when asked what kind of young people they wanted to work in the pressure cooker of campaigns and elections, these hardboiled realists overwhelmingly gave answers that were morale-boosting for every teacher. They needed college graduates who could be clear and effective writers and oral communicators, as well as critical thinkers versed in literature, music, history, and international affairs. They understood that such a package is best delivered by good teachers at a quality liberal arts college or university. One veteran consultant commented, "We don't want trained monkeys - we want thinkers and knowers."

Most employers recruiting on our campus give a similar profile when they describe their ideal hire. Ditto for the CEOs who come and speak about the future of business.

Obviously there are exceptions to this generalization. The chances that uneducated techsters will strike it rich with some "new new" thing are certainly greater than any given ghetto kid making it into the NBA. But we have to be clear that exceptions are hardly smart bets to emulate. The Bill Gates scenario of college dropout founding trillion-dollar industry is more fantasy than reachable goal.

The future of work, most economists say, is uncertain. People will change careers at least five times in their lives. Specialized technical skills may become obsolete, but people with persuasive communication talents, broad and deep knowledge of history and culture, and open, inquiring minds - and, yes, an independent, entrepreneurial spirit - will always come out on top, or at least be employable.

I agree with the young man that he had a learning experience, probably one that was worth having. Follow your dream, but explore thoroughly what it really takes to get there and what institutions will give you tools to achieve it. That's an "old old" idea, but an enduring one.

David D. Perlmutter is senior associate for research at the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at Louisiana State University. His latest book is 'Policing the Media' (Sage, 2000).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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