NOTE: This interview is the first of a special Thiel Fellows (Bright Minds Under 20) week at Daily BR!NK. Last March, twenty-four brilliant students were awarded $100,000 from the Thiel Foundation to spend the next two years in Silicon Valley pursuing their scientific, technical, and entrepreneurial projects. Since Daily BR!NK is all about up-and-comers and individuals revolutionizing their respective industries, we simply couldn’t resist featuring five trendsetters who will undoubtedly give you a glimpse at what tomorrow will look like.
INTERVIEW by BRIAN EDELMAN |PHOTOGRAPHY by ROSE BROOME
In case you haven’t noticed, things are moving at a feverish pace today. Technology influences its own growth exponentially, leaving businesses to change just as quickly to keep up. Critics who are afraid of that change may say what they want, but Dale J. Stephens is, at nineteen years old, shaking things up in a stagnant educational system that has yet to evolve to meet the demands of an ever-evolving world. By refuting the notion that college is the only way toward a well-rounded education, the Thiel Fellow hopes to democratize information in order to make knowledge all that more accessible to all.
How about a little background first. What do your parents do?
My dad is in charge of water planning for the Central region of California, and my mom was a public school teacher up until the point where I began unschooling.
And then she became your teacher?
She didn’t become a teacher; she became my guide in the unschooling process. She was there to help me find curriculum, to drive me to events, to use what she had learned about traditional education and transfer it to learning outside the classroom.
So you didn’t have a teacher growing up besides yourself?
I had many mentors and guides that I sought out. I used the world around me to create a cohesive educational program. While my peers were sitting in school, I took college courses, I found mentors, I started businesses, I worked on political campaigns, I worked in Silicon Valley, I helped build a library. I engaged in all these out-of-classroom experiences that I never would have been able to do inside a classroom. In many ways it provided a superior educational experience than going to high school. Instead of sharpening #2 pencils, I was able to see how the direct result of my actions helped build a better world.
What is the UnCollege movement?
UnCollege is a social movement challenging the notion that going to college is the only path to success. And that involves a number of things. I’m writing a book called Uncollege: Be a Deviant, Hack Your Education, Change the World. I should be finishing up a book deal with a publisher in the next week or two. I’m developing Uncollege.org into a resource for people in and out of the classroom to find ways for people to hack their educations. We will be launching the resources part of the website in September.
Can you give us any clues as to what the resources will be?
We are taking the Stanford course catalog and organizing it into a wiki format by major. And for each course at Stanford we’ll provide suggestions for how people can gain the same learning outcomes in the real world. Unschooling is a very organic process. We do not wish to provide any sort of prescribed form for what your UnCollege experience could be, but rather suggestions and ideas for where you can go about finding educational resources that will lead you to learn from the world.
We’re also working with existing colleges and universities to see how they can design next-generation learning experiences to incorporate the skills and aptitudes that currently aren’t being taught in school, but are required for success in the real world. These are skills such as initiative, motivation, hustle, passion, networking ability –- life skills that you won’t learn from sitting in a classroom, but are the sort of skills that will get you a job.
How can an UnCollege student be sure he or she is getting a good education? There is no litmus test, no standard to judge by. How can you tell your education is a good one?
The definition of “good” is completely subjective. You can ask the same question of a school like the University of Phoenix, which has been accredited by the same board that accredits all other higher education institutions, but most would agree the quality of the University of Phoenix education does not have the same perceived value as that of an education from Harvard, right? UnCollege is in no way, shape, or form evaluating people’s learning experiences.
And employers will respond to this type of learning?
Employers are getting hundreds of applications from people who all have college degrees and 4.0 GPAs with no way to distinguish between them. UnCollege gives people a way to prove themselves through real-world accomplishments instead of just counting on their transcripts to carry them through.
As with any big change, there is much resistance from the status quo. Many people have benefited greatly from college. Some say, “It’s what you make of it.” Let’s be clear: you’re not against college all together, right?
I’m against the idea that going to college is the only path to success. It is a path, a valid path. I think there are problems with the institution, but the opportunity to take your education beyond the classroom is still very important.
I was raised in West Virginia, which is one of the poorest states in the country. Illiteracy is an actual problem in some areas. How do you propose to help people from poverty-stricken areas that have been failed by their education system, their parents, and the communities in which they live? Many have no hope of even going to college financially. Do they have a way out of that whirlpool through UnCollege?
I hope that the methodology that I am creating will be able to help those individuals understand how they can develop the skills, aptitudes, and mindset necessary to navigate the real world without necessarily having to go to college and incur hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. UnCollege can provide a path for those individuals for whom coming to college is simply cost-prohibitive.
Can we talk a little about your upcoming book?
Imagine if Tim Ferris had written the 4-Hour Workweek about education and called it the 4-Hour Schoolweek. The book will weave in my story with stories of how other educational deviants hacked their education and will provide specific tips and suggestions for how readers can hack at their own education.
What can Daily BR!NK readers do for you?
I invite readers to go to UnCollege.org and sign up to join the movement. We’ll be keeping everyone up-to-date about resources and the book and future progress we make towards reforming education. If you want to help develop the educational resources I mentioned, I can put you in touch with the team in charge of that project.