Does our educational system put the brakes on the entrepreneurial spirit in America?

CJ Westerberg, May 24, 2012 8:48 AM


"Parents could turn the system on its head
if they weren't so caught up in outmoded mentalities about education forged in the stable economy of the 1950s
(but profoundly misguided in today's chaotic, entrepreneurial economy)

The Echo Chamber of One Right Path
Can Academia and Entrepreneurship Co-Exist?

by C.J. Westerberg

Author Michael Ellsberg begins his riff, "Will Dropouts Save America?" with a familiar scenario of the life created by famous college drop-outs . . .

I TYPED these words on a computer designed by Apple, co-founded by the college dropout Steve Jobs. The program I used to write it was created by Microsoft, started by the college dropouts Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

And as soon as it is published, I will share it with my friends via Twitter, co-founded by the college dropouts Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams and Biz Stone, and Facebook - invented, among others, by the college dropouts Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, and nurtured by the degreeless Sean Parker.

Ellsberg then moves quickly to a message similar to one of the conclusions Sir Ken Robinson posits in his very viral TED talk about how our education system is geared toward producing "college professors."   Yet Ellsberg expands the definition marginally: 

American academia is good at producing writers, literary critics and historians. It is also good at producing professionals with degrees. But we don't have a shortage of lawyers and professors. America has a shortage of job creators. And the people who create jobs aren't traditional professionals, but start-up entrepreneurs.

Ellsberg continues with a President Obama quote to Congress, "Everyone here knows that small businesses are where most new jobs begin."   Rightly so, Ellsberg distinguishes "small
businesses" from "start-up businesses."  And there is a difference:

Close, but not quite. In a detailed analysis, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that nearly all net job creation in America comes from start-up businesses, not small businesses per se. (Since most start-ups start small, we tend to conflate two variables - the size of a business and its age - and incorrectly assume the former was the relevant one, when in fact the latter is.)

Now we are getting a bit more specific as to what those entrepreneurial skills - synonymous with innovation - actually are (while we are missing perseverance, tenacity, initiative, adaptabliity, resilience, etc.) but okay NBD (no big deal):

If start-up activity is the true engine of job creation in America, one thing is clear: our current educational system is acting as the brakes. Simply put, from kindergarten through undergraduate and grad school, you learn very few skills or attitudes that would ever help you start a business. Skills like sales, networking, creativity and comfort with failure.

This next excerpt, first paragraph is where I take issue - specifically the first sentence, (while the second may be true.)  I don't think entrepreneurship is only about business and jobs. 
It is an attitude and a skill set.  Sales isn't always about buying "something," if that something refers to a concrete product.   Sales can used to convey the importance of education an always-learning mode.  It can be the  catalyst of ideas and values, such as the importance of ethics, aka the social contract of the great good. 

Debates utilize sales skills.  Getting something done involves persuasion skills (is this not sales?), networking, creativity, and the ability to take both considered and by-the-gut risks.  Here's the riff: 

No business in America - and therefore no job creation - happens without someone buying something. But most students learn nothing about sales in college; they are more likely to take a course on why sales (and capitalism) are evil.

Moreover, very few start-ups get off the ground without a wide, vibrant network of advisers and mentors, potential customers and clients, quality vendors and valuable talent to employ. 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. . .

Getting something done involves persuasion skills (is this not sales?), networking, creativity, and the ability to
take both considered and by-the-gut risks.

   --C.J. Westerberg

The conversation is not just for those who are considered "entrepreneurs", but for those who understand "entrepreneurial skills (or we can call they innovative/innovator skills") are needed for just about everything in life, and may be conflated with being an entrepreneur:
 . . .Certainly, if you want to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer, then you must go to college. But, beyond regulated fields like these, the focus on higher education as the only path to stable employment is profoundly misguided, exacerbated by parents who see the classic professions as the best route to job security.

That may have been true 50 years ago, but not now. In our chaotic, unpredictable economy, even young people who have no interest in starting a business, and who want to become professionals, still need to learn the entrepreneurial skills that will allow them to get ahead.
. . .

Ellsberg talks about the two job markets in America:  the "formal market" of resume submissions and the "informal" job market - where you network friends, family and current employees, elaborating how truly different they are, and how our education system is geared toward the formal way:

Yet our children grow up amid an echo chamber of voices telling them to get good grades, do well on their SATs, and spend an average of $45,000 on tuition . . . "

The wrap-up includes steps parents, employers, and the government could be doing to change the one-way messaging.  The bigger question may be why does there seem to be such a chasm between the values embraced by academia in action (not talk or theory)  and enterepreneurs?

Does it have to be this way?


Orig. Published The Daily Riff 10/11

Related posts The Daily Riff:
College M.I.A.s  #7 - Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Barry Diller, Rachel Ray, David Geffen

7 Reasons to Say No To College To Your Kids

The Most Important Education Study in Years - "Trust Us" Won't Cut it Anymore

  • I naturally recoil at any suggestion that educators should take their cues directly from the marketplace, but it is probably true that we devote too much attention to purely "academic" knowledge and skills. There is an argument to be made for striking a balance between a traditional liberal arts education and a more entrepreneurial education. If we limit our kids to either one, we are probably shortchanging them.

  • JohnE

    I agree that the education establishment could use a shake-up. I read an article that was fairly convincing that getting rid of tenure was something worth looking at.

    A quote:

    "Riley does an especially good job showing how tenure constricts rather than expands the intellectual diversity of most college campuses. Colleges and universities want to give jobs and tenure only to qualified applicants—and qualified applicants are those who think the same way as the already tenured professors on the tenure review committees."

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