Replace Universities

I have a lot of time for Paul Graham. He writes  well, and thinks well — and the two are connected. His book Hackers and Painters is a joy to read, and full of interesting insights, some at his own expense. One of his recent essays  is on areas of life that would benefit from startups. He points out that proposing to build startups in these areas instills fear.

One of the more surprising things I’ve noticed while working on Y Combinator is how frightening the most ambitious startup ideas are. In this essay I’m going to demonstrate this phenomenon by describing some. Any one of them could make you a billionaire. That might sound like an attractive prospect, and yet when I describe these ideas you may notice you find yourself shrinking away from them.

Don’t worry, it’s not a sign of weakness. Arguably it’s a sign of sanity. The biggest startup ideas are terrifying. And not just because they’d be a lot of work. The biggest ideas seem to threaten your identity: you wonder if you’d have enough ambition to carry them through.

In a recent essay he included some ideas on medicine (which I didn’t feel were as insightful) but also one on Universities, simply entitled ‘Replace Universities.’

People are all over this idea lately, and I think they’re onto something. I’m reluctant to suggest that an institution that’s been around for a millennium is finished just because of some mistakes they made in the last few decades, but certainly in the last few decades US universities seem to have been headed down the wrong path. One could do a lot better for a lot less money.

I don’t think universities will disappear. They won’t be replaced wholesale. They’ll just lose the de facto monopoly on certain types of learning that they once had. There will be many different ways to learn different things, and some may look quite different from universities. Y Combinator itself is arguably one of them.

Learning is such a big problem that changing the way people do it will have a wave of secondary effects. For example, the name of the university one went to is treated by a lot of people (correctly or not) as a credential in its own right. If learning breaks up into many little pieces, credentialling may separate from it. There may even need to be replacements for campus social life (and oddly enough, YC even has aspects of that).

You could replace high schools too, but there you face bureaucratic obstacles that would slow down a startup. Universities seem the place to start.

Something in the air.

Post by Jonathan Rees

Clinical academic and skin watcher at the University of Edinburgh

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