Ignorant and Free

06/14/2011 12:27 pm ET | Updated Aug 14, 2011

Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, it turns out, had it all wrong. It was Jefferson who famously wrote that "if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be," and it was Franklin who described the goal of education as "consisting of an inclination joined with an ability to serve mankind, one's country, friends and family." Jefferson founded the University of Virginia and Franklin the college that became the University of Pennsylvania in an effort to make tangible this vision for higher education in a democratic society. To their efforts and those of others we owe the creation of the distinctively American education in the "liberal arts" -- that is, education aimed to maximize the benefits of living in a state of freedom -- and the formation of a higher education system that is unique in the world.

What Jefferson and Franklin missed, apparently, is the fact that higher education is instead a commodity whose value can and should be measured chiefly or even exclusively in economic terms. Peter Thiel, PayPal founder, tech entrepreneur, hedge fund manager, and billionaire, has drawn much attention for arguing that higher education is at present a "bubble" along the lines of the housing market and tech stocks because "people are not getting their money's worth, basically, when you do the math." (Since Franklin wrote about virtually everything, I have been searching for his essay on the value of tech stocks to a flourishing democracy. I haven't found it, but I assume I will.) He has drawn even more attention for his recent creation of the Thiel Fellowship, a program that offers $100K to each of 20 budding entrepreneurs under the age of 20 -- provided that they drop out of college to pursue their financial dreams. And, perhaps, create along the way a company or two in which Mr. Thiel's hedge fund might invest.

People with far more economic acumen than I possess have already challenged Mr. Thiel's analysis of the long-term economic value of a college education and the economic wisdom of systematically incentivizing bright students to drop out of college. But let's assume for the sake of argument that Mr. Thiel is correct and that the United States can improve its economic future by strategically lowering the level of educational attainment of its population. True, there is no past or present example of a country having done this, but Americans like to be exceptional, and we might as well be the first. Plus history is no doubt among those collegiate pursuits of dubious economic value, so why worry much about it?

Instead I would advance the radical notion that education has value upon which one cannot fix a monetary price -- that pursuing a college degree and owning shares of are not more or less the same thing. Unless one believes that there is both an intrinsic value to becoming more broadly and deeply educated and a civic value to having an educated populace, Mr. Thiel is correct -- sort of. The higher education systems of Europe and Japan have a more narrowly vocational focus than does the system in the United States, yet there is no evidence that this has resulted over time in more robust economic growth. But presumably international economics is another of those subjects better skipped so that one can... get on with it.

Mr. Thiel has dismissed the sort of arguments I advance as "psycho-social" nonsense and contends that in "most cases [college] is really just... a four-year party." If he were simply a wealthy libertarian with idiosyncratic views, his perspective would not be especially worrisome, but anyone who is listening to State Houses across the country knows that his dismissal of the value of education is symptomatic of a broader trend.

It is a trend that would seem puzzling to a member of the Macalester Class of 2010 who recently spoke to a gathering of our alumni. She attended the college thanks to a very large scholarship even as her family of Minnesota farmers battled threats of foreclosure, illness, and poverty. She worked during college to help support her family even as she completed two majors. She now has a job with Cargill, a deeply enriched view of the world, and a very different future than the one she would have had without her "four-year party." What is the value of this to her family, our economy, and the global community to which she will contribute?

Do the math.