What Makes "A Real Education?"

I understand why the top students in America study physics, chemistry, calculus and classic literature. The kids in this brainy group are the future professors, scientists, thinkers and engineers who will propel civilization forward. But why do we make B students sit through these same classes? That's like trying to train your cat to do your taxes—a waste of time and money. Wouldn't it make more sense to teach B students something useful, like entrepreneurship?

Scott Adams, the creator of "Dilbert" in the Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2011

So began an essay that shares some interesting ideas on business, ingenuity and entrepreneurship. We've even considered some of the same ideas as it comes to grades: “You’re not there for the grades: you’re there for the learning.”

I thought that Adams had some interesting ideas that made sense about making education a bit more practical. But many of the examples and stories he shared in support of his ideas didn't quite sit well with me. He discussed finding loopholes in rules and mastering "the strange art of transforming nothing into something."

I asked Mark Spriggs Ph.D., director of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship here at UST for his thoughts' on Adams' essay:

He is not talking about entrepreneurship; he is talking about learning how to run a business through experience.  The coffee house needed an accounting system so he applied what he learned in his accounting class.  In his various ventures, he managed staff, completed paperwork, and created order where there was chaos.  That's learning to run a business.

But on the other hand, what he did, and what he says he learned, is very entrepreneurial. We tell our students to find the market with lots of potential buyers and few sellers, to respect risk and learn when you fail, to create plans that lead to action, to refine their pitch until it persuades others to join you, and to be courageous because being an entrepreneurial business leader is not for the timid. The lessons we teach in entrepreneurship are pretty close to the lessons he learned along his journey.

Scott Adams has been a bit controversial in some of his writing lately and as it turns out, this essay and his response has spawned some more.

"Obviously, identifying and taking advantage of an opportunity is pretty vital," wrote KokuRyu in a discussion on the website MetaFilter. "But you need to be guided by core values that are based on sound business ethics."

Adams created an account on MetaFilter to respond to some of the criticism, but he kept the account anonymous, writing instead in the third person defending himself. The anonymity quickly vanished as users uncovered the ruse. It doesn't seem to me that he is guided by values based on ethics (and he didn't claim to be). Adams tried to explain the situation on his blog:

Obviously an alias can be used for evil just as easily as it can be used to clear up simple factual matters. A hammer can be used to build a porch or it can be used to crush your neighbor's skull. Don't hate the tool.

He also admitted that posting under an assumed name is "immoral," but says in the grand scheme of things it isn't a big deal. True, but in general actions like this chip away at credibility. In online discussions readers value transparency and openness in communication. At other times on MetaFilter the person who is the topic of discussion has joined in to comment, openly, generally with positive results.

In this case Adams' choice to post under an assumed name further angered his critics and fanned the flames. I doubt that was his goal. Though he notes himself, "How do we know this whole scheme isn't a Dogbertian prank?" This discussion and others certainly are creating publicity for the cartoonist.

We will have to continue watching how the story plays out. In the mean time Professor Spriggs noted there is something we can learn from Adams and from Dilbert:

Adams' belief in the value of an entrepreneurial education is so antithetical to how Dilbert and his colleagues act everyday. But I guess we learn from Dilbert the same way that medical students learn to heal; by studying the sick, or how bank tellers learn to spot counterfeits; by handling real money. We see what Dilbert is, and know what we want to avoid.

What do you think? Share your comments below.