Paper Belt on Fire: How Renegade Investors Sparked a Revolt Against the University
By Michael Gibson.
Encounter Books, 2022.
Hardcover, 374 pages, $33.99.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Folks.
Paper Belt on Fire addresses a topic of great interest and obvious relevance, and its stated intention, to transform society by providing bright students with an alternative to formal education, is ambitious and perhaps laudable. There is much value in this wide-ranging book, and it is likely that it will spark healthy discussion concerning the condition of higher education and other core institutions. Many would agree with Michael Gibson’s assertion that innovation has slowed in the United States since about 1970, but his claim that the purported failure of university education is largely responsible for this decline is difficult to accept or to prove.
Certainly there is increasing skepticism regarding the value of an expensive college education that leaves students with student loan debt and, in many cases, little improvement in employment prospects. Perhaps for these reasons and others, including the recent pandemic, college enrollments have declined by some 10% during the past decade. From the point of view of Paper Belt on Fire these declining enrollments are a good thing since they have freed some four million young minds from the desultory and deadening influence of out-of-touch educators. If one follows the logic of Gibson’s argument, declining enrollments should already have spurred innovation, but there is no evidence to show that this is the case. From 2012 to 2022, inflation-adjusted GDP in the US rose 23%, less than historical averages. To what extent did a less-educated population of younger workers contribute to that decline?
What are we to make of the fundamental claim that the author has “sparked a revolt against the university” by establishing a two-year scholarship program for exceptional teenagers willing to drop out of formal education and pursue entrepreneurial endeavors? This program, funded by billionaire investor Peter Thiel, enrolls a small number of highly qualified individuals on the condition that they are willing to devote two years to exploring innovative ideas. The Thiel Fellowship program has garnered a good deal of attention, and anecdotal evidence points to its success, though Gibson provides little documentation.
The more important impact of Gibson’s efforts may derive from the way in which they contribute to the national debate concerning the need for reform of higher education. That is a much larger issue than even Gibson’s wide-ranging book can cover, and no doubt it will continue for decades. And it is not just higher education that, according to Gibson, is in need of reform: the “erosion of America’s core institutions” is spread across “the media, Wall Street & the Fed, non-profits, the military, the universities, NASA, the administrative alphabet soup (CIA, FDA, CDC, and the rest), Congress, academic science, and more.” All except for Gibson and his small number of backers and protegees seem to be “less reliable and less trustworthy than they used to be.”
Starting from the assumption that America is in decline, it is a small step to indict nearly every profession and institution. Yet one must ask whether America really is in decline and whether its professions and institutions actually are as corrupt and mediocre as the author claims. Certainly there is today great dissatisfaction with the direction America is heading in, but that dissatisfaction has existed many times in history, stretching back to the impassioned arguments of the Federalist Papers and well before. A great deal of work needs to be done to reform and repeal what is not working, but blanket condemnation of nearly our entire society may not be an effective starting point.
It is quite a generalization to state that “I, for one, believe most of what public and private schools teach is worthless in preparing young people for the world.” What the author characterizes as “the university” actually constitutes some 5,300 educational institutions in the United States alone, each with its own distinctive governing board, faculty, mission statement, and identity. It is hard to imagine that all of these different colleges and universities function merely as a “paper belt” providing credentials required for entry into an equally pointless and deadening workplace. Nor is there much evidence that the Thiel program has inspired panic at Harvard or Yale, to say nothing of Ohio State. Like many assertions in Paper Belt on Fire, these claims are intriguing but impressionistic. One would like to believe that the obvious weaknesses of today’s university system, including a widespread insistence on woke activism on the part of faculty and students, could be reversed by a few idealistic crusaders, but the reality is that our national culture, including our institutions of higher education, is suffering from serious moral and intellectual challenges, and it will take more than a program funding drop-outs to heal it.
Gibson believes that colleges fail to allow for the kind of creative problem-solving that once led Albert Einstein or Jonas Salk to achieve transformational discoveries in physics and medicine. On this point, as on so much else, Gibson is short on data and proof, which leads one to ask: is it simply the “deadening” experience of classroom education that Gibson objects to, or is it the condition of being “educated” in the conventional sense? Is Gibson merely objecting to the cookie-cutter process of university education—the “paper belt” that he believes he and like-minded others have set “on fire”—or is there something more fundamental? Does the author wish to go further than just recruiting a few dozen students to drop out and pursue their passions? Does he envision a society where everyone disdains work in the conventional sense and spends time speculating on breakthrough innovations? If so, one has to ask whether Gibson’s critique has relevance for the hundreds of millions of Americans who harbor more modest and conventional ambitions of obtaining a useful education, securing well-paid employment, raising a family, and preparing for retirement. Most would agree that our core institutions are far from perfect, but they have always been so. For most persons, the key is to work and thrive and to maintain their faith in the goodness of life within a society that presents obstacles and imposes burdens of a sort that has always existed.
One figure who shadows all that Gibson proposes is Steve Jobs, the college drop-out who founded Apple Computer and truly did revolutionize digital culture. However, one can make the case that Jobs, though not officially enrolled during most of his time at Reed College, gained the foundation for his sense of design and expression during his time there. Jobs left Portland after he had already absorbed what there was to learn at Reed, and perhaps the same was true of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, and of Larry Ellison at Illinois and Chicago. Will a scholarship for brilliant students conditional on severing their ties with college necessarily produce the same results?
At the heart of Gibson’s thinking is the idea that creativity has been lost due to the intellectual suppression of young people by educational institutions, but Gibson never actually defines what is meant by “creativity.” Does one become creative by virtue of dropping out, rejecting teachers, educating oneself, and applying a “fresh” mind to speculative theories and solutions? Or do discipline, learning, and application have much to do with creative outcomes? Perhaps Gibson’s conception of creativity is based on the familiar romantic image of the bohemian artist laboring away in his garret, separated and to a great extent antagonistic to convention and tradition. This conception recalls the theory of antagonist culture so meticulously explored by the late Roger Scruton, who, in his wonderful book Gentle Rejects, noted that “the fashionable society doctrines of our day” are all “founded, in the end, on anger or resentment.” Some resentment at least appears to underlie Paper Belt’s argument that, in regard to the qualities associated with entrepreneurial endeavors, universities “have no idea how to impart these virtues. They don’t even know they exist.”
Gibson’s intent, by his own admission, is not just to subvert the “paper belt” of conventional learning but to transform society as a whole into a place of rapid innovation and great prosperity, a sort of utopia beyond anything that existed in the past. Yet one could argue that much of the prosperity that America now enjoys has been produced as a result of access to universal free public education and outstanding public and private universities, even at a time when education as a whole was more regimented and far less “student-friendly” than it is today. If anything, universities today, in my estimation, tend to be too much open to “creativity” and too little like those gray institutions of the past in which learning was imparted with ponderous seriousness by intellectually demanding faculty.
Romantic and nostalgic at the same time, Gibson’s perspective seems removed from the conventional life of the ordinary American, the sort who studies, works, saves for retirement, and enjoys a rewarding if not spectacular career in his chosen field. Indeed, that sort of bourgeois endeavor appears to be the particular target of Paper Belt on Fire. It is not the billions of ordinary people, living their ordinary lives, that matter so much as the gifted ones who need not earn their degrees or work their way up the ladder at work. As Scruton warns in Gentle Regrets, this is “an elite to whom all is permitted, including the coercion of the rest of us.” There is also an element of coastal elitism in Gibson’s book, as when he writes that discovering “an ace nineteen-year-old engineer in Tulsa bears a resemblance to scouting a linebacker who is playing in a Friday night football game way out in the sticks of West Texas.” Tulsa is now a thriving metropolis attracting taxation-migrants from California, and quite a few West Texas players are now highly-paid pros in the NFL. The residents of Tulsa or West Texas are just as intelligent as those of Manhattan or Palo Alto, and companies would do well to recruit them.
Gibson’s writing is thoughtful and vivid, but the author himself admits that it tends toward the speculative. Given that fact, it would be worth asking how well his investment ideas have done in the actual marketplace. Over the past year, as I write, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down 3.65%. Four of Gibson’s “teams to watch,” chosen entirely at random (Tesla, Luminar, Veolia, and Joby Aviation) are down an average of 26.25% over the same period. Obviously, it is impossible to predict the future for these companies: they may soar during a growth environment, but actual returns are at least one way of evaluating the author’s line of thinking. Many of Gibson’s suggestions of companies to watch are private ventures and may have produced better returns, especially for early investors, but most are not investing in early-stage private companies. The point is that it is difficult to determine whether Gibson’s assertion that alternative entrepreneurial investments are more productive than the “paper belt” of JP Morgan, Merck, and Exxon-Mobil, which, by the way, have returned an average of more than 27% during the past year.
One further point is that the author fails to consider what might be the cumulative effect on productivity and living standards of large numbers of college drop-outs, each of them expecting professional employment but without the level of training afforded by a university education. Some drop-outs might excel even without a college education, but most, I suspect, would simply be less prepared, less productive, and less disciplined than otherwise. Despite what the author says about the dulling effect of higher education, for most bright students college is a useful experience that leaves them better educated, more articulate, more organized, and in possession of better social skills. For a few highly motivated teenagers, the opportunity to skip college and proceed directly into entrepreneurial pursuits might be rewarded with success, but these few by themselves are hardly enough to ignite an era of innovation and transform society in the manner that the author envisions. For most students, I fear, the chance to get paid for dropping out would not constitute an improvement, either mentally, socially, or morally.
Paper Belt on Fire is undoubtedly correct in its assertion that the educational system stands in need of reform. The nebulous, politically correct, and costly education that many students endure in pursuit of a degree could be made more effective by restoring an open-minded pursuit of truth rather than ideological indoctrination, and certainly the role of general requirements needs to be re-examined as well. Increasingly, a long and seemingly irrelevant college education, along with all else that young people endure early in their careers, must seem like a paper belt. Michael Gibson does well to question and probe, but his radical approach of setting the paper belt alight and encouraging the brightest young people to dismiss higher education altogether leaves much to be desired. A great deal could be done to improve higher education, but it will not be done by encouraging large numbers of students to drop out.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).
Support the University Bookman
The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated!