Malcolm Gladwell couldn't be more clear in his podcast about a school ranked by some as the number one liberal arts college:

There's only one solution. If you're looking at liberal arts colleges, don't go to Bowdoin. Don't let your kids go to Bowdoin. Don't let your friends go to Bowdoin.

Gladwell's podcast gave the context about the school's values. You can rest assured he chose his words deliberately, and other episodes have criticized other problems with education today.

Witness Seth Godin's altMBA's criticism:

Unlike traditional education, our curriculum is hands-on. More than 75% of your time is spent producing work, meaning that you'll learn concepts and immediately put them into action.

It continues to contrast with traditional education (my emphasis):

What we truly stand for is the posture of taking responsibility for creating work that matters.

We stand for speaking up, speaking out and listening, too.

We stand for embracing an informal process for growth instead of needing an authorized, accredited piece of paper to prove that you've somehow absorbed a bunch of data.

If the altMBA leads to responsibility, work that matters, speaking up, listening, and growth, what does traditional education do? Godin isn't the only one implying it's just absorbing data.

Tony Wagner, expert-in-residence at Harvard University's Innovation Lab, points out:

The world of education revolves around tests and test scores. That's not how the adult world works.

Some argue that what kids need is more education and MissionU argues that what they need is a different education.

He also reported that

For every 100 kids who start college, just 25 get degrees and attractive jobs. Some 45 drop out, and another 30 graduate but end up under- or unemployed.

Gladwell, Godin, and Wagner aren't just complaining.

Each offers an alternative to what he criticizes. Gladwell recommends Vassar for its values, Godin his altMBA, and Wagner MissionU, as well as a number of other reforms.

Criticism has been building for generations

Such criticisms aren't new.

Ivy League sociology professor and provost Robert Nisbet's 1971 The Degradation of the Academic Dogma recounted how huge government grants since World War II were degrading universities' purpose of knowledge, scholarship, and reason in favor of self-serving pursuits of creating centers and institutes.

Still, those criticisms came once a generation. Today there is a flood of them:

  • Besides Gladwell, Godin, and Wagner, the New York Times' David Brooks criticizes traditional education, including at Princeton.
  • Google doesn't require a college degree, based on research showing no correlation between academic credentials and performance on the job. And Google has had its pick of top students from top programs at top universities.
  • Former Columbia and Yale professor William Deresiewicz wrote in "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,"

One student told me that a friend of hers had left Yale because she found the school "stifling to the parts of yourself that you'd call a soul."


This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it's supposed to lead.

  • Peter Thiel's Fellowship offers students $100,000 over two years to drop out of school. The offer shocked me when I first heard of it. On meeting a few Thiel Fellows, all outstanding, and seeing how traditional universities can stifle many (not all!) students, I saw value in his approach and attack.

These aren't intellectual lightweights.

While traditional education challenges students intellectually, it is often socially and emotionally passive. If you look at the behavior it teaches, it's compliance, when our world demands leadership skills.

An entrepreneur and adjunct professor myself who teaches non-traditional, active, experiential courses, I offer my courses independently, to student reviews pointing out their value and contrast with traditional academics:

This is the kind of class which can help anyone grow as a person, not only bettering themselves in terms of leadership, but also in terms of self actualization. The social skills you learn in this class have never been taught to me in an academic environment.

Another student echoes Godin and Wagner's criticism:

This course teaches leadership not just by reading theory, but actually putting the theory into practice. In most classes we are forced to regurgitate information back to the professor, in this class we are taught to be self-accountable, which is a skill everyone should have. What I learned in this class will stick with me for life. ... This course was refreshing.

If my courses were available when I was younger, I would have taken them instead of business school, possibly instead of college.


There are many reasons why universities keep teaching in ways these prominent and successful people criticize.

A more important question is how they will change. Probably competition.

Alternatives like General Assembly are growing in areas traditional schools could have grown into but didn't.

Moreover, as China, India, and other nations develop, they'll find ways to keep their top students from leaving and spending hundreds of times more for an American education.

In particular, they'll create new universities. Today, India and China teach by rote more than the U.S., but we can expect they'll adapt.

Like developing countries that went straight to cell phones, skipping the unnecessary infrastructure costs of landlines, and are going straight to distributed solar, skipping the costs of centralized power plants, we can expect they'll create schools to meet tomorrow's needs, not yesterday's.

What's next?

Another perspective is that it's an exciting time to be in education. I love offering courses that students tell me are more valuable than top universities offer.

It's still interesting to wonder if universities will get it. If so, when? Will they react in time?

And for students and their families, what alternatives will suit them better than curricula designed for the past.