This piece was originally published in National Review.
This March will mark 36 years since the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Since then, we’ve never lacked for laments over the decline of higher education, from Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals to William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep. But a nagging fact accompanies these and other powerful indictments: Higher education is still declining. It would be churlish to fault any book for not single-handedly slaying its chosen dragon. But perhaps we can concede that the marginal value of books in this genre is not as far from zero as we might like.
How can the education–industrial complex remain after so many years of criticism, and, it seems, a growing public awareness of its nonsense? The arguments for a true education faced a fundamental challenge. Granted, ex hypothesi, that college was a waste of time; what, then, was the intelligent youth to do? It’s all well and good to conclude that college is a hoax and to pursue education on one’s own; but as long as the money and prestige continued to go to the credentialed, and the university bubble continued to swell, those who opted to forgo its purported benefits found themselves at a disadvantage. Even the most Socratic lover of wisdom could feel jilted when employers proved to value résumés and awards over an independent spirit after all.
Recognizing the conundrum, Michael Gibson has adopted a wholly more practical approach to toppling the false idols of the university. Gibson has put his money where his mouth is, and has made his career betting on the idea that because what happens in elite universities and other centers of power is bunk, one can make a killing by tapping the reserves of talent among the uncredentialed. His new memoir-manifesto, Paper Belt on Fire: How Renegade Investors Sparked a Revolt Against the University, is the story of how that bet has paid off.