In Washington, DC, on March 9 for the Satellite 2020 conference, Elon Musk was asked a troubling question from the audience. The questioner pointed out that most of Musk’s companies say they require a bachelor’s degree on their websites and many positions call for a master’s degree. “With more jobs asking for higher levels of degrees, scholarships are not changing amounts and it’s getting harder and harder every year to pay tuition, even with using scholarships. How can college and industries make it easier to afford college?” the audience member asked.
Musk didn’t miss a beat. According to a report in The Guardian, he said people “don’t need college to learn stuff” and says jobs at his companies should not require a degree. “Did Shakespeare go to college?” he asked. “Probably not.” Musk has gone on record several times recently saying he is more interested in finding people with extraordinary skills than those who have a diploma.
“You can learn anything you want for free,” he said before adding he thinks the main purpose of college is to inculcate the discipline needed to complete “annoying homework assignments.” It also is a great place for young people to hang around with other young people before entering the workforce. “I think college is basically for fun and to prove that you can do your chores, but they’re not for learning,” Musk said.
No less a philosopher than Jimmy Buffett once sang about the college experience, saying, “They send you off to college just to gain a little knowledge but all you want to do is learn how to score.” Jimmy knows whereof he speaks.
Elon went on to say he hopes Tesla does not have university requirements for jobs “because that’s absurd.” The main requirement for employment at his companies, he said, is “exceptional ability.” He added, “I don’t consider going to college evidence of exceptional ability. In fact, ideally you dropped out.”
Musk listed Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison as some “smart guys” who dropped out of college. Elon himself has two bachelor’s degrees, one from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and another from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He did drop out of a PhD program at Stanford University after attending for two whole days, so he knows a bit about not finishing a college program.
My old Irish grandfather, who lied about his age to join the Navy in 1906 and sailed around the world with Admiral Dewey’s Great White Fleet, never completed high school but was a skilled craftsman. He always told me, “If a man can read, he can do anything.” Ignoring the obvious sexism embedded in that remark, today anyone with an internet connection has access to every bit of knowledge ever acquired by the human mind. Young people today often joke about learning what they need to know on “YouTube University.”
The current coronavirus crisis is putting a spotlight on online learning and highlighting work-from-home opportunities. Education and work are changing before our eyes. With assistance from people like Elon Musk, people may begin to think differently about both. Certainly people today are entitled to ask if they are getting good value for their money from traditional institutions of higher learning. If not, they are justified in searching for avenues to knowledge that are cost effective. The era of creeping credentialism is nearly over, and not a minute too soon.