Paul Graham: The Only Man Who Can Create the Next Stanford
In 2005, Paul Graham created an innovative approach to invest in startups. Is Y Combinator a school? Definitely not. The 3-month program consists of weekly dinners, office hours, and demo day. Even PG agrees YC is not a school.
Yet in his essays, PG often talks about education. While he is not against college entirely, here are some of his comments and opinions:
Most subjects are taught in such a boring way that it’s only by discipline that you can flog yourself through them. 
When I discovered that one of our teachers was herself using Cliff’s Notes, it seemed par for the course. 
Thomas Huxley said “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” Most universities aim at this ideal. 
The worthwhile departments, in my opinion, are math, the hard sciences, engineering, history (especially economic and social history, and the history of science), architecture, and the classics… You can skip the social sciences, philosophy, and the various departments created recently in response to political pressures. 
I believe PG is genuinely interested in improving education. What hacker doesn’t want to improve the miserable experiences and inefficiencies of the world? After all, isn’t that what we’re all striving for?
What does it take to create the next Stanford?
In order to create the next Stanford, you need 3 resources:
- Ambitious students
- Good teachers
Paul Graham is resourceful. He has these resources, or access to them. Anyone with a lot of money can create a new university. However, getting ambitious students to apply, and finding good teachers are both much more difficult. So, as with anything, “What’s the MVP?”
In my opinion, Y Combinator is the MVP. Although YC is not a school, it emulates many of the functions of a school. Admissions reviews applicants, applicants are admitted, teachers have office hours, and so on. Let’s walk through each criterion.
If Paul Graham can’t raise money, who can?
2. Ambitious Students
For the last batch, I heard YC received over 2,000 applications. So I’m convinced ambitious students would apply to PG’s university. I would.
3. Good Teachers
Thus, finding good teachers is the hardest part. From his “Rarely Asked Questions” essay, PG outlines what it takes to be a good teacher:
1. High standards
Like three year olds testing their parents, students will test teachers to see if they can get away with low-quality work or bad behavior. They won’t respect the teachers who don’t call them on it.
2. They must like students
Like dogs, kids can tell very accurately whether or not someone wishes them well. I think a lot of our teachers either never liked kids much, or got burned out and started not to like them. It’s hard to be a good teacher once that happens. I can’t think of one teacher in all the schools I went to who managed to be good despite disliking students.
3. They were interested in the subject
Most of the public school teachers I had weren’t really interested in what they taught. Enthusiasm is contagious, and so is boredom.
As you can see, PG does not include “experience in teaching.” While this may help, passion and knowledge are more important. This is one of the reasons why Peter Thiel’s “Startup” class at Stanford is always oversubscribed, even with 250 students.
I’ve discovered this is in true in my life. My best teachers had not always been teachers. Prior to teaching, they were experts. They were entrepreneurs, olympic fencers,grandmasters of chess, and concert pianists who decided to teach what they learned.
So, could PG recruit experts of their craft? Assuming the ciricullum were programming and entrepreneurship, definitely. I’d bet on it.
Does he want to create the next Stanford?
In short, PG probably doesn’t want to create the next Stanford. He might believe that he’s teaching entrepreneurs more by funding their startups, or it wouldn’t work. However, here’s PG’s advice to those looking to dropout to start a startup:
… we’ve decided now that the party line should be to tell people to wait till they graduate.
Thus, for PG, college must serve some purpose, and it’s clear that he has ideas about how to improve it.
Creating the next Stanford is a “frightfully ambitious idea,” and funding promising companies might be rewarding enough. However, this is an opportunity to truly change the world. PG could revolutionize education the hard way, the way that doesn’t scale.
I’d apply, would you?