Announcing the 1517 Assembly

1517 Dürer

The man wasn’t banging on the door for a trick-or-treat. Nor was this plucky Augustinian friar toilet papering the church building. But it could be said that five hundred years ago, on All Hallow’s Eve of 1517, Martin Luther threw one hell of an intellectual powder-bomb in history’s greatest ding-dong ditch.

October 31st marks the quincentennial of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the university’s church door in Wittenberg, Germany. A butterfly’s wing flap if there ever was one, this gesture created just enough wind and spark to light Europe on fire for centuries, upending the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, setting kingdoms asunder, and, not without great cost, freeing our minds to judge the ultimate questions for ourselves.

As our fund is named 1517, we’re holding an assembly on October 28th in San Francisco to celebrate Luther’s provocation. We will bring together and honor people who shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing in the eyes of some authority. Balaji Srinivasan, co-founder of Counsyl & 21.co and board partner at Andreessen Horowitz, Patrick Collison, co-founder of Stripe, Roya Mahboob, human rights activist, and Sadie Valeri, a San Francisco-based painter, will keynote. You can request an invitation here.

A New 95 Theses

With his nailing and knock-knocking, Luther wanted to draw attention to one corrupt church practice in particular: the selling of indulgences. The purchase of these certificates — mere pieces of paper — earned the buyer a cleansing of all their wrongs. Letting people save their souls with a sack of coins turned into a big business for the Church. Powerful authorities teamed up with bankers to rip people off. Even Bernie Madoff would blush at the scale of it. In the early 1500s, Pope Julius II — the “warrior Pope” — and an Augsburg banker named Jakob Fugger took indulgence sales to new heights, financing the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica with high margins on revenue from these IOUs to Heaven. Fugger, much like his descendants at Goldman Sachs, took a three percent commission on fraud.

As then, we now have authorities teaming up with bankers to sell slips of paper at great cost, telling people it is the only way to save their souls. They finance the construction of incredible monuments and palatial architecture without much care for the indebted souls of those they’ve fleeced (to the sum of over $1.5 trillion in loans). This time the slip of paper is called a diploma. And you are assured by these authorities that you’re condemned if you never buy one.

Courtesy collegedebt.com

Higher education has become America’s national religion. Our mission is to disestablish the monopoly of this single church.

Luther’s theses were written as a disputatio, which meant that he was announcing that he was open to debate his series of claims in public. Likewise, we would like to announce our willingness to discuss our claims. No one in the Church took Luther up on his formal challenge. But we’re going to take a page from Martin Luther’s book and nail our propositions to the doors of universities across America on the night of October 31st, 2017. Five hundred years after Luther on the dot.

Submit your thesis urging the renegade path, critiquing universities, or offering ideas for reform in our invitation to the 1517 Assembly. To get started, we here submit a few:

  1. Education ought to be a mission not merely to instruct the world but to liberate it.
  2. Harvard could admit ten times as many students, but it doesn’t. It could open ten more campuses in different regions, but it doesn’t. Elite schools are afraid of diluting brand equity. They’re not in the education business. They’re in the luxury watch business.
  3. The best institutions blend learning with experience, such as University of Waterloo’s co-op program. The map and the territory are rarely the same. “Periplum, not as land looks on a map, but as sea bord seen by men sailing.”
  4. The 529 plan, offering college savers tax benefits, should allow for broader spending on learning experiences such as gap years, bootcamps, and other forms of project-based learning.
  5. Learning as an end in itself should not cost $67,000 per year.
  6. Endowments should be taxed like any hedge fund.
  7. Education should make individuals, not conformists.
  8. The most exciting things work in practice but not theory.
  9. Any pioneer who chooses to circumnavigate the one-size-fits-all model should be applauded for their courage rather than tattooed as a dunce.
  10. Plato — Shakespeare — Keats — Austen — Shelly — Dickens — Whitman — Dickinson — Hemingway — Stoppard: no college.
  11. No conditioning people to impress admissions committees and to beg for favors and head pats from authorities.
  12. No discrimination in hiring or admissions to any program based on having already received a credential. No discrimination in jobs based on prior schooling.
  13. Universities are not about truth, but about power. Why are there are some 5,300 universities and colleges in the U.S. but only one point of view?
  14. High School noun (1824): a place where students repeat “me gusta” for four years in Spanish class and still can’t speak the language.
  15. That education is best which teaches us to educate ourselves.

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We’re looking forward to sparking conversation and controversy. Make sure to request an invitation here. See you in October.

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