Schooling Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies, startups and venture capitalists are “the centre of a techno-economic revolution” that is “now spreading outwards across the world, with major societal effects and implications,” argues Alistair Duff in a new article. Surprisingly little research has been conducted on the Silicon Valley workers whose labor and learning contributes to this revolution. Here, I try to piece together some sense of how education is being organized in Silicon Valley as an initial attempt to answer the question: how are the forms of knowledge, skills, practices and ways of thinking that contribute to a techno-economic revolution taught and learned? And, how does Silicon Valley seek to shape education to reproduce its centrality to the techno-economic revolution?

Investing in Awesome People

Silicon Valley has significant interests in education. On one level, its interests simply reflect market opportunities and business plans — education is a big market — though they are also more political than simply commercial.

In his recent study of the political outlook of Silicon Valley’s technology elite, Greg Ferenstein has identified key features of a “Silicon Valley ideology”:

The Silicon Valley ideology thinks about government as an investor rather than as a protector, arguing that the government’s role is to invest in making people as awesome as possible. Silicon Valley wants to make people in general educated and entrepreneurial.

Notably, the Silicon Valley ideology sees education as the solution to major social, political and technological problems. A particular politics, therefore, underpins Silicon Valley’s approach to education, on which emphasizes the centrality of education to innovation and to the creation of “awesome,” entrepreneurial individuals.

High-tech Homeschooling

Many Silicon Valley coders, hackers and makers are now choosing to educate their own children at home. Silicon Valley’s homeschoolers view state education as fundamentally broken, and instead see makerspaces and hackerspaces as ideal kinds of educational institutions, where children can learn directly through tinkering, hacking, coding and making, rather than through the prescriptive, standardized model of state schooling.

These new Silicon Valley homeschoolers blend the approach of hackerspaces with a much longer lineage of progressivist education that includes such important “deschooling” figures as Ivan Illich and “unschoolers” such as John Holt. The deschooling and unschooling movements fundamentally saw schools as overly constrictive, and advocated instead for learners to engage in more self-directed education in real-life settings and social networks. This is an irresistible invitation for those with a Silicon Valley ideology when it comes to rethinking education.

Startup Schools

A notable educational development around Silicon Valley is the establishment of new “startup schools.” One example is AltSchool, set up in Palo Alto in 2013 by Max Ventilla, a former Google exec. AltSchool “prepares students for the future through personalized learning experiences within micro-school communities.”

Other startup schools include The Primary School, currently being set up by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and the Kahn Lab School, established by Salman Kahn of Kahn Academy. The Kahn Lab School (which consciously echoes John Dewey’s experimental Lab School at the University of Chicago) specializes in math, literacy and computer programming — in line with its tech sector roots — but also emphasizes “real world” projects, character development personalized learning, student-centered learning, and a strong commitment to building children’s “character” and “wellness” through, for example, “mindfulness” meditation training. Like AltSchool, though, says Jason Tanz, its “touchy feely” surface of character-centered learning is combined with analytics tools for “tracking data about every dimension of a student’s scholastic and social progress.”

Silicon Valley is actively involved in funding and investing in these new models of schooling. The venture philanthropic Silicon Schools Fund, for example, “provides seed funding for new blended learning schools that use innovative education models and technology to personalize learning.” Its vision is:

  • schools that give each student a highly-personalized education, by combining the best of traditional education with the transformative power of technology;
  • students gaining more control over the path and pace of their learning, creating better schools and better outcomes;
  • software and online courses that provide engaging curriculum, combined with real-time student data, giving teachers the information they need to support each student; and
  • teachers developing flexibility to do what they do best — inspire, facilitate conversations, and encourage critical thinking.

Startup schools might be seen as alternative shadow schools that challenge the supposed bureaucratic standardization of state education. These schools have mobilized the opportunity presented by U.S. charter school policies to create new institutions that lie outside of state regulation and control, and are committed to the rigorous scientific monitoring of their performance through techniques of data collection and analysis. Through establishing such schools, Silicon Valley is seeking to create institutions that might be appropriate to the production of the entrepreneurial individuals who will inhabit the next wave of the techno-economic revolution.

Teen Technorati

Silicon Valley is home to prestigious institutions of higher education. Stanford University, for example, has a revolving door with Silicon Valley, with many of the tech sector’s best designers and engineers being educated there. However, graduating from college is not always seen as desirable in the youth-oriented culture of tech entrepreneurship.

The Thiel Fellowship program, established by PayPal founder Peter Thiel, for example, proposes that educational institutions are entirely redundant when it comes to the meaningful education of young technology entrepreneurs. Each year, selected fellows of the program receive:

a grant of $100,000 to focus on their work, their research, and their self-education while outside of university. Fellows are mentored by our community of visionary thinkers, investors, scientists, and entrepreneurs, who provide guidance and business connections that can’t be replicated in any classroom.

A key demand of the program is that its awarded fellows — all 22 or under — “skip or stop out” of higher education, or even school, and engage in self-directed technical research. Five years after being established in 2011, the program claims that Thiel Fellows have started more than 60 companies that are together worth $1.1 billion. Recipients of the fellowship have been profiled in an online video series called “Teen Technorati,” hosted by Wired.com. Teen Technorati programs like the Thiel Fellowship provide on-the-job mentoring as a kind of apprenticeship into the cultural, technical and economic practices of Silicon Valley.

Self-help Valley

Once any successful teen technorati has made it as far as a job in the valley, the learning does not stop. For a start, many of the technical roles in Silicon Valley companies and startups require a formidable amount of learning as new programming languages, software packages and so on have to be mastered. With its relentless demands for innovation, Silicon Valley is also a place where individuals are under pressure to innovate on themselves — to make themselves as awesome as possible. As a consequence, the self-help industry in Silicon Valley is booming.

Jennifer Kahn has documented the range of emerging self-help courses that have spread around the valley campuses. Many of these training curricula, Kahn argues, are based on insights from the field of behavioral economics, and emphasize how “bad mental habits,” “cognitive errors” and “hidden failures” (such as procrastination, making poor investments, wasting time, fumbling important decisions, and avoiding problems) can be overcome through rationalist self-analysis. Such programs, says Kahn, have generated “interest among data-driven tech people and entrepreneurs who see personal development as just another optimization problem.” Silicon Valley’s self-help programs promise to enable users to be more “intellectually dynamic and nimble” and to “fix personal problems.”

Popular Silicon Valley self-help initiatives translate psychological and behavioral economics insights into training curricula that are aimed at personal optimization. These training curricula encourage valley workers to see themselves in rationalist terms as a programming problem — as a pattern of behaviors and rules in a complex system that, if analyzed hard enough, can be tweaked and modified to perform optimally. As Kahn describes it, they view “the brain as a kind of second-rate computer, jammed full of old legacy software but possible to reprogram if you can master the code.”

Self-programmable Silicon Valley

This brief survey indicates how education in Silicon Valley is driven by several key ways of thinking:

  • Distrust of state education, and a belief that state schooling is broken, bureaucratic and philosophically flawed
  • Confidence in the power of reformed education to drive innovation and, thus, lead to the solution to major social problems
  • Emphasis on real-world problems, hands-on technical experience and practical learning
  • Data-led commitment to measurement and metrics in the assessment and evaluation of the performance of institutions
  • Belief that philanthropy and venture capital investment (and hybrid combinations of philanthrocapital) can provide the means to fix educational institutions
  • Subscription to the idea that humans are sub-optimal computing machines that can be analyzed for their psychological bugs and fixed through training and rational self-analysis

The varied institutions, pedagogic practices and curricula documented above are intended to shape the knowledge, skills, practices and ways of thinking that are deemed appropriate to inhabiting the culture of Silicon Valley. Indeed, Silicon Valley’s current enthusiasm for investing in and reforming education could be understood as a way in which it is seeking to reproduce its own culture and values. It’s creating new institutions and practices to educate and produce awesome and entrepreneurial innovators — like the self-programmable workers influentially described by Manuel Castells:

Self-programmable labour is equipped with the ability to retrain itself, and adapt to new tasks, new processes and new sources of information, as technology, demand, and management speed up their rate of change.

Ultimately, the task of schooling Silicon Valley correlates with the reproduction of self-programmable labour that can retrain itself.

Critical educational research has long dealt with how the knowledge and culture of powerful social groups are transmitted through educational institutions, and how this process works to reproduce their social and cultural power. Through its infrastructure of high-tech homeschooling, startup schools, teen technorati fellowships and rationalist self-help programs, Silicon Valley is educating itself in order to reproduce its powerful centrality in the current techno-economic revolution.

Banner image credit: Chris Jones