Friday, October 14, 2011

12 Oct 11 - Chicago Ideas Week

" is a verb - do something..."

Hey, blogspot readers, welcome to a week of celebrating ideas and innovations being thought up! In Chicago, it's Ideas Week (until Oct 16) - an annual event desigened " ignite, inspire, connect and catalyze..." communities around great ideas and people. Started by Groupon founder, Brad Keywell after being "inspired" himself by attending other ideas-like conferences such as The Aspen Ideas Festival, Chicago Ideas Week 2011 features over 160 guest speakers (Fran Drescher, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Joan Cusack, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and many more) discussing a wide range of topics from Architecture to Sports and Global Community Development as well as Social Entrepreneurship and Tech & Web. Other Ideas Week event also include exclusive Lab visits/tours inside some of Chicago's notable business infrastructures like Argo Tea, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, The Boeing Company, Project Exploration, Chicago Transit Authority and more. For more information about events for the rest of the week, visit

On this particular day, Southside has the extreme pleasure to join other Ideas Week attendees at Venue 610 of The Spertus Center for a thought-provoking yet highly spirited debate. As part of Chicago's Week events, Intelligence Squared US Debates featured a hot topic for the first time outside its usual New York City setting. The topic of the night posed a very interesting motion - Too Many Kids Go To College in which there were two speakers each representing FOR and AGAINST the motion. Before attending the debate, this reviewer had some considerable time to reflect about the motion questioning whether or not a college education is truly worth its weight these days ...especially within the current state of the US economy and umployment situation. Attendees of this debate were asked to consider the following points: is it time for young people to skip college and go straight into the workforce OR is higher education still necessary as a stepping-stone towards success? To have a BA (Bachelors of Arts) of not - that's the REAL question, blogspot readers. Though recent statistics have shown a college education is economically beneficial despite those with jobs that don't require it, how can one discount the extraordinary success of business entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs who have proven it's possible without it. Hm...looks to be a heated topic with Peter Thiel (PayPal co-founder) and Charles Murrary (author of AEI article - Are Too Many People Going To College?) supporting the motion while Henry Bienen (President Emeritus of Northwestern University) and Vivek Wadhwa (Washington Post and Bloomberg Business Week columnist) speaking against the motion.

Before commencing with the opening arguments for and against the topic, moderator and host John Donovan (from ABC News Nightline) briefly welcomed all invited guests (which included Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the audience) and explained our role during the IQ2US (Intelligence Squared US) debate including voting procedures. Since this would be a live recorded NPR (National Public Radio) program, we were encouraged to applaud during whichever argument and/or point appealed to us. After a couple of minutes, the debate was underway with a short synopsis containing a few alarming facts that included how manufacturing jobs today are almost non-existent a number of high school graduates are not properly prepared for a four year college/university degree. Yet what about those who didn't graduate college and made success of themselves? That's what the topic - Too Many Kids Go To College would try to sway the "undecided" minds throughout the debate. At the end of this article, SouthSide will reveal the results of the final vote tally ...and which side won the debate.

Peter Thiel opened his argument FOR the motion by stating he once had the belief that a college education was important. However that mindset changed approximately five years ago upon realizing with technology continuously expanding, people were choosing to forgo college education for other forms of employment that didn't require a college degree (BA). Another reason - the rising cost of a college education has reached the point which many simply cannot afford it. Then, Peter Thiel went on to explain how in the 1990s, the US experienced a tech bubble 2000, a housing bubble and today, we're experiencing an education bubble. "...we cannot afford to have a third bubble..." stated Thiel especially as student debt is currently over a trillion dollars. Yes, blogspot readers, you read correctly - a Trillion dollars ...with a capital T. He gave a startling example to the audience that every year there are 50,000 Law school graduates but only 30,000 legal jobs available. In conclusion, he's not saying - no one shouldn't go to college or that it's a bad thing. He preferred people shouldn't think education is the automatic ticket to their success ...try thinking of what they want to do with their life.

Henry Bienen opened his statements AGAINST the motion stating that attending college is about the achieving the American Dream. He did admit some dropouts do "make it big" however not everyone is a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs ...or smart like them. Plus he added "...more years of school are correlative with one's income and employment..." He stated there are two preminiums involved when one has obtained a college education (i.e. BA) and they are wage (the higher the education the more wages will increase) and social (with a BA and beyond, the person will be more productive in our society). "...we need more college graduates ...not less..." Bienen emphatically told the debate audience he admits many high school graduates are not ready for college but only because their school and/or education didn't prepare them. He then disputed Thiel's doubts by saying that the latest trend showing now - people do in fact need a secondary and post-secondary degrees. Bienen is not against the alternatives (i.e. vocational schooling and education) like Germany and Switzerland has however in the US there aren't many alternatives being offered. "...can't give up on the American dream..."

Charles Murrary offered a second point of view in favor of the the motion - Too Many Kids Go To College by first advocating the abolishment of the SATs (Standardized Achievement Testing). At first, he thought the debate was about exclusively four year college/university institutions not the inclusion of community colleges as well. Then he went on to say which drew some laughter "...the BA is the work of the Devil..." that it's a fraud because "'s suppose to represent you're educated ...wrong..." According to him, a BA actually means " don't know anything..." Murrary could have related to the debate audience the countless stories of grade switching on tests/exams scores (from Ds and Fs to Cs and Bs all because the universities/colleges are about retaining the student not losing the money from the student) and of employers complaining how many BA job applicants who cannot write a comprehensible sentence. The ONLY thing a BA can do according to Murrary is tell people where you were educated despite needing one just to get a job interview. He emphatically stated to the audience that we're creating a mindset in which not having a BA means the person is dumb or lazy ...and it's subsequently enstilled onto kids today. That in turn leads them to take "bird" (easy) courses within their major while attending college "...they're not there for the education but for a worthless piece of paper..." Murrary concluded that a 4 year college/university institution is obsolete since the information system (i.e. web/internet) has given a new way so students in getting an education.

Vivek Wadhwa opened his rebuttal remarks against the motion by stating that dropping out of college didn't make any sense to him. According to him, "...these people in America are out of touch aobut not going to college ...US education is by far the best in the world ...foreign education is trying to be like the US..." In the US, he stated during his statements that our schools have ways of making you think, be creative, compete etc. And he also reiterated - community colleges are colleges too ...and they rank up there with the best of the best 4 year university/college but that is, blogspot readers, a matter of his own opinion. Meanwhile in foreign countries like India and China, they are learning "...our tricks [about college education] why have these stupid debates..." (yes, he actually did say that). "...we're losing by debating this..." Wadhwa said that it didn't matter which school you graduated from ...either Harvard or a city college like Harold Washington or Daley, you can still make it as an entrepreneur. He also added that "...we will have to constantly re-educate our workforce with basic education..." because of jobs moving offshore to China and India. Wadhwa concluded that everyone should have a BA or even a Masters since those who have one do better financially than those who don't. In SouthSide's honest opinion, she found that last statement be very elitest and took some offense to it.

With opening statements concluded, the debate gradually became heated between the four speakers rebutting and counter-rebutting each one's opening remarks. Peter Thiel pointed out that going to college was essentially NOT the "American Dream" especially during the 1920s and 30s when only a small percentage attended. And he said most jobs today don't require a college degree. Thiel concluded that going to college has become a nightmare as more and more people go into debt. However Henry Bienen refuted Thiel's theory by saying colleges is not a nightmare but a "blossoming" experience "...people feel better when attending a 4 year college..." And frankly, he didn't see it as a 4 year party atmosphere as Thiel joked saying "...who knows what impact the [college] experience will have on people..." Bienen concluded that even the late Steve Jobs took a college course before his death - a calligraphy class. Meanwhile, Charles Murrary addressed the fact that during the 1960s only 8% had a college degree while the 92% didn't have one but were successful. Back then, no one looked down on you if you didn't go to college or have a BA as it is happening today. Now, according to Murrary, it's a caste system. If a person is a high school graduate only, he/she is looked down upon than if they were a college graduate. Vivek Wadhwa stated that the US is re-inventing itself "...anyone can re-invent themselves ...anyone can obtain the American Dream..." According to Wadhwa, the US is the only superpower in the world and Chinese as well as other foreign students want what we have.

as the air during the debate began simmering to a boil with the debators arguing their points and statistics amongst themselves, SouthSide had drawn her own conclusions in which side she supported. Charles Murrary did receive applause from her as well as others when pointing out craft/manufacturer skills are now considered demeaning. He then mentioned the popular cable program, Dirty Jobs, in which Murrary stated "...there are ways of making a living without having a 4 year degree..." That is certainly true in SouthSide's case since she holds two certifications - one for Paralegal and the other for Business Systems/LAN Administration. Though host John Donovan didn't believe Thiel or Murrary about there being a caste system, both said repeatedly the system is real while Henry Bienen was quoted again " can be transformative ...a blossoming experience..." Charles Murrary had the last word in which he painted a picture of his perfect world to the debate audience. In his world, for example, if someone wanted a Business/Marketing degree, then it would only take that person 1 1/2 years to complete the necessary course work sand the filler (unnecessary electives and minors). There would be a certification exam - not something in which you blacken bubble dots but demonstrating work samples that one could show to employers during an interview.

Blogspot readers, you had to be inside the auditorium to feel as well as witness how heated this debate was getting. And its effect wasn't contained to the stage. It was definitely felt amongst the many hands raised to ask the panelists questions. There was a question about the quality of social networks to which Peter Thiel replied it was valuable bu mostly on an elite college level. However Vivek Wadhwa disagreed and stated that it (social networking) isn't at the elite college level but even within the lessor colleges too. There's, according to him, interaction at all levels and those who dropout don't get that social interaction needed. Another audience member questioned fundamental reforms to which Charles Murrary stated he saw certifications as replacements for a BA and employers are now taking notice to that fact. According to him, certifications will level the playing field and boost college attendance not lower it but it would also not lock people into a "...BA straitjacket..." Henry Bienen said he's not against the on-the-job training or certifications but did defend those who major in Humanities/Social Sciences when Peter Thiel commented that he recommends people study engineering. Another wanted the panelists to comment about a 4 year college tier versus a 3 year tier (in which is used in European universities) even though it wasn't pertaining to the topic at hand. Other questions included "...are colleges (2/4/etc) hurting people... clarify what are colleges good for (from Gabrielle Lyon of Project Exploration) ...what steps are needed for academic institutions to eliminate family, etc influence and revert back to open competition..."

There were many more questions wanting to be asked yet not enough time allotted to answer them all as round two concluded. Host John Donovan gave each debator their final two minutes to sway the audience before casting votes on which side presented the better argument. Henry Bienen felt there was some confusion about college and its purpose yet sees going to a 4 year college as a way of getting people to be more independent. He also added that the key in getting more kids ready for college is improving the K-12 education level so colleges would be viewed as a 4 year remedial experience. "'s not about the cost or college - it's aobut the answer is wrong..." Peter Thiel asked the other side "...where would the accountability be if people get hurt by the cost?" According to him there is none and since there's a lack of accountability, buyer beware! "...the way it ends is when people start thinking for themselves the cost worth the benefit..." He preferred less of a caste system and social pressure as well as the need of going to college. Meanwhile Vivek Wadhwa challenged Peter Thiel "...why don't we jointly improve the education level so more people can go to college..." Charles Murrary questioned the other side with " about the goal of education for all kids's about eduction not the worthless piece of paper (i.e. BA)..." He advocated for fundamental reforms, certifications instead of BAs, and the end of the employment class system (i.e. white collar, blue collar, service, et al) envisioning everyone starting at the beginning as Apprentices moving up as Journeymen striving to be Master Craftsmen.

On that note, the debate concluded with the audience given the task to vote which side presented a better case for or against the motion. Before the debate, this is how the audience voted: 39% FOR, 40% AGAINST and 21% UNDECIDED. This is how the audience voted after the debate: 47% FOR, 46% AGAINST and 7% UNDECIDED. By a slim percentage, those FOR the motion presented a stronger case.

Intelligence Squared US has future debates scheduled in New York City but can be heard live on over 220 NPR stations (including WBEZ in Chicago) or seen on WNET/Thirteen, WLIW or NJTV. SouthSide highly recommends attending the next two upcoming debates - on October 25th - Congress Should Approve Obama's Job Plan (For: Cecilia Rouse and Mark Zandi; Against: Richard Epstein and Daniel Mitchell) and on November 15th - The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion (For: Matthew Chapman and A.C. Grayling; Against: Dinesh D'Sauzo and Rabbi David Wolpe). She has a feeling those two would be extremely heated and should not be missed if you live in the New York area. For tickets and more information about Intelligence Squared US, visit

Until next time, support your local scene,

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