Edward Snowden, model dropout

June 14, 2013

One of the more striking facts about Edward Snowden, the Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who recently disclosed details concerning the National Security Agency’s various domestic surveillance programs, is that he is apparently a successful autodidact. After dropping out of high school, Snowden developed a very rigorous academic curriculum for himself, drawing on community college courses, online education programs and self-directed reading and programming. The fruit of these efforts was a lucrative job with an elite consulting firm, and a top secret clearance that gave him access to a treasure trove of state secrets.

Leaving aside the merits of Snowden’s decision to leak sensitive information to the press, his idiosyncratic educational experience points, however improbably, to a much brighter future for all young Americans, and indeed for anyone around the world hungry for knowledge.

After Snowden emerged on the national scene, a number of observers reacted with surprise, and in some cases dismay, at the fact that a high school dropout had found himself in such a sensitive position. Ralph Peters, a retired U.S. Army officer and New York Post columnist, has made several derisive references to Snowden’s dropout status, calling him, among other things, a “spoiled-brat, dropout Benedict Arnold” who deserves to be executed. David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, suggested that Snowden’s failure to graduate from high school reflected a larger inability to navigate the mediating institutions of civil society, which teach us to make commitments to others and to restrain our passions. Brooks makes an important point. There is a great deal of value in completing high school, as it demonstrates a certain level of discipline and a willingness to work with others.

Nevertheless I found the reaction to Snowden’s dropout status disheartening. Instead of lamenting the fact that a high school dropout has fared so well, we ought to celebrate it, allegations of treason notwithstanding.

The University of Chicago economist James Heckman has demonstrated that economic outcomes for high school graduates are better than for high school dropouts and also for those, like Snowden, who have earned a General Education Development (GED) certificate. The high school graduation rate peaked in the 1970s, and in recent years only 65 percent of African-Americans and Latinos have been leaving secondary school with a diploma. The good news is that, according to a new Education Week report, high school graduation rates are rising, and they’ve reached 75 percent in 2013, the highest level in four decades. The bad news is that U.S. high schools aren’t meeting the needs of an enormous number of young people. This dropout population is diverse, and it includes students who leave school for all kinds of reasons, ranging from a desire to earn an income to help support their families, to boredom. Rather than blame dropouts for leaving school, we ought to think about the various ways in which conventional high schools are failing an alarmingly high proportion of their students. Recent moves to expand access to vocational education and other non-traditional instructional models are encouraging. Giving students more hands-on educational opportunities with a more tangible connection to employment may well make a dent in the high school graduation rate, particularly among the kind of young men who are most likely to drop out.

But equally promising is the emergence of technological tools that allow people like Snowden to master challenging new fields while working independently. High school is, for all its character-building virtues, a profoundly unpleasant experience for many if not most adolescents, including many who are bright and capable. Now, however, students have new alternatives at their disposal. Western Governors University (WGU), which exists almost entirely online, is one of the more promising examples. The school is built around entirely online delivery and a competency-based degree. That is, WGU grants credits based on test performance, and it does not require class attendance. So when an Edward Snowden comes along and aces every computer science course, he can move on with his life without ever darkening the door of a classroom.

The most appealing aspect of the WGU model is that it allows students to seek instruction anywhere they can find it—they can read independently, study with a tutor, enroll in some other school, etc.—while turning to WGU to certify that they’ve mastered the relevant material. EdX, an initiative spearheaded by MIT, Berkeley and Harvard, is offering courses of its own, including the rigorous grading of problem sets and exams. Most high school dropouts aren’t going to flock to WGU or edX. Snowden and others like him demonstrate that some number will, and the fact that firms like Booz Allen Hamilton are willing to give such self-starters opportunities is a very good sign.

Indeed, one of the best things about the world of coding is that it is fundamentally portfolio-based: The prestige of your degree matters less than the quality of your work. This is part of why the technology sector is more dynamic and innovative than more bureaucratic sectors that set obstacles in the way of those who’ve pursued an unconventional path.

None of this is to suggest that Edward Snowden is necessarily a praiseworthy human being. Yet it must be said that the fact that he was able to climb so high is a sign that at least some elite American institutions are still willing to take chances, and that is a very good thing.

PHOTO: A picture of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), is seen on a computer screen displaying a page of a Chinese news website, in Beijing in this June 13, 2013 photo illustration. REUTERS/Jason Lee

One comment

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Point well taken…but the issue is: how many are willing,dedicated, and disciplined enough to do what Mr. Snowden did. I would say not many. Education is not really set up to inculcate critical thinking skills. It is set-up, on the face of it, to guarantee an obedient and trained work-force. Schools have only gotten worse in the last fifty years. People are likely to suceed “in spite of” instead of “because of”…

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