Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, NeXT and Pixar, recently gave
a most excellent speech at Stanford University (click here – it’s really good). Among other things, Jobs talks about what he learned
from his time at Reed College before dropping out to be an entrepreneur. Jobs’
speech made me think about my own undergraduate years at UC Berkeley, where I
made many lasting friendships and met my future spouse.
Berkeley is like a lot of state schools: massive classes
with atrocious instruction, poor facilities and the students are a little too
concerned about sports. However, Berkeley, at least during my time, had two
features that made it really stand out, even from other big public schools and
elite private schools.
First, Berkeley was a remarkably open institution in the
sense that most classes were open to most students. The advisors might try to
steer you one way or another. In practice they didn’t try very hard, so most
any student could take most any class. This meant that a student with a clear
sense of what they wanted could craft any sort of education they wanted. If
they so desired, they could skip to the most challenging classes and not waste
time. This also meant that you could avoid the classes taught by graduate
students and learn from the most talented scholars out there. I’ve discovered
that you can’t do this in many colleges because there aren’t enough students to
support lots of advanced courses, or the students aren’t talented enough to
support advanced classes in fields like foreign languages and the physical
sciences. For a determined student, Berkeley was an intellectual buffet.
Second, the student population was really unique because
anyone who worked hard enough could get in. This is not true for elite private
schools because they demand that students show “well roundedness,” often shown
through travel, violin playing and other expensive activities. And even if you play your cards right, tuition was really prohibitive. If you could score
high enough on the SAT and GPA, you would automatically get into Berkeley. The
fees were substantial but not prohibitive. As a result, you had a really
fascinating combination of students.
Of course, there were lots of folks who
spent four years wondering why they weren’t in Palo Alto or Cambridge. But you also had a lot of amazing students who were at
Berkeley because they were really smart and it was cheap, or they didn’t quite
fit the profile of a typical private school admit. There was a just a great
energy to be had from throwing these folks together. For these reasons, I tell
people that “Berkeley is the great walk-on team of American higher education.”
You don’t need $36,000/year to audition or a specific last name. Just get good
grades and SAT scores, and they’ll give you a shot to play with the pros. No
guarantees, but work hard, show up and you’ll get your chance.