With school-choice initiatives proliferating, students struggling to make up for lost Covid time, and Americans pessimistic about the direction of the country, K–12 education is ripe for reform. But a national recommitment to educational basics should extend beyond the fundamentals of reading, writing, and STEM subjects. A key aim of school reformers should be to pursue what I call “entrepreneurial education”—helping students see themselves not as passive recipients of information but as creators, with the agency to shape the world around them. More than the acquisition of facts or the practice of solipsistic self-expression, such creativity is vital to individual and social flourishing.
Today’s students are hungry for this kind of educational experience. Eighty-six percent of young Americans say that they want to experiment with being a social-media influencer. Some invest more time in learning content creation than in the content of the classroom. But before labeling the trend toward social-media entrepreneurship superficial, consider why it has such a hold on young imaginations: it represents an opportunity to exercise creativity and make something that others want to connect with. Young people, this suggests, have entrepreneurial spirits that need to be exercised; our current education model gives them few opportunities to do so.
The word “entrepreneurship” usually denotes business ownership. But construed more broadly, it describes the contributory creativity that is less a commercial mind-set than a national identity. Scout troops, book clubs, and local churches—to say nothing of the enterprising spirit needed in a marriage and building a household—are every bit as entrepreneurial as businesses startups. This is the kind of entrepreneurship that helps people see problems as opportunities, exercise their gifts and talents in service of others, and gain rewards for doing so.
But this mind-set does not usually come naturally. It must be taught. And the nation faces a particular challenge today in forming entrepreneurs: the fragmentation of our society into discrete groups that don’t talk, or work, with one another.
America faces a “three-city problem”—the complex relationship between reason (associated with classical Athens), religion (biblical Jerusalem), and innovation (today’s Silicon Valley). These three cities symbolize constituent, but fractured, parts of our national soul.
Silicon Valley represents the way in which capital, ambition, and technology come together with the power to transform the world. For better or worse, it is the center of gravity for worldwide change because it has such a potent culture of innovation, which has attracted the capital and talent to invent new things. But it does not have a serious culture of philosophical inquiry or spiritual development.
America’s ability to integrate the Western traditions of religious faith, reason, and experimentation—something present at the founding of the republic and for hundreds of years after—was neither natural nor common. Unfortunately, the symbiotic relationship among these three traditions has broken down.
Our classrooms mirror the fragmentation of these traditions in the broader culture. America’s “three cities” have been unwound from one another. Consider this statement from Sam Altman, founder of OpenAI: “I grew up implicitly thinking that intelligence was this, like, really special human thing and kind of somewhat magical. And I now think that it’s sort of a fundamental property of matter.” Like most kids, Altman likely grew up never learning what a proper human intelligence is. That is a foundational philosophical question; it is the domain of Athens. Like Altman, I never had to grapple with this question until I was in Silicon Valley, creating things that had serious consequences. And when I finally did ask, the immediate answers came from the fragmentary and limited view of Silicon Valley citizens. I had to look elsewhere.
Public schools aggravate the three-city problem. They present faith to American children as therapeutic self-care or naive superstition. They divorce reason from religion and remarry it to ideology. But even in the new private school movement, the division of “classical” and “trade” schools suggests a structural break between speculative and practical reason. Why must the choice be between these two paths? And why do so few of these students seem untouched by the culture of innovation, which, at its best, has brought us lifesaving technologies and conveniences that have afforded us unprecedented opportunities?
Meantime, innovation most often happens outside of school. Though some schools have startup accelerators, the prominent Thiel Fellowship actually pays students to drop out of college to start companies. The implicit message contained in this offer is that any serious innovation is fundamentally incompatible with the commitment to higher education—and, in most cases, this is probably true. Dropping out of college to start a company became a popular move for many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs not only because it freed up time and money but because the educational environment is so stifling. From a young age, students are rarely encouraged to build things or to tailor their learning to projects that they are self-motivated to undertake. We learn to see education as a series of hoops that we must jump through.
And so Silicon Valley pursues innovation for its own sake, untethered from theological and philosophical constraint and wisdom. The result has not been liberation, openness, and daring, but a national descent into anxiety, alienation, and decadence. The academics stay in their burrows; the faithful retreat from a world that seems increasingly hostile to them; Silicon Valley takes care of its own.
If the three cities are rivals, then the rivalry runs through the very heart of our education system. Still, the temptation to embrace any of these three cities and adopt its logic alone, disconnected from a broader perspective, is strong.
I have seen it on my own circuitous path. At various times, I have felt cloistered in each of the three cities—in “Athens” (as a college professor), in “Jerusalem” (spending several years in seminary formation), and in Silicon Valley (launching several startups). It took me a long time, but I eventually learned that, rightly combined, these three perspectives offer far more than each can in isolation.
Yet new college freshmen limp onto campus with a false perspective of a fractured world. What they have never learned, because they have not been taught, is that America’s three-city identity is not only greater than the sum of its parts but far more humane.
This was the bracing insight at the heart of Michael Novak’s 1982 classic The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in which the Catholic theologian and former socialist elucidates and champions the true, magnanimous nature of entrepreneurship. To Novak, “the spirit of democratic capitalism is the spirit of development, risk, experiment, adventure.” Its practical legitimacy “flows from the belief of all individuals that they can better their condition.” But Novak was no materialist: for him, democratic capitalism’s moral incentive structure is what most recommends it: “Without certain moral and cultural presuppositions about the nature of individuals and their communities, about liberty and sin, about the changeability of history, about work and savings, about self-restraint and mutual cooperation, neither democracy nor capitalism can be made to work.”
When the three cities work in tandem, societies and economies tend to be more fundamentally moral, upwardly mobile, hopeful, and fair. History is clear, too, that the three cities’ disaggregation tends to yield the opposite. Belief divorced from reason breeds violence and oppression. Reason disconnected from transcendence and human dignity has always led nations down dark alleyways. The key insight for entrepreneurial education is not that the three cities need one another. It’s that all three must be wound back together—and that starts in America’s schools.
A more classical approach to education makes sense, especially with U.S. students’ academic performance flat or falling. But today, unlike 200 or 2,000 years ago, one of the things that belongs on any list of “the best that has been thought and said” is American entrepreneurship. Its material and spiritual advantages sit next to The Iliad, the Summa, Beethoven’s Ninth, the Renaissance, and the scientific method as triumphs of Western civilization. Teaching children about entrepreneurial discipline, risk-taking, generosity, delayed gratification, cooperation, and courage is part of bringing out the best in students, whether they ever start businesses or not—and it will make them better students, workers, bosses, neighbors, spouses, parents, and citizens.
“Entrepreneurial education” doesn’t mean proselytizing venture capital and marginal tax cuts to middle-schoolers. Nor does it denote isolated class projects about widget factories, or some expanded financial-literacy module in social studies. It means recentering the practical education of American citizens around the nature of human fulfillment and the fruits of the entrepreneurial spirit for our national character.
Young people need to hear the stories of men and women who lived heroic lives of virtue in an enterprising way: people like Oskar Schindler, Enrique Shaw, and Arthur Ciocca. The essence of entrepreneurialism is not the Hollywood fiction that self-interest is a virtue, but the deep human truth that virtuousness is self-interest.
What would entrepreneurial education look like in practice? One model is the Catholic Entrepreneurship & Design Experience (CEDE) for high schools. I developed the model at the Catholic University of America, and it is already being taught in more than 30 high schools. CEDE students don’t just start a pretend business; they begin at the moral and practical core of entrepreneurship, discerning others’ needs and applying their own skills to meet them in practical ways.
CEDE is a project-oriented curriculum. To begin, students reflect on how they might want their eulogy to sound (we encourage teachers to schedule a field trip to a nearby cemetery for this lesson), and then actually write their own eulogy. The goal is for them to figure out what they need to do today in order to live the kind of life to which they aspire. Throughout the program, students are challenged to undertake projects such as making a meal for their family or a friend on a very small budget; seeking out and interviewing a successful entrepreneur in their community; and communicating the value of an idea to others to get them on board as collaborators in a real-life project that serves their community. We teach basic entrepreneurial skills: devising solutions, studying feasibility, making budgets, and executing plans. These are important skills, whether one is repairing a leaking bathroom pipe in one’s house or planning a mission to Mars. The aim is to give students a process by which they can see, solve, and scale solutions to human needs.
It’s jarring for most students to be given few instructions for completing any of the challenges that constitute the course. CEDE offers no road maps, no criteria for what, say, the font size and spacing for their papers should be. In fact, CEDE requires no papers. Students merely have to work together to get things done, without the teacher holding their hands along the way.
Before they finish their last challenge, students map out their Odyssey Project: charting a course for the next one to two years of their life, based on what they learned about themselves in the course of CEDE—their risk tolerance, their desires, their sense of purpose, their gifts and talents. In some cases, this project compensates for what many of them wish they had received from a high school guidance counselor. The idea is to give them basic skills of discernment before they make decisions, such as whether to go to college, that could radically alter the trajectory of their lives.
In CEDE, students are asked to reflect seriously on their values—which may include faith—and they are taken through a process that helps them connect these values to practical action. Participants frequently tell us some version of the following: “I didn’t realize that I was the entrepreneur of my own life.” When they see that every day is an opportunity to build something valuable, even if it’s just a better toothbrushing routine, they come alive.
Young people today have a deteriorating sense of personal agency. Helping them recover it—allowing them to experience what it feels like to create something of value that brings a smile to another person’s face or makes another’s life easier—is a great gift. They are normally told that their chance to do important, real things exists “out there,” waiting for them after they graduate. But if they wait that long, it may be too late. Their spirit will often already be deadened—and much harder to reawaken after years of disuse.
Where will such programs be taught? Given its partly religious character, the entrepreneurial-education movement should begin in private schools.
It’s no coincidence that the recent explosion of state education reforms began soon after parents saw their children’s remote school classes during the pandemic. Learning loss only compounded growing concerns about curricula. Several states have expanded education savings accounts and school-choice programs, and at least four have adopted universal parental choice. More than a dozen states have banned, or are working to ban, critical race theory and other controversial pedagogies from classrooms. Good: even setting aside the question of whether such ideologies have merits, they distract from the task of developing effective schools.
New opportunities are opening daily to implement entrepreneurial education. Virginia is experimenting with alternative “lab schools.” Legislators, educators, and parents should take the next step and insist not only on entrepreneurial policy frameworks but also on entrepreneurial curricula. Before they reach college, America’s young people should learn about the spirit of entrepreneurial capitalism. More crucially, they should learn how they can access this spirit to improve their own lives and the lives of those around them.
Reviving this spirit—teaching its habits, inculcating its skills—among high school students would do wonders for long-term social mores, economic growth, and technological innovation. But those things would only be by-products of achieving the underlying goal: redirecting young Americans’ energies toward self-mastery. If we are successful in forming students in this way, the positive effects will be considerable. The future we desire cannot be elicited by a ChatGPT question. We must help students recover their sense of wonder, which is at the very heart of entrepreneurship. Choice, standards, transparency, and other reforms are, of course, worth pursuing—but teaching students to be entrepreneurs of their own lives has a transformative capacity to make them stronger, wealthier, healthier, and happier.
American children deserve to be taught this truth. If they can recover the grandeur of that notion of entrepreneurship, they also may be able to recover a sense of their own agency. They might take responsibility for becoming men and women who create goods that are truly good and services that truly serve. They might see themselves as playing a vital role in contributing to the formation of a society that protects and promotes human life rather than degrades or destroys it. High aspirations, perhaps—but looking around at youth culture today, what other choice do we have?
Top Photo: Rocco-Herrmann/iStock