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Warning: too much entrepreneurship is not good for you

I am into it but I have to admit....we might be going overboard on entrepreneurship education. Or we might at least explore the possible downsides and blindspots. As we swing our educational cameras onto entrepreneurship, what is left in the dark?

Penn State is in the midst of Global Entrepreneurship Week and it has been an amazing week of speakers, inspiring entrepreneurs young and old. I helped to organize a panel and worked with a colleague in engineering to hold a workshop on Design Thinking. I am all in on entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, lean startups, design thinking, agile development, prototyping, fast failure, (insert your fave buzz word) all of it. I eat heavily from the buffet of Silicon Valley examples, new lingo (a pivot used to be something I associated with basketball), and emerging stars.

Colleges with entrepreneurship programs

Source: Scott Walker from University of Vermont; data source unknown.

But I am smart enough to pause and ask: what is going on here? Why is entrepreneurship so entirely en vogue right now. After all, most data suggests that our colleges are too expensive, graduate only half the young people that enter, don't provide the education they promise, and load down those that with an average $35K of debt (see Kevin Carey and Jeff Selingo). Is entrepreneurship really the answer? And why is it so popular among students?

Learning is too hard, let's start a business instead

One possible reason is revealed by learning science. Educational psychologists like Robert Bjork and books like Make it Stick make one thing abundantly clear about learning. A robust finding of replicated research studies is that mental work creates knowledge and learning. The harder the mind works the better to recall information, connect it with other known information, rehearse and practices its application, and actually apply it in varied settings. Most students have the wrong idea about what is takes to learn. They falsely belief that rereading and repetition are the keys to studying and therefore learning. Even when shown the power of the "test effect"--closing your notes/book and forcing yourself to retrieve and elaborate on information--they still say they prefer the easier, less painful and well worn path of reviewing notes and rereading the chapter.

The dark-side of the (entrepreneurship) force

So it strikes me that this might be the dark-side of all this attention to entrepreneurship: instead of needing to do the work to acquire knowledge, students are told they can start businesses right now, with what they have, and it is fun, appears easy and less rigorous, and it is even vaguely narcissistic: I get to create what I want, based on my interests , following my passion, and making money for myself.

But students need both creativity and knowledge. Creativity, which entrepreneurship is an expression of, is an energized, higher level of cognition where ideas are synthesized, synergized, played with and analyzed as they are combined and applied in different settings. I may sound a little old fashion here but...this kind of productive, disciplined creativity must be earned. It doesn't replace knowledge; it depends on knowledge. I fear that current entrepreneurship fever might be blinding us to the fact that any successful and worthy venture must be built on knowledge. And knowledge is very hard to come by.

So maybe we skip that part.

Instructors of entrepreneurship are excited that students are engaged, coming to class and paying attention. (Not like in those other classes!) Students are excited because, who doesn't love sticky notes, play-doh, legos, poster paper and someone telling you "you can do it." But where does this all lead? Who really benefits? What is gained? What is lost?

Where does this all lead?

My grandmother was an entrepreneur and so was her husband. I teach entrepreneurship and believe in what it has to offer: a creative and effective set of tools to give rise to ideas and make them into viable businesses. We are at a time when nearly everything can and will be reinvented and this may be the way to do it. Entrepreneurship is now in elementary schools, middle schools, and probably some kindergartens. Like fidget spinners and wireless ear buds and Crocs and Stranger Things, it is spreading far and wide.

We could unleash a torrent of creative solutions to our most pressing healthcare, educational, economic, geopolitical, and other social and environmental problems. Or we could mistakenly set fire to a generation whose business ideas enrich the already privileged, burn through capital, and provide cute or cool products but not the necessary solutions the world needs.

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