The Startup Strategy Matrix: Defining the Limits of Lean Startup Methods

Note: The essay below is one I completed for my International Baccalaureate extended essay for high school, back in 2012. I’ve had a few questions about it recently (there are some links out there to an old blog post of mine on the topic) and so am re-publishing it now. At the time I was working on a startup of my own and was interested in how Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methods had become so popular that they were being used in all kinds of inappropriate circumstances. I wanted to work out the limits to their use. 

The original essay is published unedited (excuse the youthful writing) and footnotes have not transferred across. 


Empirical studies show that over a period of five years, seventy-eight percent of all early-stage Internet technology companies can be expected to fail. This is a dire result; interestingly, the vast majority of these companies utilize similar strategies for bringing their product to market.

In recent years, a subset of early-stage Internet companies (companies whose primary product is a website or Internet application) have been following different principles – lean methods – and have taken a step away from traditional methods for bringing a product to market. These new companies refer to themselves as “Lean Startups” (a term credited to Eric Ries, who has written an influential book by the same name), and label companies using traditional methods as “Fat Startups”. They take their name from lean manufacturing, which saw success in Japan with companies like Toyota being revolutionized. Lean manufacturing, and subsequently lean startups, at their core revolve around removing any activities that are wasteful.

Lean startup methods are tools and philosophies that allow early-stage companies to bring a successful product to market by focusing on learning through validation of hypotheses. A company will make a guess as to who their users are, and what product they want, and will then test this assumption in real life through a low-cost, basic version of the product. It will then continually adjust the product, or start all over again, based on the evidence shown through its customers’ usage. They do not spend on marketing or sales until they have a validated product, and therefore consume less capital than fat startups. They are capital efficient as they recognize sooner if they are heading towards success or failure. Other advantages and disadvantages of lean methods will be made clear throughout this essay.

As a number of companies utilizing lean methods reach success, the methods are increasingly being adopted. The vast majority of new Internet technology companies use lean methods. At the same time, numerous lean companies are failing, or not living up to expectations made of them. It is likely that there are scenarios under which utilizing lean methods will aid a company in bringing a successful product to market, and there are also definable scenarios where the use of lean methods will hinder a company. By defining these scenarios, we could help new companies to make more effective decisions about the methods they use to bring a successful product to market.

The aim of this essay, therefore, is to explore and discover the circumstances under which lean startup methods are appropriate for use by early-stage Internet technology companies. While lean methods are applicable to companies of all ages and industries, this essay is limited to early-stage Internet technology companies so that its findings can be particularly relevant, and therefore beneficial, to a specific group of companies.

Through this essay, circumstances where lean methods should and should not be used will be made clear. As a result, the failure rate of early-stage Internet technology companies could be reduced, as they begin to use methods appropriate to their individual situation.

Entrepreneurial ventures, if successful, can create jobs and growth in an economy. This leads to an improved standard of living for many individuals in society, and will lead to wider benefits for multiple reasons, such as the company’s ability to pay additional tax.

Therefore, if the failure rate of early-stage Internet technology companies is reduced, many people in society will be better off.

Appropriate Use Circumstances

i. Introduction to extreme uncertainty

For decades, traditional early-stage business methods (now referred to as fat startup methods) have been suitable for use by all businesses.  The majority of new companies simply bring an existing product into a new local context, or bring a new product into an existing market. In each case, the conditions are predictable, as numerous other businesses have carried out the same process. Eric Ries notes that this is why most traditional businesses can be funded by a bank loan – they are so predictable that a loan officer can assess their risk and give loans.

However, since the creation of the Internet, many new ventures are bringing new products into new, or re-segmented, markets. In these cases, the business knows nothing about its customers or their desires – it is operating under conditions of extreme uncertainty, or ambiguity.

Fat startup methods involve traditional, milestone-based product development. A concept is created and then undergoes development, including the development of marketing materials based upon market research. Next, it is tested, and finally it launches to users. Under scenarios where the market is known, these product development methods work well as the only variable the company needs to focus on is execution. The traditional product development method is illustrated below.

Lean Startups versus Fat Startups

For Internet technology companies, the product development method is largely ineffective. Companies will go through the cycle, consuming resources as they do, without knowing if the product is what the market wants. It can lead to a large waste of resources, as in the classic example of a failed fat startup, WebVan, an online grocery retailer that consumed approximately USD$1.2 billion in venture capital, and entered bankruptcy shortly after.

Lean methods, in comparison, are inherently useful to companies operating under extreme uncertainty. They focus on validated learning – “…a rigorous method for demonstrating progress when one is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty…”. Whereas the product development method is linear, lean methods (which include Steve Blank’s theories on customer development) are circular – a company will repeatedly carry out certain tasks in order to find what is successful.  In extreme uncertainty, a company’s knowledge of its customers and product is limited. Lean methods therefore force the company to focus on learning before investing and acting.

The following part of this essay explores the circumstances where it makes sense for an early-stage Internet technology company to utilize lean methods. It is assumed that all of the following scenarios are within the boundaries of extreme uncertainty.

ii. Entering a new or re-segmented market with a new product

Ansoff’s Growth Matrix is a tool that can simplify, and describe, the activities companies should undergo when entering different combinations of new and existing markets with new and existing products. According to Ansoff’s Matrix, companies are diversifying when entering new markets with a new product. However, Ansoff’s Matrix is designed for use by existing companies that are looking to grow – it is not ideal for use by early-stage companies with no existing product and no defined market.

For the purposes of early-stage Internet technology companies, I have developed a specifically revised version of Ansoff’s Matrix. Let it be called the Startup Strategy Matrix. It retains the axes and labels of Ansoff’s Matrix, which are still applicable and useful, but makes different recommendations to early-stage companies. It builds on the research of both Steve Blank and Eric Ries in making recommendations to companies on appropriate strategies.

Startup Strategy Matrix for Lean Startups by Michael Moore-Jones

The Startup Strategy Matrix tells us that if we are bringing a new product into a new market, lean startup methods should be pursued, and there should be a focus on innovative customer development. This is the corner of the Matrix where there is the most uncertainty – almost nothing is known about the company’s customers or their desires. The company should therefore focus on learning and discovering customers’ desires and preferences before embarking on any other activities. Lean methods will allow the company to do exactly this, while preserving capital.

Startup Strategy Matrix Lean Fat Startups

It is worth noting that if a company is re-segmenting an existing market as either a low-cost or niche entrant, the company essentially falls into the bottom-right of the Startup Strategy Matrix and should use lean startup methods. They have no solid evidence of their customers’ preferences, and are unsure which customers from the whole market will be a part of the re-segmented market. Therefore, they should use both lean and customer development methods in order to discover truths about their precise market.

There are very few circumstances in which it would make sense for a company with a new product entering a new or re-segmented market to use fat startup methods instead of lean ones. The company would be making too many imprecise inferences about fundamental parts of the business, such as their value proposition and growth strategy. If they do not know their customers yet, it is impossible to have any evidence on whether these assumptions are correct.

iii. Companies with an in-house technical development team

An early-stage Internet technology company employing a number of technical developers will be heavily advantaged through the use of lean startup methods. Here, business theory is heavily linked with technical development processes.

Traditional development methods are referred to as Waterfall, or Stage-Gate. A development team is given a brief with multiple milestones for a feature. They will complete multiple features, and then launch many features in one batch. This is a slow development method that gives a company little time to learn from its customers about how they actually use the product – this is not in line with the goals of a company using lean startup methods.

A lean startup, by contrast, will have its technical development team utilizing “Agile” development methods. The creators of such methods describe them as valuing “individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan”. This description lies in stark contrast to the workings of Waterfall methods, which value the opposite concepts.

With Waterfall methods, if there is an error in a piece of code, the company will not discover this until it pushes the code to users, which will happen in a large batch along with many other features once every month or so. An error could potentially cause the failure of all of the company’s software, rendering its business temporarily unable to function. Because the company has also pushed other features and code to users at the same time, it will be hard to discover the error that caused the problem.

Agile development is one of the tenets of lean startup methods. It requires that the company publish code to its users the moment it is written, and then monitor the results. In terms of manufacturing, it is the equivalent of small batch sizes, which are proven to be more efficient. If there is a problem with the code, it will be discovered immediately, and can be fixed straight away because there will only have been one piece of code that could have caused the problem.

If a company employs an outside software or web design and development firm, it likely has little control over how its product is developed. However, if the company employs an in-house development team, and if one or more co-founders of the company is part of the technical team, then lean startup methods (and therefore agile development methods) should be used. Using agile methods will reduce the risk that an error in code could disrupt the company’s functioning, and will also allow the company to test many additional features on its users.

iv. Where virality is a company’s growth strategy

The nature of the Internet allows many technology companies to achieve organic viral growth. A user of a company’s product, such as a social network, will derive additional benefit from the product if more people are using it. Users therefore have an incentive to share the product quickly and with many people, allowing a company to gain very large numbers of new users, or customers, in a short space of time.

Many early-stage Internet technology companies base their entire growth forecasts upon Metcalfe’s Law; namely, that the value of the network of users as a whole is proportional to the square of the number of participants of the network. In order for their business model to function, the company is required to achieve viral growth. It should be noted that viral growth is a form of organic growth as it is achieved using the company’s existing resources.

Viral growth is a process that is not easily replicated, and many companies try in vain to achieve it. There are few rules for achieving viral growth, and so companies go about achieving it in their own ways. In order to best achieve viral growth, a company should carry out significant amounts of testing.

If the company were to use traditional fat startup methods, they might invest heavily in developing a product that turned out not to achieve viral growth. Lean startup methods, by contrast, involve testing different methods for achieving viral growth until one works.

We can see that by utilizing lean methods, a company can preserve resources until it has a working model for achieving its growth formula.

Inappropriate Use Circumstances

i. Entering existing markets with new products

Referring to the Startup Strategy Matrix (fig. 2), the top-right corner corresponds to a company entering an existing market with a new product. When a company enters a new market with a new product, it must first discover who its customers will be. Lean startup methods allow it to do this by continually testing different hypotheses to discover its market and their preferences. However, if a company is entering an existing market, it is not necessary for it to test hypotheses to discover its customers.

Instead, there will be existing knowledge of customers within the market and their likes and dislikes. The company can draw on this knowledge to create their new product, or can carry out market research to find out what their customers will buy before embarking on building the product.

Startup Strategy Matrix Fat Startups

The Startup Strategy Matrix states that innovative product development methods should be used when entering an existing market with a new product. As much is already known about the market, a company must simply carry out market research and then execute its plan correctly in order to succeed. Traditional product development methods (see fig. 1) will allow the company to execute successfully, while innovation will ensure that the company builds a new product with points of difference that the market will respond to favorably.

Were lean startup methods to be used in this situation, the company would waste time trying to gain knowledge that it could have discovered much more quickly through other methods. Because of this wasted time, the company could potentially be beaten to market by another company and miss the opportunity. Ben Horowitz, a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist, says about using lean methods; “you may lose your opportunity to win the market, either because you fail to fund the R&D necessary to find product/market fit or you let a competitor out-execute you in taking the market.”

ii. Entering new markets with existing products

Groupon is an Internet technology company that saw huge success in the United States, quickly becoming the fastest-growing company the world has ever seen. Their business model involves selling coupons to large number of consumers who are incentivized to share the coupon with their friends. While Groupon quickly expanded and launched their service in many cities within the United States, other entrepreneurs saw their success and began replicating their business model and product (in this case their website) in new markets.

Again drawing upon the Startup Strategy Matrix (fig. 2), these Groupon “clones”, as they are referred to, correspond to the lower-left corner. They are companies entering new markets with existing products.

Startup Strategy Matrix Fat Startups

Groupon’s success was not market-specific. In every state within the United States that Groupon expanded into, the result was similarly large growth. It was clear that Groupon’s product was one that humans in many different markets desired.

It appears that having first-mover advantage is hugely important in launching companies based on Groupon’s business model. Indeed, the first four companies following this business model to launch in major cities in the United States now control an estimated 89% of the market.

Lean startup methods can take longer to execute than fat startup methods because they require a circular approach. Multiple hypotheses are tested until the company has a model that is proven to be working and has discovered its market. However, since companies have seen Groupon’s business model work in multiple markets, they can be sure it will work in any new market that they introduce it to. They have no real need to execute lean startup methods, as they already know what product should be built. They are also heavily incentivized to be first to market in order to gain large market share. Were lean startup methods to be used, companies could miss out on being first to market by working to  prove hypotheses that had already been proven correct by existing companies in other markets.

It is clear that in scenarios such as that of a Groupon clone – when entering a new market with an existing product – utilizing lean startup methods will lead to missed opportunities for many companies.

Utilizing fat startup methods, in contrast, will lead to faster execution because they take a linear approach, and allow the company to spend on marketing to take advantage of being amongst the first to market, gaining market share.

iii. When selling to quality-conscious market segments

Certain market segments, such as the super-wealthy, value quality as one of the most important factors in making a purchasing decision. As a result, the majority of companies, and fat startups, build products according to the theories of W. Edwards Deming. Deming believed that the customer was the most important part of the production process, and therefore high quality should be focused on to boost efficiency.  In addition, companies will utilize Kaizen theories of continuous improvement, as well as a Total Quality Culture, to ensure that quality is kept high.

Lean startup methods require that a “minimum viable product” (MVP) is created and launched to users in order to test assumptions about the market and product. An MVP allows the company to preserve resources by producing a product that is missing many features and is of lower quality, while still testing assumptions.

This essay argues that if a company is entering a market segment that is conscious about the quality of the product, lean startup methods should not be used. The low-quality MVP may damage the company’s reputation, and cause it to lose many sales in the future.

iv. When following an external growth strategy

Some early-stage Internet technology companies find themselves in situations where an external growth strategy will best allow them to take advantage of opportunities. For example, Twitter pursued external growth strategies by acquiring products such as Tweetie,  a mobile-application version of Twitter. Twitter had no mobile application of its own, and found that it could best take advantage of the opportunity in the mobile space through an acquisition, rather than building its own product in-house.

If a company finds that it can best respond to an opportunity through an acquisition, merger, or takeover of another company, then fat startup methods should be pursued. These methods will enable the company to raise sufficient capital in order to carry out external growth.

A company using lean startup methods, by contrast, would be unable to carry out external growth due to the time it would take to validate hypotheses about the opportunity being pursued. For example, Twitter noticed an opportunity in the market for mobile applications and decided it should enter this market immediately. If it had used lean methods, it would have had to first validate its hypotheses about the market. The time needed to do this could have allowed another company to take advantage of this market opportunity first.

Two things are worth noting here. Firstly, a company may at first follow lean startup methods but then spot a market opportunity. If the opportunity is large, it may be beneficial for the company to change to a fat startup strategy in order to pursue that opportunity quickly through external growth. Secondly, it can be said that companies using fat startup methods therefore carry more risk, as they do not take time to validate assumptions. They will simply enter a market to ensure that an opportunity is not missed, even if some of their assumptions later turn out to be incorrect.


The benefits of lean startup methods are clear. They allow companies operating under conditions of extreme uncertainty to reduce the risk inherent in their venture through validating hypotheses based on experience. They enable companies to operate using small batch sizes, and better manage in-house technical development.

However, it is also clear that lean startup methods are not appropriate for use by early-stage Internet technology companies in all situations. The use of lean startup methods in certain situations will damage a company’s ability to grasp an opportunity, and to react boldly enough with large amounts of financial capital.

The results of this essay – based on research by both scholars and entrepreneurs, as well as first-hand observations of companies – have led to a set of clearly defined scenarios where lean startup methods should, and should not, be used.

In initially deciding on a startup strategy, companies must examine the type of market they are entering, and what product they are entering it with. The Startup Strategy Matrix (fig. 2) was developed as part of this essay. It clearly describes the strategies that companies should use based on their market and product combinations. This should be the main factor in a company’s choice of startup strategy.

The Startup Strategy Matrix allows us to say that in general, if a company is entering a new market with a new product, it should use lean startup methods. However, a company must continue to examine whether lean startup methods remain relevant throughout its process of discovering its market and product.

This research has also shown that if a company discovers that it is entering a quality-conscious market segment, it should change strategy to traditional fat startup methods in order to take advantage of Deming’s theories on quality. Additionally, if a company deems that it needs an external growth strategy to take advantage of a market opportunity, it should alter course and utilize fat startup methods.

Many of the insights in this essay are non-exclusive. For example, if a company begins using lean startup methods because it is entering a new market with a new product, but then finds a lager opportunity in a different market segment, it should change its strategy accordingly. The initial strategy chosen should merely guide a company to discovering new information, at which point a company may be required to change strategy.

It should be noted that some unexplored areas could have added to the conclusiveness and scope of this essay. First, the real-life applicability and usefulness of the Startup Strategy Matrix should have been tested in order to understand how the Matrix affects the strategies that a real company uses. By giving the Matrix to various companies, and monitoring their results in comparison to new companies not using the Matrix, the effectiveness of the Matrix on company development could be tested. While this would have been ideal, it was not within the scope of this essay, as it would have required a large amount of time to determine differences between the companies’ development.

Secondly, additional examples of companies using different startup strategies would have helped to clarify the circumstances presented in this essay, such as a real-life example of a company trying to achieve viral growth. However, early-stage Internet technology companies are by nature protective of their internal company information, to ensure that competitors cannot prepare a similar product before the company launches its product. This made the finding of real-life examples difficult and outside the scope of this essay.

The findings of this essay offer clear scenarios relevant to all early-stage Internet technology companies. It is hoped that the conclusions will help companies to find the most relevant strategy, and to adjust it in the light of new information. Companies following startup strategies relevant to the circumstances presented in this essay should increase their chances of success.


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What’s the Point of College?: Mark Lilla on The Soldier, The Saint, The Sage and the Citizen

What is the point of college and university? There seem to be as many answers to that question as there are students and faculty, but here’s one explanation I find particularly important.

In April 2010 Mark Lilla (a professor of humanities, though a political scientist by training) delivered a lecture to all first-year undergraduates at Columbia University. Columbia is known for its “core” curriculum, a series of classes that all students at the college must take. The event was the final lecture of the students’ first year at college, and Lilla’s goal was to go back over all the texts that they’d read that year, drawing out common links between them.

Lilla’s lecture was broader than just that, for he reflected at the start on the reason why we go to college, and the reason we read all these books. College is not really about preparing for a specific career, or to maximise our potential post-graduation earnings. If that was the aim, attending college and studying the humanities is certainly not an efficient way to do it.

Instead, Lilla argues, we go to college because we have questions about what to do with our lives, and we need to explore all the ways we could live. He begins, however, by noting:

“Of course, that’s not at all what you told the admissions office on your application. You figured, correctly, that to be admitted you had to exude confidence about what Americans—and only Americans—call their life goals. And you had to demonstrate that you had a precise plan for achieving them. It was all bullshit. You know it, I know it. The real reason you were excited about college was because you had questions, buckets of questions, not life plans and powerpoint presentations.

Talking to my students, I have discovered that they’re far less concerned with getting what they want than figuring out just what it is that’s worth wanting.

But in our reading of so many books at university, we cannot help thinking about and exploring lives that we had never considered, and never even knew were possible:

“You’ve already encountered countless books… and you’ve encountered countless characters in them. And all of them, even the ones in the history books, are products of an author’s imagination. When we need them, our own imagination is stimulated in turn, and we are almost inevitably led to think, “What would it be like to live like this person, or that person? What would it be like to value what they value, pursue their goals, suffer their disappointments, experience their happiness?…

You’ve been observing human nature in action, and have even begun to recognise distinct human types who represent radically opposed ways to live. So you’re now ready to start reasoning about which of these lives, if any, are worth pursuing, and which might be the best for you or for anyone.”

What could be more important? And there’s a reason that college and university come at a very specific time in our lives, roughly between the ages of 18 and 22, when we need to determine what kind of life we find worth living before we get too caught up in the world of work.

Lilla’s description of college gets straight to the heart of the matter, and by bearing it in mind, no book at college should ever be boring—for every book presents lives that we could make our own, if we wished. His lecture in its entirety is worth watching:

On The Uses Of A Liberal Education: As “Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students”

Mark Edmundson Harper's On the Uses of a Liberal Education, as Lite Entertainment for Bored College StudentsIt is teacher evaluation day. The professor’s final spiel for the semester has just concluded, and they leave the classroom so we can sum up a semester’s worth of learning and frustration in a five minute questionnaire. “Please rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how well this professor helped you to engage with course concepts.” Student translation: “Please rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how annoyed you at times got with this class, how funny and relaxed the professor was, whether you’re satisfied with the grade you think they’ll give you, and don’t forget to take into account whether you’re having a good day today”. The reductionism of the activity extends to the point of absurdity, but perhaps teacher evaluation is, after all, merely the catharsis at the end of a tragedy. That tragedy is the failure of a given class to live up to the promise of a liberal education—a tragedy replayed in thousands of classrooms at hundreds of universities.

It doesn’t always happen like that. I’ve had fantastic classes that have challenged me in precisely the ways I think a liberal education should. But the experience of just “making it through” a class is one that everyone has, all too often—both students and professors.

In September 1997, Harper’s Magazine published a section titled “On The Uses Of A Liberal Education.” The section contained two essays, each making a very different point largely because of the very different perspectives from which the two authors looked at education. First was Mark Edmundson’s, which acerbically described liberal education as “Lite entertainment for bored college students”.

Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and his essay is written in the tone of a disgruntled traditionalist. Those are two positions that I should, technically, find it hard to relate to. And yet parts of the essay resonated. They resonated in the way they captured the promise of liberal education and its on-the-ground failure in too many classrooms at too many universities. But most importantly, the essay resonated in how it captured the individual responsibility of both students and professors to recapture what they believe a liberal education should be about.

Edmundson begins his essay with a picture that should be familiar:

“A college student getting a liberal arts education ponders filling out a questionnaire that includes an opportunity for him to evaluate his instructor. At times it appears that the purpose of his education is just to entertain him.”

I do wonder whether it is a mistake to set up liberal education as depending so heavily on the image of the classroom. The classroom is but one component of a real education, yet frequently Edmundson seems to talk about them as if all education happened in the class. Regardless, he uses this image, and what it means for professors, to explain how education and consumer culture have moved closer and closer together. When a student praises Edmundson for “presenting this difficult, important & controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way”, he finds himself rejecting the complement.

“Thanks but no thanks. I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she “enjoyed” the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind… I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read.

Consumer culture leads students to seek “enjoyable experiences” in their education. Admissions departments have become marketing departments, Edmundson muses, and he thinks its no surprise that students expect the pleasant, fun view of the college they had from the brochures to continue while they’re there. Students necessarily search in their education for what the marketing departments told them they were buying.

“Is it a surprise, then, that this generation of students — steeped in consumer culture before going off to school, treated as potent customers by the university well before their date of arrival, then pandered to from day one until the morning of the final kiss-off from Kermit or one of his kin — are inclined to see the books they read as a string of entertainments to be placidly enjoyed or languidly cast down? Given the way universities are now administered (which is more and more to say, given the way that they are currently marketed), is it a shock that the kids don’t come to school hot to learn, unable to bear their own ignorance? For some measure of self-dislike, or self-discontent — which is much different than simple depression — seems to me to be a prerequisite for getting an education that matters. My students, alas, usually lack the confidence to acknowledge what would be their most precious asset for learning: their ignorance.”

And from this, we get a vision for what liberal education should be about.

“The aim of a good liberal-arts education was once, to adapt an observation by the scholar Walter Jackson Bate, to see that “we need not be the passive victims of what we deterministically call “circumstances” (social, cultural, or reductively psychological-personal), but that by linking ourselves through what Keats calls an ‘immortal free-masonry’ with the great we can become freer — freer to be ourselves, to be what we most want and value.”

And then, a vision for what the world will look like if we don’t live up to liberal education’s ideal.

“What happens if we keep trudging along this bleak course? What happens if our most intelligent students never learn to strive to overcome what they are? What if genius, and the imitation of genius, become silly, outmoded ideas? What you’re likely to get are more and more one-dimensional men and women. These will be people who live for easy pleasures, for comfort and prosperity, who think of money first, then second, and third, who hug the status quo; people who believe in God as a sort of insurance policy (cover your bets); people who are never surprised. They will be people so pleased with themselves (when they’re not in despair at the general pointlessness of their lives) that they cannot imagine humanity could do better. They’ll think it their highest duty to clone themselves as frequently as possible. They’ll claim to be happy, and they’ll live a long time.”

It was the very end of Edmundson’s essay that struck me as most important. Where it was sometimes strange to relate to Edmundson’s disgruntled style and his position as a professor, I think his summing up places the burden squarely on every individual student and every professor for making their education what it should truly be about. And rightly so.

“Ultimately, though, it is up to individuals — and individual students in particular — to make their own way against the current sludgy tide. There’s still the library, still the museum, there’s still the occasional teacher who lives to find things greater than herself to admire. There are still fellow students who have not been cowed. Universities are inefficient, cluttered, archaic places, with many unguarded comers where one can open a book or gaze out onto the larger world and construe it freely. Those who do as much, trusting themselves against the weight of current opinion, will have contributed something to bringing this sad dispensation to an end.”

Edmundson’s essay presents that powerful statement of individual responsibility in education. This was what I disagreed most with Bill Deresiewicz on, when in his book Excellent Sheep he seems to place the burden of responsibility for liberal education on university administrators. I said then that I think the right tools for a proper education—a “self-inflicted wound” as Deresiewicz calls it—do exist at universities, but it is entirely for students to want them, to look for them and to use them.

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers

So said Thoreau.

His point, of course, was that we have people who can tell us what philosophers once said, but no one today who can tell us how we should live. And yet how many professors of philosophy make the extension to themselves, self-styling as philosophers, when in truth they so often muddle what true philosophers once said clearly.

Maybe there exists in some university department someone whom Thoreau would have called a real philosopher. One hopes so, but doubts so. For when compared to the stakes of tenure and publishing, talking about how to live and the meaning of life seems so—quaint.


Montaigne on the Education of Children

“The greatest and most important difficulty in human knowledge,” Montaigne says, “seems to lie in the branch of knowledge which deals with the upbringing and education of children.” That seems right; and yet it’s hard to argue that we’ve solved the difficulties.

The problems Montaigne diagnosed with education in his day, almost five hundred years ago, are really no different to the problems we still see today. He pleas for an education system that focusses on the individual, even going so far as to advise the person to whom his letter is addressed to not send her son to school, but to instead find a full-time private tutor. Our education focusses so much on the masses that it fails to give anyone a real education:

“If, as is our custom, the teachers undertake to regulate many minds of such different capacities and forms with the same lesson and a similar measure of guidance, it is no wonder if in a whole race of children they find barely two or three who reap any proper fruit from their teaching.” 

What is the ultimate point of our education? We debate that question keenly, but for Montaigne it was clear: “The gain from our study is to have become better and wiser by it.” By this he means understanding or a kind of judgement that informs thought and action. Memorisation is the enemy of understanding:

“It is the understanding… that sees and hears; it is the understanding that makes profit of everything, that arranges everything, that acts, dominates, and reigns; all other things are blind, deaf and soulless. Truly we make it servile and cowardly, by leaving it no freedom to anything by itself. Who ever asked his pupil what he thinks of rhetoric or grammar, or of such-and-such a saying of Cicero? They slap them into our memory with all their feathers on, like oracles in which the letters and syllables are the substance of the matter. To know by heart is not to know; it is to retain what we have given our memory to keep.”

Memorisation is unrelated to education, for an education properly understood must be about understanding and judgement. And yet our schools continue to teach to tests, and tests require almost nothing but memorisation. This recalls Seneca’s lament that “We learn not for life, but for the schoolroom.” Likewise, when studying history, our schools focus on the irrelevant parts that are easily taught, and not on the essence of how what we learn could inform our lives:

“But let my guide (the teacher) remember the object of his task, and let him not impress on his pupil so much the date of the destruction of carthage as the characters of Hannibal and Scipio, nor so much where Marcellus died as why his death there showed him unworthy of his duty. Let him be taught not so much the histories as how to judge them.

Montaigne makes what is today a most controversial argument, arguing that science should be left entirely aside until students have acquainted themselves thoroughly with the philosophy of how to live. The common logic today is that students should prepare themselves with technical skills first, and learn about life later; but Montaigne entirely reverses this:

“It is very silly to teach our children ‘What effect have Pisces and Leo, fierce and brave,/Or Capricorn, that bathes in the Hesperian wave,’ the knowledge of the stars and the movement of the eighth sphere before the knowledge of themselves and their own movements.”

It is an argument for the humanities: that our first task in education is to come to know ourselves, so that we can then devote ourselves to a vocation once we are sure on the direction we wish our life to take. The sciences are a luxury; if we don’t know how to live, there’s no point in thinking about them. Montaigne argues, again following Seneca, that the reason so many people leap straight to vocational training before having learned how to live is because they misunderstand philosophy. Philosophy has been confused with complex constructions of logic (and philosophers are mostly to blame for that), when its essence is how to live.

I think all too often we feel the problems Montaigne diagnoses—the rote learning, the mass production that education has become, the sense that we leap into a career before we truly know ourselves—but are inclined to put these down to modern education. His is an important reminder that formal education throughout the ages has changed but little, with students, teachers, parents and public figures all concerned about the same things, but with entirely no idea what to do about it on a system-wide level. If anything, Montaigne demands that we—as students or as parents—take responsibility for our own education and the education of those around us, limiting whatever harms are done, and guiding towards a lifelong ability to learn in order to understand.

The edition I’ve quoted from is The Complete Essays of Montaigne from Stanford University Press, translated by Donald Frame.

Can New Zealanders and Australians Afford To Study at a US University?

When I’m asked about how one goes about studying at a US university, or at least one modelled on the American higher education system, I’m usually first asked something along the lines of: is “college” the same thing as “university”, and what is a liberal arts degree? I decided to start writing up my responses to these questions I get asked all the time, and I answered that first general question in my article A Guide for Non-Americans: What is “college” and how does it differ from university?

The second question people ask is often not even phrased as a question. It goes something along the lines of, “Oh, there’s no way I could afford to study in the US. It’s too expensive, and I’m not that rich.” The question embedded in that is, how do you afford it? Did you get a scholarship, or are you simply very wealthy?

The answer, to both of the above questions, is no. Well, mostly no. I have received a scholarship to study at Yale-NUS and for my time at Yale, but there’s still no chance I could afford to study there if that was the only financial support I’d received. So here’s a guide to how it works, and you should, for the most part, find reason to be pleased: if you are committed to working incredibly hard for a few years to gain admission to a top US university, the finances will work themselves out. Really.

If one of the first things you’ve done is looked at the fees listed on US college and university websites, most of us would indeed have reason to close our browsers, run a mile from the computer, and never again consider studying in America. Yale, for instance, says that the base cost of attendance for one year for an undergraduate in 2016-17 is USD$68,230. I emphasise: United. States. Dollars. At current exchange rates, that’s NZD$98,000 and AUD$93,000. Of those fees, USD$50,000 is the tuition cost, and the remainder is for room, board, and other expenses. I’m taking Yale as my example, but the numbers are really very similar for most universities as an international student (we aren’t eligible for any subsidies).

But unfortunately for those of us from countries outside the United States, things get even more expensive. Roundtrip flights from Wellington, New Zealand to New York, for instance, come to roughly NZD$2,500, and you’d be looking at doing that flight twice a year. The reality is you’re unlikely to stay in your room on campus for the entire semester, so you’re going to need money to cover other living expenses, maybe a couple of thousand per semester. Exchange rate differences can come to be truly scary—some of my friends have seen their cost of attendance double or even triple in the course of a year depending on how the exchange rate swings.

To put it simply: the sticker price for a year of study at a US university is going to be over $100,000, whether in Australian or New Zealand dollars. For a degree, then (four years at US universities), it’s going to come to roughly half a million NZ/AU dollars.

Before I get onto the details of how that amount is very rarely what you would be paying, here’s one brutal reality: only the top universities have the financial resources to subsidise the cost of your education. The middle band of US universities—the ones which in all likelihood you haven’t heard of—will not provide financial assistance to international students. This means that unless you can afford the full price of the education as above, you need to gain admission to one of the top universities to have your education subsidised. The Ivy League.

And what of the Ivies, the other top small liberal arts colleges, and international universities like Yale-NUS College and New York University in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai? What do they do differently? The key term you want to know is financial aid.

Here’s a statement taken directly from Yale’s page on financial aid:

“Yale admits students without regard to their ability to pay and meets 100% of demonstrated financial need. For all students. Without loans.”

Financial Aid at US UniversitiesRestated, this means that if you are admitted, Yale will then look at your family’s financial situation and make an offer of financial support that will make it feasible for you to attend. It’s not about taking out a loan. It’s simply a subsidy on the total cost of attendance, and the subsidy can vary from a few thousand dollars to 100% of the cost. Yale also states that “Families whose total gross income is less than USD$65,000 (with typical assets) are not expected to make a contribution towards their child’s Yale education. Over 10% of Yale undergraduate families have an Expected Family Contribution of $0.” In 2015-16, the average financial aid award amount was USD$43,989; in other words, the average award cut fees by almost two thirds.

I’m taking Yale’s statements here as examples, but most other top universities offer almost identically-worded policies. The immense endowments of these universities make these generous financial aid policies possible, where other universities are simply unable to offer them.

It’s disappointing that many immensely talented young New Zealanders don’t bother applying to top international universities each year simply because they assume it will be too expensive. I’ve had friends and acquaintances who had dismissed the idea of international study from the start because their parents had told them not to even think about it, without knowing about financial aid.

The hard part is getting in. It is hard, but not impossible. If you have the brain and the work ethic, gaining admission should be your only focus; you should not let concern of finances stand in your way.

If you haven’t already, I do encourage you to read my post on liberal arts colleges in the US. US higher education is unique for its focus on the liberal arts, which offer students an opportunity to figure out what you should do, before then going on to learn how to do it for postgraduate study. That’s very, very different to what our universities in this part of the world offer, and it’s an idea that I think we should take far more seriously.

Some links to additional information and examples are below.

Harvard’s financial aid information

Yale-NUS College’s financial aid information

The University: An Owner’s Manualby Henry Rosovsky

NZ Media on the BA Degree: “Bachelor of Bugger All”

The BA’s reputation has been progressively eroded – no-one seems to know exactly how or why. It became seen as the degree for people who didn’t know what they wanted to do. The degree for layabouts seeking fewer teaching hours. The degree for lightweights without the smarts to do anything else.

And then came the jokes: “What did the arts graduate say to the science graduate? ‘Would you like fries with that?’

In a world of high university fees and high youth unemployment, the acid of negativity seems to be finally etching its mark.

In the face of falling enrolments, Otago University plans to cut about 16 staff in five arts departments. Victoria University is restructuring its language departments, with job losses, after student numbers fell up to 30 per cent in five years. Auckland University arts enrolments have dived 9 per cent since 2010. Nationwide, arts deans are desperately talking up their degrees and reshaping their structure to make graduates more employable.

It’s one of the first questions prospective BA students ask Liz Medford: Is it going to get me a job?

The Victoria University careers manager has been dishing out advice for 29 years. She’s surveyed 300-odd employers since 1996 and their demands have barely changed – verbal and written communication, analysis, problem-solving, teamwork.

“The skills of a BA are just as useful today as they’ve ever been.”

What has changed is higher fees and parents and students opting for the security of a degree that appears more marketable. But there has to be time for exploration, she says., “The university debate – a place for passion or a ticket to a job?”, 17 December 2016

As I’ve previously written, vocational or professional degrees are about how to do things—how to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a businessperson—whereas an arts degree is about what you should do. The BA is about having time and space to explore intellectually so that you can then make a properly informed decision about the vocation you wish to commit to—which can then be studied at the postgraduate level. It’s an expensive use of time, to be sure—but it has always seemed to me far more expensive to wake up one day towards the end of a vocational degree, or even later, only to have worked out that that’s not what you want to do for the rest of your life.

That’s why I’m such a proponent of the US higher education system, because the BA and BSc are structurally built in as the only option for an undergraduate degree. It’s a real shame that articles like this one—in addition to propagating nasty generalisations and stereotypes—fail to point out alternative systems, taking ours as universal.