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Billionaire heads back to college

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Guess who is heading back to college?

Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal.

Yeah, that guy is going to be teaching a class this spring at Stanford University.

Thiel has been one of the most vocal proponents that college can be a waste of time for many of smart students. He feels so strongly about the ability of some Americans to succeed without a diploma that he's been giving $100,000 to young entrepreneurs, including some from MIT, Yale and Harvard, who promised to drop out of college to start their own businesses.

It seems strange then that the billionaire, who has this Mark Twain quote prominently displayed on the Thiel Fellowship home page -- I have never let my schooling interfere with my education -- wants to be anywhere near a lecture hall.

What Thiel is teaching

Thiel, who made his fortune making bets on such startups as Facebook, LinkedIn (LNKD) and Zynga (ZNGA), will be teaching a course entitled, Computer Science 183: Startup, and it's already oversubscribed. Apparently all those brilliant chumps at Stanford don't mind if the billionaire thinks some of them are wasting their time in Palo Alto.

Why teach?

Why head back to Stanford, where Thiel earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and a law degree, to play professor? Jim O'Neill, the head of the Thiel Foundation, explained to Reuters that his boss "wants to reach out to people in many different spaces." And he decided that the university's start-up culture made a "natural fit."

Considering his jaundiced view on higher-education, some faculty questioned his motives for teaching and some wondered whether Thiel would use the class to recruit students to his companies. Curiosity, however, apparently won out over the skepticism.

Thiel doesn't appear to be backing down from his belief that smart students equipped with passion and a great idea don't need school. Through a spokesman, Thiel offered Reuters this promise to his eager students: "If I do my job right, this is the last class you'll ever have to take." 

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