Steve Jobs' Liberal, Hippie Education

Dave Serchuk, Contributor

10/11/2011 @ 12:01PM |18,780 views

One of Steve Jobs’ signature achievements was that he was able to somehow impart to his devices something akin to a soul. How ironic that he was able to achieve this at a time when the push in his own country, America, is to make everyone more and more like a machine.

It is amazing to consider what made Steve Jobs special. He wasn’t a top flight computer programmer or engineer. He didn’t go to MIT or even CalTech. Could he have gone there, had he applied himself in high school? Probably. But he didn’t seem to aspire to it.

No, instead he went to Reed College, where he famously dropped out. But that he dropped out of Reed is not what should be taken from this. It is that he went there at all, and that he stayed even after he was no longer officially a student, to audit classes. Why is this important? Because Reed is not just any college. And I can say this having graduated from Wesleyan University, which shares a profile with Reed, in many ways. No, it is very specifically a liberal arts school, with a capital L. Steve Jobs, in essence, is the greatest living argument from the past 50 years for why a liberal arts education is invaluable. More importantly he was a living exemplar of the fact that if America is to continue to lead the world in innovation and creativity it is going to be thanks to the products of places like Reed every bit as much as it’s going to be thanks to the high-tech specialists, and MBAs, that we seem to crank out by the thousands every year.

The irony is that even as everyone everywhere applauds the achievements of Jobs, we as a nation are showing, with our dollars and rhetoric, that we think the arts—which is what a place like Reed is so good at teaching—are either soft, worthless, or kind of sissy. If we follow down this path it will not only drain much of the future color from our collective lives, it will also lead us gradually ever more toward America becoming a second-rate, lackluster nation.

In his commencement speech at Stanford, another school he didn’t go to, Jobs famously remarked that even after he was not longer officially a student at Reed he hung around and studied calligraphy. As he has noted, he didn’t see any practical application for this at the time, he just loved it: its elegance, its historical value, the simple pleasure he garnered from the pursuit of creating something beautiful for its own sake. Of course the upshot is that this love of finely wrought letters eventually became one of the early distinguishing hallmarks of the Macintosh, its fonts, at a time when most other computers still ran with blocky letters on a black screen. As he himself acknowledged in his speech, he didn’t know this at the time, it only made sense later.

But even if the Mac didn’t benefit from Jobs’ calligraphy—in some other universe—Jobs himself would have. The patience needed to make the letters just so, despite their having no obvious commercial value, was its own reward. The fact that he was happy to not only delve into a fine art, but an archaic one at that, it gave him a set of intellectual tools, and attitudes, that his generational peers cranking out punch-card code didn’t have. It gave him a larger, historical perspective on the world. It gave him an aesthetic. People rave about how Jobs had such an overview of the worlds of technology, and design. This is part of how he got it, by studying things that didn’t have immediate commercial implications. It allowed him to actually think different.

More to the point, the pursuit of beauty for its own sake, then, as now, was probably seen as beside the point, if not offensively silly, in a recession-driven America. God bless Jobs’ tolerant parents, who probably wondered what their son was up to, with his hippie B.S.

Put it another way, do you think MIT had a calligraphy class in 1972? (Also, let’s also give a long-overdue shoutout to Reed itself, which let this dropout not only continue to hang around, but act as a student. This tolerant attitude is part of what leads to true education, but I would not say it’s a common quality.)

Another art that Jobs passionately indulged was his love of music. A true Baby Boomer he seemed to worship it, and not for nothing did Apple share a corporate name with the label the Beatles founded. (Which resulted in a long, long legal dispute.)

Jobs didn’t only passively listen to music, he understood it. It is quite easy to imagine him sparking up a spliff and listening to some Bob Marley, back when it was new. He also dated Joan Baez, so talk about passion.

Need I say where this led? At a time, the early part of the last decade, when the music industry was already spiraling into collapse, due to illegal file sharing, and the shortsighted greed of the major record labels, Jobs not only launched the iPod, but, more key, the iTunes store. As my colleague Zack O’Malley Greenberg so smartly put it, this made him, over time, the most important figure in the music industry, and helped take some of the bite out of free file sharing. This made Jobs more important to music than Clive Davis, Simon Cowell, and Lady Gaga combined, because he, literally, owned the store.

But it is hard to imagine that Jobs could have had such a feel for where the music business was headed if he was not, in fact, a fan first. You can’t fake passion.

Again, it is easy to imagine his love of music as initially being seen as beside the point, a distraction, possibly a waste of time. I have met many engineers, and many of them love music, but it’s doubtful they studied much of it in the course of their higher educations. I doubt Bill Gates, for example, ever listened to Dark Side of The Moon with the headphones on—though I love the image. But a single minded-focus on programming may have helped them imitate, but not create.

Today educators are being told more and more to push No Child Left Behind, a poorly thought out excuse for a program that pushes “core” academic programs at the expense of the arts. This will in the long run, allegedly, make the U.S. more competitive. As if becoming the new South Korea is something we, as Americans, should aspire to.

It’s not. There is a reason Jobs could only have come from a liberal arts background. There’s a reason schools like Reed, Evergreen, Wesleyan, Centre College, and Brown will continue to punch way above their weight when it comes to minting future generations of leaders and innovators. There’s a reason Bill Gates may be the richest technologist in the world, but Microsoft has become an afterthought when it comes to the cutting edge, and has been for some time. It’s like owning the utilities in Monopoly.

The reason is that while it takes a keen analytical brain to create a new technology it takes a much larger set of skills to make that technology into something the average person will want to use, believe in, defend, and, yes, impart with soul. It takes a liberal education.