A Lesson From Steve Jobs: Arts and Technology Education Are Related

It is the humanities and arts education in US universities that provided technology with that innovation, leadership and critical thinking skills that became the distinctive hallmarks of the Mac.
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As the eulogies for Steve Jobs pour in, his commencement address to Stanford
University graduates in 2005 has been heard millions of times over the last
two days. I knew from a younger generation of relatives, students and
friends that it was an address worth hearing, but had never really listened
to it all the way through. I finally did yesterday, and what stuck me was
how fondly and centrally he talked about his calligraphy class at Reed
College. For him, that class had a profound influence on the design of the

If you have not heard this address, Mr. Jobs says that when he dropped out
of college, he took only classes he wanted to take and calligraphy was one
of them. To this class, he credits the fonts, the spaces and the keyboard
design of the first Macs. I assume that he was also alluding to the elegance
of design that became a hallmark of the Apple products, which provided not
only the aesthetic pleasure but also a pleasure, ease of use and connection
with consumers. The Apple products were remarkable in how they innovated
through design, and this design aesthetic created a following that few
products and companies can claim.

I am stuck by the centrality and importance Mr. Jobs gave to this class
because we hear it at a time when universities are cutting back on the arts
and humanities in favor of courses in science and technology. Arts and
Humanities, we are told, are useless for the making of technological
innovation. They might provide aesthetic pleasure that is personal, but do
not do more than that. They are certainly not assumed to be central to
productivity in the economic sense, or provide economic leadership in the
global economy.

Now some of this argument can be easily refuted by any measure of looking at
what we can call the "culture industries" in which US global leadership is
undoubted. Movies, television, music, the art world, museums, fashion,
Internet content (whatever its measure of quality), are produced by writers,
musicians, artists, and designers. They do so in collaboration with
technology and scientific innovation. But these are "industries" as well,
whose content is not machines and products and health, but "culture" in the
multiple and broad definition of the term. These industries are an important
part of the US as a global economic power.

My sense from hearing Mr. Jobs' commencement speech and from the products he
created was that for him, arts and humanities were integrally related to
science and technology. They were part of one world. In fact, listening to
Jobs, it is the humanities and arts education in US universities that
provided technology with that innovation, leadership and critical thinking
skills that became the distinctive hallmarks of the Mac. This integration is
also a distinctive aspect of an education that is integrated rather than
separated into knowledge silos.

Calligraphy is both aesthetic and technical and these two facets cannot be
separated. It is also a lesson in history, where Chinese scrolls, Islamic
arts and the Illuminated manuscripts of the European Middle Ages can all be
examined together. It provides a history of power of religion, monarchies
and of communication and technologies at different periods of time. It also
suggests that laborious and meticulous writing has its pleasures and can
also be used as innovation. For Jobs, it was in his recollection of the
Calligraphy course in his commencement address that made the difference that
marked the Mac from other computers, and this difference was what millions
of people and consumers‹appreciated.

There is no doubt at all that we need our students to be proficient in the
languages of the world as well as in the language of numbers as of computer
languages. But in the eagerness to push math and science, what is often
forgotten is that arts and humanities and social sciences are all integral
to a good education. Humanities and arts cannot be pigeonholed as
unnecessary or extra, as luxuries that we cannot afford now, as simply being
about pleasure rather than about productivity. They are central to
innovation, and to separate these is to the detriment of all of us.

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