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What Higher Education Can Learn From Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, in one of his less profane moments, might have called an educational system devoid of the liberal arts, like a computer or a phone or a music player devoid of both beauty and functionality, "a piece of crap." I can't say that I disagree.
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Steve Jobs was not a nice man: this is made abundantly clear by Walter Isaacson's compelling new biography of the propulsive force behind Apple. He was, however, almost preternaturally insightful about such things as the nature of the creative process, the relationship between a product and its user, and the need for balance between complexity and simplicity.

There are lessons in Jobs' success that are I believe directly relevant to higher education, though they may not be the most obvious ones. Whether or not the tablet computer will replace the traditional textbook or distance learning will increasingly displace the traditional classroom I cannot say. The lessons to which I refer are more fundamental and touch upon how higher education imagines itself today and in the future. Three of Jobs' particular insights have stuck with me since I finished reading the story of his life.

"Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do."

One of Jobs' first major decisions when he returned to Apple in 1997 was to reduce the number of products the company made at a time when most technology companies were expanding their product lines. He believed that future success was dependent upon doing a few things supremely well, as opposed to doing many things pretty well, and that those two approaches were strategically and philosophically incompatible.

One of higher education's great weaknesses is the inability to decide what not to do. We see this played out in many ways: on a curricular level, where the proliferation of programs without the proliferation of resources makes it very difficult to maintain high quality across the board; on an institutional level, particularly at research universities, where the attempt simultaneously to educate undergraduates and graduate students, to run a hospital and a law school, and to field semi-professional football and basketball teams creates entities that are sprawling, disconnected, and poorly focused. We see it within consortia of colleges, where redundancies are created because it is easier to avoid deciding what not to do than to increase educational efficiency through shared programming.

There would be sufficient variety and capacity within the American higher education system to do many things supremely well if we were willing to distinguish the essential from the ancillary, to try less often to be all things to all people, and, at least from time to time, to decide what not to do. Instead we seem to have settled into a system of doing many things pretty well, and I'm not sure that will be good enough to create the outcomes we need.

"Some people say, 'Give the customers what they want.' But that's not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do."

Jobs goes on to quote Henry Ford: "If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, 'A faster horse!'"

There are far too many people these days -- many of whom, unfortunately, hold elected office -- who are asking higher education to produce a faster horse: who are, that is, making judgments about the ideal nature of higher education chiefly on the basis of their perception of the present and without any serious attempt to imagine and prepare for the future. They are insisting that the "customer" knows best and that the job of higher education is simply to define the near-term needs of the largest number of those customers and to meet them.

As is often the case with erroneous arguments, this one contains a germ of truth. Higher education needs to be seriously attentive to the needs of the work force and to the desires of those who are the recipients of its services. We have not been as attentive to these things as we should be. We have done a pretty poor job, especially but not exclusively in our graduate and professional programs, of matching supply to demand, and at some of our most prestigious institutions we have done little to prioritize high-quality teaching.

But being attentive does not mean being mechanically responsive, and if all higher education does is respond to external and short-sighted prescriptions, it will be failing in one of its central responsibilities: to envision and help create a better future.

It is in no way demeaning to say that students are called students because they still have things to learn, and that the responsibility of higher education is to figure out -- working in concert with many other groups -- what those things should be. It is frankly preposterous for someone who has never taken a college course in anthropology or philosophy to declare that those courses have no value (see Florida, Governor of).

It is equally preposterous to idealize an educational system that would be entirely focused on the vocational skills that are most necessary in the year 2011. Of course we must teach those skills, and we must teach them to more students than we do at present. But we must also try to anticipate the skills that will be most necessary in 2021 and 2031 and to teach the habits of mind that will enable graduates to adapt and adjust as the world, and the economy, change around them. Given the speed and direction of automation, outsourcing, and technological evolution, those skills are likely to be both very different from and more intellectually advanced than those most in demand today.

"The creativity that can occur when a feel for both the humanities and the sciences combine in one strong personality was the topic that most interested me in the biographies of Franklin and Einstein, and I believe that it will be a key to creating innovative economies in the twenty-first century."

Jobs described the intersection of the humanities and the sciences as "magical," and he distinguished between Apple and Microsoft by asserting, on the basis of plenty of evidence, that "Microsoft never had the humanities and liberal arts in its DNA."

So let me be clear. Yes, we need more scientists and more engineers. Yes, we need more people with the high-level vocational skills required for a knowledge economy. But we also need some meaningful number of people who are liberally educated, that is, who are educated broadly and deeply in areas of the arts, humanities, and social sciences that are too often considered impractical. We need engineers who have studied sculpture and business people who have studied psychology, just as we need English teachers who have studied mathematics.

It is a mistake to believe that one can reliably imagine the future without studying the past, as one does through the discipline of history. It is a mistake to believe that one can create beautiful and useful products without some engagement with fields such as art and music, where the human capacity for creativity is so spectacularly on display. It is a mistake to believe that one can form the empathy necessary to engage fully with the world's problems without developing what the poet John Keats called "negative capability," or the ability to step out of oneself that comes with the reading and study of literature.

If we are in fact to create an innovative economy for this and future centuries, we need someplace in our system of higher education for that "magical" intersection of multiple disciplines and perspectives that is central to the liberal arts.

Such an education might not be the right prescription for everyone, but unless it is available to those whose imaginations it excites and whose creative capacities it might expand, our system of higher education will be greatly diminished. Steve Jobs, in one of his less profane moments, might have called an educational system devoid of the liberal arts, like a computer or a phone or a music player devoid of both beauty and functionality, "a piece of crap." I can't say that I disagree.