Educating Steve Jobs

by Sarah Firisen


First it was Libya, most recently it was Hurricane Irene, but in the middle of the week the single biggest news item, at least measured in terms of newspaper real estate, was that Steve Jobs has stepped down from running Apple. Is it stretching superlatives to say that he may be the one person alive who has most changed the course of history? As Joe Nocera said in the New York Times this week, probably more than anyone else alive, Steve Jobs has known the feeling of what it's like to have changed America, and probably the world. We can debate whether or not the personal computer as it is now has changed the world for the better, but it must be beyond dispute that it has changed it dramatically for most people.

So, let's make the sad assumption that Steve Jobs has stepped down from Apple irreversibly, what now? Where's the next Steve Jobs coming from? Clearly, the industrial world needs more Steve Jobs, but specifically, America needs more. What does it take to turn out, not only the next Steve Jobs, but perhaps a generation more likely to create multiple “Steve Jobs”-like innovators than the generation before? I don't know exactly, but I'm pretty sure that, whatever it is, we're not doing it as a society.

There are many myths about Steve Jobs, many attempts to distil the je ne sais quoi that made this man as impactful as he has been, but one thing I think is certain: we're moving our education system in a direction away from any lessons learned from the bio of someone like Jobs. One of the favourite stories about the Apple founder is that, when he dropped out of college and no longer had any courses that he had to take, he chose to take a calligraphy course. What he learned in that class was reflected years later in the typography for the first Mac. And this in turn changed the personal computer interface forever.

This kind of story is repeated over and over, both in Jobs' story and in the story of other innovators; the story of creative epiphanies springing from the exposure to a wide range of ideas, a wide range of disciplines. Yet we have a public school system that is increasingly deemphasizing art, music, social studies and the like in favour of test prep.

Forbes recently published a piece, Understanding Apple: Five Myths About Steve Jobs. Reading this piece and so many other attempts to dissect the success of the man, what emerges is that Steve Jobs isn't some genius of perfection who has never made a misstep. Rather, he's a master of the art of quickly learning from failures, of which Apple has had many; of seeing the kernel of a brilliant idea in other people's concepts (that those people and organizations had often failed to capitalize upon) and moving those ideas to the next level. He's a master of melding form and function, not sacrificing one to the other. How is it that almost all other technology companies haven't figured this out? I don't know, but they haven't. Apple consistently creates objects that are beautiful and functional. It turns out that aesthetics matter after all. So why are we dropping art classes in our public schools so that there's more time to prep for standardized tests?

Is there any evidence at all that the way that we're educating our children in the US is in any way likely to lead to a Steve Jobs mentality? Maybe that's a lot to ask; maybe one Steve Jobs comes along every generation, if we're lucky. But are we even getting close? Are we even trying? Are we exposing our children to a wide range of disciplines and ideas and encouraging their creativity?

I know that I've harped on about this over time, but innovation, at any level, requires an appetite for failure. Anyone remember the Newton? An abject failure of Apple's, and there are many others. Yes, it's easy to just remember how fabulous the iPhone and iPad are and how much we all love our Mac Books. But there were plenty of failures. And, under Jobs, Apple learned from these failures and came back even stronger. But we're educating our children to be failure averse.

Does anyone really think that it doesn't matter whether or not we can regularly and reliably turn out Steve Jobs-like, even Steve Jobs-light, individuals? I don't know, but I do know that we are not educating in a way that maximizes the chances of doing so in the future. And that's probably not a good thing.