Thoughts on Steve Jobs, Self-Invention and Discovery in Education

Yesterday, my students were keen to read Steve Jobs’ famed 2005 Stanford University commencement speech. This was no regular group of Stanford undergrads seeking inspiration from America’s entrepreneurial hero.  In fact, they were neither undergrads nor American.

A small class of STEM masters and PhD students from China enrolled in a non-profit liberal arts summer program called HEAL, they had requested some reading that would provide insight into education in the United States. What better piece could I choose—so I thought—but the late great graduation reflections of Silicon Valley’s most storied inventor?

The essay was a partial success.

Thrilled at Jobs’ use of idiom, including metaphors from art games “connecting the dots” and relay-races “dropping the baton,” the students roundly admired Jobs’ narrative of self-invention in which he tells how he boldly left Reed College to save his parents’ money when he discovered his lack of direction in higher education. After all, why would anyone simply flounder spending parental money, if one were unserious about coursework?

Equally impressive to them: Jobs’ discovery of calligraphy, which at first seemed to have no particular use-value in itself. On the one hand, calligraphy was just an aesthetic curiosity Jobs explored while he cast about seeking direction and snagging dinners at the Portland Hare Krishna temple. It turned out, however, calligraphy played an integral role in his project of self-invention. Jobs’ fascination with calligraphy as a skill and art for art’s sake intrigued my students. Many had studied Chinese calligraphy and were pleased to learn that such a famous American had as well.

 

Most interestingly, the students compared Jobs’ extra-curricular calligraphy adventure to university research in the humanities—a pursuit, which to the minds of these STEM students, had no explicitly instrumental rewards—what was calligraphy good for? It’s use-value not immediately apparent, but looking back Jobs could “connect the dots,” quite literally in fact and identify the origins of his interest in fonts on the very first Macintosh. Similarly these students asked, what are the humanities good for?

I tried to convince them the humanities might well offer both instrumental and substantive returns—critical thinking and communication skills are highly marketable—I ventured, as if I were saying something completely new.

Yes, yes, they responded, everyone knows that! Of course such skills are always in high demand.

Much more novel from their perspective was the idea of “useless” subjects, which they argued were only “useless” in a sense similar to Plato’s philosophers and their quest for knowledge, who are also “useless.”

Humanities inspire invention, one bioengineering student declared.

Studying Plato for example may not directly produce the next patent (he already had one patent under his belt), but rather content itself and its precise forms and conventions inspire on their own. Steve Jobs, they reasoned, had no particular use for learning all the forms and conventions of calligraphy serif and sans-serif fonts, but later in a very different context these took on a new meaning altogether.

The students were also moved by Jobs’ travails with Apple, having transformed his perceived failure and betrayal into an opportunity that enabled him to return and succeed at Apple again. Saddest of all in the speech, is Jobs’ premature presumption of triumph over cancer. Jobs’ sunny optimism about his health, struck students as prophetic words of caution—even as Jobs urged his audience to abandon all inhibitions and to live their own lives instead of “someone else’s life.”

In fact, the idea of “living someone else’s life,” as Job dismissively refers to conforming social and educational norms, presented the students with an odd impossibility as far as they were concerned.

Was it ever possible—even metaphorically— to “live someone else’s life?”

Not really, they argued. In fact, even in the most conformist regimes (they didn’t name any regime in particular) one’s life path and choices are still one’s own responsibility. Moreover, for every well-trodden road, there is always the uniqueness of one’s own encounter with norms and disciplines.

Nor were these students all that convinced by Jobs’ lack of respect for college course requirements and his belief that pursuing electives just out of sheer personal interest would lead to invention—very least self-invention—if not also enlightenment and entrepreneurial genius. In fact, they took the opposite position—the greatest moments of enlightenment for them came in the classes they least wanted to take, but then surprisingly found themselves enjoying.

These disagreements with Jobs’ celebrated speech arise not simply from a difference in cultures between American and Chinese higher education students. Rather, the students maintained that their concerns were applicable in many higher education contexts.

Ultimately, the recipe for inspiration includes going beyond the recreational approach to learning, by adopting  a confrontational one, where one struggles with requirements and demands and must also fight to think outside the box.

Outside the box! “What an American idiom!” My students told me. “There are many boxes you can’t get out of so quickly, and that itself is a cause to seek freedom.”