Thoughts on Steve Jobs and Education

Thoughts on Steve Jobs and Education

Why are most thought leaders so thoughtlessly opinionated when it comes to education? The Steve Jobs bio offers some insights as to why...

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson's bio of Steve Jobs -- a fascinating read. Jobs was brilliant in so many respects, as Isaacson's bio illustrates. However, the book also makes clear that Jobs was glaringly deficient in other respects, including his views on education. Based on the book and this recent Wired article about him, he was a Free Market Rules guy, one who came late to the realization that technology can't fix education and who apparently never did get past looking for scapegoats (in his case, the unions/NEA).

One of the motivators for me to write my book (coming out soon, I promise!) was trying to understand better why so many otherwise thoughtful opinion leaders become so thoughtlessly opinionated when it comes to education. As the book explains, this happens to business leaders because they oversimplify education by equating it to business. Lately I've been thinking about this more deeply -- I don't have anything well-formed yet, but here are some thoughts prompted by reading the Jobs biography:

Jobs was brilliant, driven, and dogged at creating products which were well-designed, solved a problem, made something better. His mantra was to reduce complexity to simplicity, and his operating style was hyper-binary (some would say bipolar) - everything was 'the best ever' or else it was 'crap' or worse. This worked brilliantly for the many innovations he devised over his lifetime.

According to the bio, what was he bad at? He didn't deal very well with relationships, ambiguous situations, negotiations which required tact, accepting conventional treatments when he first got cancer, or fathering a child out of wedlock. In short, he was not good at dealing with complexity that couldn't be easily simplified.

So, here's the deeper insight: Free Market Rules people like Jobs think they can reduce education to a manageable, fixable problem that can be solved because that's how they successfully solve business problems. Even after he realized in the mid 1990s that 'what's wrong with education can't be fixed with technology', Jobs apparently never got past the notion that education was a problem whose wrongs needed fixing. He reduced the problem to one or two simple causes (unions, NEA) and proposed a relatively simple solution (in his case, putting free textbook content on iPads).

The reality, of course, is that trying to oversimplify education only damages and diminishes it. Trying to fix education is like trying to fix a relationship, a deadly disease, a ruined negotiation, or an unplanned child. It requires an appreciation of complexity and an ability to work with it. It means dealing with a certain amount of ambiguity, lack of perfection, compromise, social conviviality. These were not Jobs's strong suits.

So while not all Free Market Rules advocates share Jobs's manic devotion to excellence, they do share his tendency to want to simplify the complex even when it isn't that simple. I'll look at some other examples in subsequent posts...

SK/JS on the Web