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(2011-10-19 11:51:50)










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


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 Mac.


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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