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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Steve Jobs: Lessons for Universities

Friday, October 07, 2011

From all the obituaries to Steve Jobs, one common aspect has stood out for me: the fact that he was successful because of, not in spite of, his lack of a conventional educational background in computer engineering.
At his much-cited commencement address at Stanford, Jobs noted that although he dropped out of his college course after just six months, this happily enabled him to drop in to a free class on calligraphy:
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.
The aesthetic principles that he picked up here would inform Jobs' design philosophy, starting with the typefaces that made the early Mac computers so groundbreaking, and extending to the visual engineering of the iPad. One software engineer reminisced that they would present Jobs with a new piece of software built upon some radical and complex core programming, only to be told to return to the drawing board when he spotted an ugly button or mis-aligned font. This focus on appearance may have been frustrating, but it encultured a unique tech company that was driven to make things that worked beautifully, as opposed to merely functioning.

Job was convinced that it was this commitment to design, borne of putting artistry first and programming second, that led to the success of the Macintosh. There are probably very few computer companies around today that would employ people principally on the basis of their creativity and only secondarily on their ability to program:
The Macintosh turned out so well, because the people working on it were musicians, artists, poets and historians who also happened to be excellent computer scientists.
It should not be surprising why comments like this caught my eye, given the ongoing campaign against the reorientation of the UK's university system along market-led, output-based lines. Our universities are increasingly pushed to deliver degrees for those vocational purposes that are immediately useful to the economy. The economy needs more engineers, so universities must produce more people who can design bridges. The economy needs to develop its software industry, so we must have more graduates capable of programming Java. Science has a practical impact on society, so we must increase funding for science and technology research, and slash it for the arts and humanities.

Yet in his Stanford commencement address, Jobs noted of his calligraphy course that "None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life." Those two words, "practical application," might be easily come from the mouths of the technocrats at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (which, not that you would know it from the name, runs our universities). Jobs became one of the most innovative businessmen of the computer era. Yet he did so precisely because he was not rooted in a model of education that sees a direct, casual link between a course and the graduate that results.

Adrian Poole, Chair of the English Faculty at Cambridge, has compiled a list of the current buzzwords in government papers about universities: "operational implications", "outcome indicators", "impact beneficiaries", "incremental significance" and "levels of robustness" are some of the more chilling ones. Steve Jobs' course in calligraphy turned out, ultimately, to embody all of these ideals: it had a practical application, was of more than incremental significance, had operational implications for the IT industry. The trouble is, nobody, least of all the spontaneous Jobs himself, could have foreseen precisely how it would have these effects.
What mattered was that this course existed in the first place, and that none of the educators at Reed College were bothered when Jobs decided to follow his impulses. They allowed him, to use a slogan that the DBIS might do well to adopt, to "think different." The specialism of the university is its pluralistic culture, the type of culture that allowed Steve Jobs to wander out of engineering 101 and into calligraphy for beginners without judgement as to whether this would be ultimately worthwhile for society or the economy.

Jobs reflected on his unconventional and multidisciplinary education that:
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.
The UK government intends our universities to drive economic growth by delivering courses and research pathways that, it predicts, will matter in the immediate moment. But it is precisely the haphazard, multidisciplinary, unpredictable nature of universities that makes the very best entrepreneurship possible. Here, then, is one prediction: stripping down universities to an applied, utilitarian system might well prevent the next Steve Jobs from encountering the coincidence of disciplines that will lead to the unknown, beautiful technologies to come.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:44 am

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