Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Steve Jobs On Schools

Kevin Drum points to a piece of Steve Jobs's education policy that Walter Isaacson relates in his new Jobs biography:
Jobs also criticized America's education system, saying it was "crippled by union work rules," noted Isaacson. "Until the teachers' unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform." Jobs proposed allowing principals to hire and fire teachers based on merit, that schools stay open until 6 p.m. and that they be open 11 months a year. [Emphasis in original]
I have always been torn by Jobs's comments about education.  His 2005 graduation address at Stanford is a prime example.  Jobs said the following:
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.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.
Again, 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. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
I appreciate the idea that one should be curious, be able to make connections between unrelated disciplines, and attempt to connect the dots.  I dislike the idea that dropping out of college is the best way to make those connections.

The points Isaacson reports that Jobs add to my ambivalence.  I don't really dispute the fact that the school year should be longer.  I was at school at 7:40 this morning and didn't leave until 5:45.  I would hope that schools could get away from the 23 minute lunch break if they stay in session until 6 pm. I also believe that a six week session followed by a week or ten day break would be better than the current system.  My system would have school in session for about 10 months.

On the other hand, I still don't see how or why firing teachers is the solution to every problem facing education.  I guess that's because I'm not a billionaire.

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