Thursday, February 2, 2012

Steve Jobs' Legacy

Having read Walter Isaacson's previous biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and the "Wise Men" who advised the post-World War II presidents, I eagerly anticipated his new portrayal of Steve Jobs. What could be better than one of my favorite biographers taking on the genius behind Apple, particularly since I own a Macbook, an iPod, an iPhone, and I am typing this on my iPad? While I never worshipped Jobs the way that some people did, I do have a great deal of respect for what he accomplished and how he irrevocably altered our concepts of design, technology, and the way we see our world.

Fortunately, I was not disappointed. Since I began reading the book earlier this week, I found myself unable to stop thinking about it. My thoughts varied between admiration for Jobs' laser-like focus and his commitment to perfection and repulsion for the way he treated other people. Attending a conference for heads of school, while reading the book, provided a great opportunity to consider how Job's style of leadership applies to those of us who work in schools. I dare say that none of us would want to act toward other people with the disdain and disrespect that Jobs did, but many of us would like to provide the leadership that enabled Apple to accomplish what it has.

Among the many nuggets of insight stemming from the book is the way that Jobs saw the worlds of science and art as interrelated. At one point Jobs says, "Edward Land of Polaroid talked about the intersection of the humanities and science. I like that intersection. There's something magical about that place. There are a lot of people innovating, and that's not the main distinction of my career. The reason Apple resonates with people is that there's a deep current of humanity in our innovation. I think great artists and engineers are similar, in that they both have a desire to express themselves. In fact some of the best people working on the original Mac were poets and musicians on the side. In the seventies computers became a way for people to express their creativity. Great artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo were also great at science. Michelangelo knew a lot about how to quarry stone, not just how to be a sculptor."

All too often, we, and consequently our students, see the humanities and the sciences as separate but equal disciplines. Whether they call themselves English or math geeks, or they see themselves as right or left brained, they relatively early on dichotomize themselves as either artistic or scientific people. In a particularly fascinating revelation, Isaacson shows how Jobs' life and early career demonstrate the intersection of a variety of trends in the sixties and seventies; these ranged from the rebellious curiosity of do it yourself computer builders inspired by Dave Packard of Hewlett-Packard to those individuals who sought enlightenment through meditation in ashrams in India.

As long as we create a false separation between the active life of the mind and the transcendental nourishment of the spirit, we disserve our students. Isaacson demonstrates that for Jobs these were neither separate nor unrelated endeavors; on the contrary, they were inextricably linked, and much of Jobs' brilliance was in bringing these together through his love of simple and elegant design and his unwavering commitment to technical perfection.

As we prepare the next generation to follow in Steve Jobs’ footprints, we would do well to heed the many instructive lessons of his life. Of course, we do not want our students to treat others the way Jobs did, and we need to show them that a uncompromising commitment to a vision does not necessitate cruelty to one's colleagues or one's friends. However, as Isaacson's book shows, there is much more to Jobs' legacy than this. We can appreciate what he accomplished while acknowledging his failings. Beyond that, we must show our students that the walls between the humanities and sciences are man-made, and if they pay too much attention to these arbitrary boundaries, they stifle their creativity and prevent themselves from achieving their intellectual and personal potential.