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From the admin chair

Where Technology Street meets Liberal Arts Street

What I learned from reading the biography of Steve Jobs.


Like thousands of others, I received Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs for Christmas this year. While this may seem of marginal relevance to a column on universities, in fact there are some important messages that come through.

Steve Jobs was rude, bullying and had the ability to take undue credit while passing on blame without remorse or even recognition. He was a micro-manager for whom the smallest detail mattered. That led to some brilliant work, but it also led to some spectacular failures.

I suspect that far too many business executives will think that channeling Jobs means shouting at employees and interfering in the daily processes of the operation. If so, they will find it doesn’t work, for it could be argued that Jobs succeeded in spite of his managerial style, not because of it.

No, what I take from Steve Jobs is much different and much more relevant to the academic world. His education and his enthusiasm straddled two worlds that were quite different. On the one side, he was enthused by and trained in the world of technology. Though his early partner Steve Wozniak was the true genius in this field, Jobs understood computers and the skills required to develop them. Throughout his career he was, as he said, a “product person” and he disdained business executives at Apple who thought of products as interchangeable.

The other side was equally important though. Both on his own and during his time at Reed College, Jobs immersed himself in subjects like design and calligraphy. His exploration of aesthetics through fine arts distracted him from the courses he was supposed to be taking, but all those seemingly random digressions proved crucial to his later success.

Jobs knew that technology could not stand alone but had, if it was to reach a broad community, to stir the emotions and even elevate the spirit. Aesthetics were not an afterthought to the “real world” of business and technology but an essential part of it. He recognized this explicitly. When he launched the iPad, as Isaacson notes in this book, the final slide that this master-showman used was a signpost showing the corner of Technology Street and Liberal Arts Street. Similarly, his appreciation of calli-graphy and design made him a minimalist and led to one of the most important mantras of his career: simplify.

The marrying of technology and aesthetics is a classic case, if unorthodoxly pursued, of the value of broad-based study. Universities are well situated for this, in that they have the expertise and the creativity to expose students to a range of knowledge that doesn’t exist in many other places in society. Allowing students to explore their passions while opening their creativity to different perspectives is something that lies at the core of learning.

Yet, the reality is that this is not the way universities work, and it is facile simply to say that they should change. The expectations of society, parents and students all tend to work in the opposite direction. Universities are designed to prepare people for a transition to a career or, to put it a little less contentiously, to give them a coherent set of knowledge and expertise. Indeed, the pressure to professionalize degrees has been a constant trend of the last half-century and has led to a relative shift in demand and resources away from the concept and prestige of a general university education.

Still, there are two messages in Jobs’s career that we can keep in mind. The first is the vital role played by the arts in creativity. The rhetoric around the “useless BA” is persistent and, in response, universities have repeatedly pointed to successful arts graduates in business. Yet somehow those stories seem only to half-convince, as if these people succeeded not because of the BA and maybe even in spite of it. However, in the case of Jobs, his success was intimately linked to his exposure to the arts.

The second message is less comforting. Steve Jobs never finished his degree. His pursuit of aesthetics and creativity led him beyond the university, though it might be argued the university was crucial to his evolution. Still, it might also be seen as a warning that universities could do better at opening pathways to students whose minds or restlessness take them beyond the normal world of majors, minors and credits.

Doug Owram is deputy vice-chancellor of UBC Okanagan and a Canadian historian.
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