Steve Jobs’ impact on modern education might be the most underestimated aspect of his legacy. Then again, maybe it is not surprising Jobs had a visionary prescription to revolutionize teaching and learning. He didn’t just want to see technology readily available in every classroom. He also fought hard to break up teacher unions, give parents and students vouchers to choose their schools, make learning holistic and individualized, and attract new generations of teachers who could radically rethink learning experiences. In short, he wanted to revolutionize education the way he did music, phones and computers.
Today, his legacy lives on, and not only with iPads and educational apps. There’s a whole branch of revolutionary education culture germinating from Jobs’ lifelong dedication to make learning exceptional again, from multi-level online research lessons to greater emphasis on student participation in their own lesson plans.
Perhaps this is why we find the life of Steve Jobs fascinating. Apple devotees and Jobs haters alike can’t seem to get enough of him. Jobs’ own journey through great adversity, failure and success speaks to us with precious wisdom. It certainly came out when he spoke at Stanford’s commencement address, telling students “how to live before you die,” and to “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
Jobs did something with his life few ever do: he fought tooth and nail to see his dreams realized. He routinely bit off more than he could chew and chewed it. This is Steve Jobs’ ultimate legacy — his life example teaches us how to tackle, overcome and lead the increasingly complicated world we live in. We hungrily want to learn how he did it. From his example, we can learn how to prepare our children for future challenges and opportunities. To continue the legacy, we can pick up where he left off, trying to re-empower the individual to think and act big.
In any case, the ways Jobs “thought differently” about progress, creativity, dreaming and learning are infinitely more valuable than even his most successful “i” creations. If we could inspire ourselves, and our children, to confront fixed ideas, unravel dogmatism and solve problems in creative but practical ways, perhaps then we would have a taste of the gift Jobs has bequeathed to us.
What is inspiring about Jobs is missing from today’s schools: a deep desire to serve humankind in a meaningful way. No corporation, institution, or ideology would prevent him from realizing his goals. Shouldn’t schools encourage students to look at life the same way?
Jobs certainly didn’t learn his trademark intensity, boldness and vision from school. He learned it from life. This is what mainstream education has forgotten — learning institutions are meant to focus, structure and refine the best parts of life’s journey. Teacher unions, bureaucratic leadership and crusty school boards have bled classrooms dry of life, experience and a charged reverence for those who tackle opportunities head on.
When learning environments become isolated, artificial, mechanical experiences (as they too often are), they become relatively worthless. Jobs was outspoken regarding his belief in holistic, individualized education. He envisioned passionate teachers serving students in meaningful ways, and addressing each student’s unique potential for success. He wanted teachers to embolden students to think far outside the box.
Many of Jobs’ outspoken opinions irked more than a few educators. What many have failed to recognize, however, is that he possessed educational expertise. In fact, it is no stretch to say his life was inexplicably tied to the world of education. His birth parents’ request to see him go to college, his truth-seeking endeavors to India and Zen monasteries, his inspirational dropout experience at Reed College (one of the toughest academic institutions in the U.S.), his mission to put a learning computer in the hands of every student, his scathingly critical remarks to education officials (unusual for a billion-dollar CEO to speak his mind? You bet), his Harvard commencement speech, and his passionate talks on schools and learning reveal a lifelong relationship with education that feels eerily like destiny.
Most people think “technology” when Jobs or Apple get mentioned around education. For the “older ones,” it might be a computer lab memory of playing Oregon Trail or tracking down Carmen Sandiego. It might even be doing homework on a Macintosh Plus. Younger generations would probably point to iPhone apps, podcasts, learning and teaching software or, most recently, iBooks — incredibly interactive etextbooks that cost a fraction of the normal (obscene) price.
On a larger scale, Jobs went on a mission: to see Macs, and later iPads, readily available in every school nationwide. What was initially a fight to bring technology in the classroom has all but become a victory, as learning widgetry has apparently found a major, permanent place in classrooms. Now, it is unusual not to see tablets in the hands of college students; furthermore, more and more colleges and universities are creating digital libraries. Professors are creating their own, ultra-updated texts and learning materials using white papers or, better yet, the iPad technology.
Even teacher credential programs include training that helps instructors use computers and the Internet in their classrooms. Technology also helps the disabled and learning impaired. And Apple’s latest blow, to textbook monopolies, has the game changing again. Maybe teacher unions and standardized tests are next? Unfortunately, some things can’t be replaced — notably Jobs’ ability to stir up controversy and lead the opposition.
Some may have wholeheartedly disagreed with his beliefs about the tyranny of teacher unions and potential for school voucher systems, but what shouldn’t be doubted is Jobs’ advocacy for dynamic, effective and purposeful learning in schools. The fact that he meticulously surrounded himself with brilliant thinkers shows that he valued individuals who loved their profession and reached for seemingly impossible goals. He knew if schools didn’t produce those same kinds of people, and fast, more than the economy would be in hot water. In his final year, he bluntly stated to President Obama that the 30,000 engineering jobs Apple created in China would not be coming back to the U.S. “until we educate more engineers here.”
What is less known is that, toward the end of his life, Jobs decided that technology was better fit for a supportive role in education. He knew that complex sociopolitical problems lying at the heart of public school woes required a revolutionary change in school culture. Technology alone would never do it.
At his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, “How to Live Before You Die,” Jobs urgently moved students and professionals to live with the perspective that each day might be their last. He spoke compassionately to students, telling them to live for “what is truly important” and to remember that, “You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” For many, this was a climactic moment representing a lifelong devotion to education and progressive values. It seemed as if Jobs was trying to give students something their education had not yet provided.
Jobs’ ultimate message? The “whole widget” isn’t a machine after all. A capable, dynamic, visionary individual is the goal — and the holistic, integral learning systems that train them. Jobs tried to inspire young people to realize their life’s calling, to make a lasting impact on the world and to become well-rounded, forward-thinking agents. He demanded a revitalization of a progressive teaching spirit. He wondered why a couple of kids working in a Silicon Valley garage, he and Steve Wozniak, could change the way the world lived with technology, while a whole nation couldn’t even make baby steps towards new and better classrooms.
Perhaps nothing has changed more in the last 30 years than the way we learn. Jobs’ contribution and commitment to education deserves our attention. When he first tinkered with motherboards and a vision for computer interfacing, he didn’t see himself as a techie. He looked around and saw young people who could have been artists, philosophers and poets getting excited about the potential computers had to inspire civilization and carry it forward.
The only book on Jobs’ iPad, which he read annually, was the spiritual classic Autobiography of a Yogi. The author, a yoga master from India, Paramhansa Yogananda, has much to say about education and, in general, about success, fulfillment, happiness and prosperity. Yogananda created “how-to-live schools” focused on the balanced development of the body, feeling, will and intellect. Interestingly, Jobs nearly sent his own child to an Ananda Living Wisdom School — a modernized version of Yogananda’s vision.
The fact that Jobs read a book extolling values of compassion, intuition, meditation, education and various other spiritual and metaphysical principles, should inform our opinion of his approach to education and life. He knew education would need to prepare students for an uncertain, volatile future by teaching them to relate to their inner and outer worlds without limitations.
Modern education has lost its fluidity, its ability to adapt to the need of the individual. Jobs realized that alternative and independent education would be our best bet, and that public education was, for the most part, an obsolete institution, as long as the watchdogs were still in place.
So what will we do? The individual always has the power, Jobs reminds us from beyond the grave, and as individuals we make daily choices that can feed or starve large organizations that would have us believe we call the shots. Parents can send their children to alternative schools like Waldorf, Montessori, Living Wisdom Schools, theme-based charter schools, or countless other holistic-thinking learning centers.
Or, parents can home school and hire private tutors who love to teach and know how to nurture children. Teachers can choose to work at alternative schools, or at least work for change in their own school and community. Jobs was not keen on middle ground; he felt little sympathy for teachers complicit in working against the higher learning potential of students.
Getting educated on education is another vital point illustrated by Jobs’ passion for learning outside the classroom. Experience is the greatest teacher. Whenever Jobs couldn’t get what he wanted from circumstances, whether from a school, business or employee, he snapped his fingers and looked three steps ahead to something that would work better. Maybe this wasn’t always the soundest philosophy where relationships are concerned, but it did allow him to affect unparalleled change.
A question raised repeatedly at MacWorld/iWorld is, “What’s next for education?” Will it be virtual avatars teaching children? Or the next new iPads app? Or, perhaps a new, unforeseen gadget altogether? Time will tell how Apple’s innovative relationship with education continues to manifest.
What can happen today, however, is for every administrator, teacher, and executive of an educational services organization to start thinking a little bit more like Steve Jobs. Relentlessly call into question orthodoxy and look at the world boldly with solutionorientated thinking. We can all stop our support of school environments that deaden creativity and alienate “the crazy ones, the misfits and the rebels.” We need non-conformists to run our businesses, communities, teach in our schools and keep the blood of our nation spirited.
The Steve Jobs legacy should be our own aspiration to make a different in the big picture by thinking, and acting, differently in our everyday lives. Schools cannot be continued to run like factories, mass-producing children. If we really do want leaders, visionaries and revolutionaries to push the human race forward, it will start with education.
TRISTAN KAMRAN MATLOCK has taught in public, inner city and private grade and high schools. He is principal of Ananda Living Wisdom School in Nevada City, CA.