Another Inconvenient Truth

This week there have been many eloquent and moving eulogies and articles written about Steve Jobs, his life, work, and genius. Many articles noted the place Jobs came to occupy as a visionary who changed the way we live and work. I am among his many admirers and a user of quite a few of his company’s products, and I agree with much of what has been said about Steve Jobs in the days following his untimely death.

But something about the overwhelming celebration of Jobs’ genius, the many stories about his unwavering and unusual approach to the things he was passionate about have given me pause. Not because they weren’t true—no, it is more the gaping discrepancy they expose between how we celebrate him now versus how he and others like him are treated when they are younger. Because when we call a mega-successful man like Steve Jobs a visionary genius–despite his famously “difficult” and “flawed” personality—we can safely celebrate his quirkiness and uniqueness and break-the-mold attitude. But when that same Steve Jobs is a kid, let’s say, or a difficult pre-teen or teenager, how does our educational system typically treat him? In most cases, not too well.

By now it’s something of a mantra that the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and other “geniuses” dropped out of college or had great difficulty even completing high school. The fact is, many of these (now) visionaries were “square pegs in round holes,” who were unable—and often unwilling–to “go with the program.” And often they have a miserable experience in school, where the way they learn best is not accepted or tolerated, and they are generally viewed as a big pain in the butt and a daily challenge to accepted (easier) ways of doing things. While these kids are frequently acknowledged to be smart, they may not perform especially well on tests and they don’t always follow convention. In short, kids like this are often viewed as more trouble than they’re worth—and unless we are lucky, that genius is squashed.

Steve Jobs was said to be a “turbulent” child who didn’t care much for school. In 4th grade he had a teacher who saw something special about him and bribed him with candy and her own money to encourage him to learn math. He excelled, and actually skipped the 5th grade, entering 6th grade in a new middle school. In this new school he was bullied. Steve Jobs came home and told his parents he was going to stop going to school completely unless he was sent to a new school. His parents apparently agreed, and had to move to another city to find a school he could attend. That city was Cupertino, which we know was an incredible bit of fortune for Steve Jobs, and for all of us.

In Steve Jobs’ commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class of Stanford, he explains why he dropped out of Reed College after a short time, but then hung around the campus for another year and a half, sleeping on friends’ floors and couches so he could audit classes that interested him—at least one of which (calligraphy) he said had a tremendous impact on him and the later development of the Mac. What drove him from Reed was the rigid system of required core courses—which students must in many cases “get through” in order to graduate. I’m not going to debate the wisdom of a core curriculum here, but I do think that the rigid structures of some university core requirements, as well as the test-driven, requirement-laden educational system, are counterproductive for many who need a different approach. There’s a difference between exposing students to different areas of learning and imposing an often-arbitrary set of courses believed to be enriching and “necessary” for a “well-educated” person. Moreover, many times alternative courses or paths in high school are discouraged in favor of a college-bound curriculum that can be measured and standardized.

A few years ago I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal about the young Bill Gates, and his difficult path through adolescence and high school. His intellect had taken off around age 11; he read the entire encyclopedia on his own, and became very interested in international politics, business, and the nature of life. However, he resisted control and needed a great deal of freedom to follow his interests, and he was a trial to his parents. Eventually, however, they realized that the status quo wasn’t working, and enrolled Bill in a private high school that allowed him much more freedom, and where he coincidentally discovered computers. Bill was allowed to take some school nights off to enjoy use of computers at the nearby University of Washington, and during his senior year of high school he took a break during the year to work as a programmer at a power plant in the southern part of the state. Gates thrived on the freedom he had been given.

Now we find these men, their passion, their drive, their individualism, remarkable, but they’ve already been successful, so it’s an easy leap to make. However, there are countless kids like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, growing up right now, who may have a similar potential but who aren’t lucky enough to find themselves in places where they have a chance to become the next remarkable visionary.

3 thoughts on “Another Inconvenient Truth

  1. Another essay of keen insight on a topic that gets overlooked in this an other great American “against all odds” storylines. We so praise the individuals that go outside the box, in this case outside the present educational system, and go on to succeed in a big way. We don’t often think about how that reflects back on the system itself. Many good points here.

  2. Fascinating. Education is one of Bill and Melinda Gates’ charitable interests
    . I wonder if they are tailoring any efforts toward accommodating students of oddball brilliance.


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