Over the last few days, almost everyone with a heartbeat and an internet connection has watched Steve Jobs giving that commencement address at Stanford (and if you haven't, do right away,hype aside, it's well worth the quarter hour). One of the things that struck me about it was his description of his experience of Higher Education.
In brief, his (adopted) parents scrimped and saved for him to go to college. He did, but dropped out after six months, judging that it wasn't worth the huge expense of his parents money. But he obviously thought it was worth something, because he hung around campus for another 18 months, going to the courses that interested him, rather than the ones he was obliged to take to complete his elective. In his speech, he tells of the calligraphy class, and how it led to his creations having beautiful fonts. There's an official biography out soon, and I'll be interested to read more details on his experience there.
Jobs went on, as we know, to be a powerful influence in education, creating initiatives like the iTunes University, and famously remarking that 'Computer Science is a liberal art'. Much has been written about the direct and indirect influences of the machines he made on education at all levels.
His experience of higher education gives us a lot to think about. He clearly valued it, and thought it worth the time, but not the money. He prized the content, but not the structure and form of following a path to a set discipline, as defined by someone else. He needed a system that would allow him to be a self directed learner, and follow his own agenda. It wasn't there, so he created it, first for himself, and later, for the rest of us.
For people of a beancounting inclination, like myself, who might be inclined in our weaker moments to dismiss a University course in something like Calligraphy, his story gives us pause. We never know quite where a piece of learning for it's own sake might take us, especially in an era where new disciplines, careers and industries spring up every few years.
Jobs was, of course, an outlier, one of the small number of unreasonable people who exert a disproportionate influence on the future. He was clearly remarkable, and surely we cannot draw too much inferences from his experience to that of mass higher education. But given the capacity of these outliers to change the world they live in, our education systems should allow the kinds of self directed learning journeys that Jobs took. We would do well to trade a few less graduates that fit the mould for a few more dropouts that break it.