I am willing to bet anyone reading this column either owns or has used an Ipod. The widespread use and knowledge of apple products illustrates the magnitude of past Apple CEO Steve Job’s influence and the success of his company. I do not need to explain any further why Steve Jobs is an important figure, but his affinity for Hampden-Sydney might seem a little fuzzy. Even though a man who was the son of a Syrian Muslim and German-American graduate students, and who cites his experiences with LSD as one of the most important experiences in his life, does not seem to have much in common with guys in Virginia that are typically southern, conservative, and wear bow ties to football games, I think Steve Jobs would have been a big supporter of a Hampden-Sydney Degree. In a recent WSJ article, jobs explained that Microsoft couldn’t compete with Apple since they lacked an understanding of the “liberal arts” so they remained forever “a tech company” that “just didn’t get it.” (What We Learned About Steve Jobs on ’60 Minutes’ WSJ Oct 23).
Creative capacity is ultimately what separates entrepreneurs, like Jobs, from non-entrepreneurs. A creative person is one who is able to mix some of his individual ideas with ideas in the world to create new knowledge or a new product. Unfortunately, creativity is not something we can master in a class; rather, creative capacity is something that is molded over time, but it is certainly something one can develop. In fact, I think a liberal arts education does exactly that: fosters the kind of individualism, and creative capacity, that characterize people who change the world, like Mr. Jobs.
The typical liberal arts undergraduate might wonder how his art history class is going to help him prepare for law school, and the truth is that it might not - but who knows. Taking classes in a variety of disciplines does not intuitively seem like the best way to reach a very specific career goal. The liberal arts path can be counterintuitive to the linear fashion we typically use to think about things. In fact, learning about many different subjects appears to be opposed to specialized labor, which Adam Smith explained as early as 1776. However, education is not nearly as linear a process as we would like to imagine. We take a variety of courses searching for what I think Dr. Pontuso accurately calls ‘the biggest mystery to us: ourselves.’ Liberal arts educations are not designed to make students a “jack of all trades.” We know specialized labor makes us wealthy, but the problem is that no one knows what their specialization is. Students need the liberal arts in order to discover what it is that lights his intellectual world on fire; there is no reason to assume that each person’s specialization is going to appear on a list of majors- it could be a combination of many things. Ultimately, discovering your specialization and then fostering this individuality is what a liberal arts education is for; this is why Steve Jobs likes the liberal arts.
We do not need to limit Jobs’ comments about the value of liberal arts to business applications; in fact liberal arts educations may be most valuable insofar as we use our skills in Government. Today labor is so specialized that there is no need for the average person to understand the interworking of his Ipod or laptop. In fact, studying the interworking of everything we use, while interesting, would be unprofitable and would rob us of all the benefits that specialized labor provides. On the contrary, our knowledge about government cannot mirror our knowledge about consumer products. As a self Governing people in a modern liberal democracy, our success depends upon the average voter having not simply knowledge, but also the capacity to understand the world outside the narrow scope of his employment goals. In fact, Thomas Jefferson argued that education should "enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom."
Even though our national unemployment rate stands at 9.1% and Universities are becoming more job training oriented, I think Steve Jobs had it right. The liberal arts can help create better entrepreneurs and better democratic citizens. Unlike Microsoft, at Hampden-Sydney College we ‘get it.’ Developing one’s individuality and specialization along with gaining and understanding of the world around us is what truly makes a Good Men and a Good Citizen, a recipe that Jobs has proven can change the world.