Steve Jobs was a Loser

He was a dweebie way before he was a righteous dude.

He was an odd young man who had a “turbulent” relationship with education until his fourth grade teacher bribed him to study; a guy whose principal recommended he be skipped directly to high school, in part to avoid the social issues that come from being a weirdo. After changing schools, fourteen year-old Steve spends most of his time with nineteen year-old Steve Wozniak (let that sink in for a moment), a guy he meets through a mutual friend in the high school electronics class.

Seems like Woz opened the door to all kinds of adventures, mostly embodying the Merry-Prankster attitude that still hung around the Bay in the early seventies. A semester at ultra-relaxed Reed College was not a fit – he left because he knew the expense was killing his parents – and came home to a barefoot life, dropping acid (“one of the most important things he had done in his life”) and eating off returned bottles and Hare Krishna handouts. Then he designs video games for Atari for a little bit, travels in India for enlightenment, and returns to co-found the company at 21 with funds from the sale of a VW bus and Woz’s scientific calculator.

It feels like visiting a foreign country to read about Jobs’s early life, and the role school played in it (and didn’t). Where would there be a high school electronics class now, to start with? What about the opportunity to spend time in the in-between places before, after, and around school, where most of the kit-building and club-swapping happened? I am writing this blog on stolen time from prepping a seminar on Foucault and panoptic power. He suggests that knowing one is watched leads one to actually police oneself: to internalize the values of your watcher and thereby ensure that even when you are “off the grid” of its gaze, you are still keeping yourself “on” it. We work in the most heavily-monitored moment American education has ever seen. I fear the deepest damage to students is not the hours spent testing and comparing. It’s the saturation of school with the idea that what is supposed to be known is the only thing worth knowing, and that time “off-task” (or “thinking different“) is wasteful.

In our moment of international economic anxiety and pressure on the schools to fix it, why aren’t we re-reading Jerome Bruner and the rest of his Woods Hole buddies? Back in in 1960, they were way more scared of getting their butts kicked than we are, what with Sputnik looking down at their backyard barbeques. But from their anxiety came the realization that teaching the deep structure of discipline, at any age, was key to being able to really innovate. They acknowledged that intuition, sense, and emotion were cognitive events and intrinsic to our relationship to information (another Apple innovation, of course). And as Bruner explains in The Process of Educationthey understood that wanting to learn was inseparable from really learning:

Motives for learning must be kept from going passive… they must be based as much as possible upon the arousal of interest in what there is be learned, and they must be kept broad and diverse in expression (p. 80).

Curriculum that follows from those insights look a lot more like wandering around and exploring than teaching and testing and teaching and testing again. Here’s Jobs remembering the electronics kits he built in middle school (out of school, of course):

Heathkits were really great. Heathkits were these products that you would buy in kit form. You actually paid more money for them than if you just went and bought the finished product if it was available. These Heathkits would come with these detailed manuals about how to put this thing together and all the parts would be laid out in a certain way and color coded. You’d actually build this thing yourself.

I would say that this gave one several things. It gave one a understanding of what was inside a finished product and how it worked because it would include a theory of operation but maybe even more importantly it gave one the sense that one could build the things that one saw around oneself in the universe. These things were not mysteries anymore. I mean you looked at a television set you would think that “I haven’t built one of those but I could. There’s one of those in the Heathkit catalog and I’ve built two other Heathkits so I could build that.”

Things became much more clear that they were the results of human creation not these magical things that just appeared in one’s environment that one had no knowledge of their interiors. It gave a tremendous level of self-confidence, that through exploration and learning one could understand seemingly very complex things in one’s environment. My childhood was very fortunate in that way.

Today the President is enjoying the naches of celebrating Jobs’ innovation and vision a week after his Secretary of Ed tried to forge connections between that innovation and his own impoverished and heavily-monitored agenda for American schools. That is fine, but let’s acknowledge that the two do not go together. And the economic argument (retreaded from 1983) that we need to drill-and-kill in order to keep up with the rest of the world isn’t our best idea by a long shot.

When I was at Stanford, there was a billboard by the highway up to San Francisco that showed the voluptuous new VW bug, with the slogan “Hello Rich Hippies!” A commodification of our nostalgia for the goofiness of the 60s, for sure, but also a reminder that freedom and innovation go together. Wandering around is part of finding, and being a magpie is a necessary precondition to finding the shiniest bits of others’ ideas to forge into your own.

Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish. Thanks, Steve, for all the shiny bits.

What do you think?

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