What Steve Jobs Said About Education

What Steve Jobs Said About Education In 1996

by Terry Heick

I’ve been hard on Apple over the years.

From the underwhelming performance of iPads in the classroom (which, in their defense, is as much the fault of education itself as it is Apple) to poking fun at all of the announcements they didn’t make, it’s not difficult to criticize a multi-billion dollar company that markets themselves as revolutionary for failing to revolutionize a sector they’ve made a lot of that money selling to (education).

So I was surprised to see this comment from a 1996 interview.

“I used to think that technology could help education. I’ve probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I’ve had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent. It’s a political problem. The problems are sociopolitical.”

Obviously, Jobs’ insight wasn’t exactly earth-shattering. Most experienced teachers have been around long enough to see the ‘next big thing’ come and go without ever really solving the problem they were expected to solve. In What The iPad’s Popularity Says About Education, I recalled a conversation with Grant Wiggins where he told me, “I’m old enough to recall when Xerox machines, TV, film strips, VCRs, VideoDiscs and such were all going to revolutionize education.”

Still, the timing of the comment (1996) stands out as much as who made it. It’s been clear for decades–if not much longer (see Dewey)–that the challenges of public education transcend singular ‘solutions.’ One of the central premises of ed reform–that there is a singular ‘machine’ known as ‘education’ and it can be ‘reformed’–may not even be accurate. (See the updating the gears of education.)

While I don’t share the worship of ‘tech geniuses’ like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, their experience working for decades within and around critical sociocultural structures (e.g., technology giants like Apple and Microsoft) sometimes yields useful insights for the rest of us. In fact, at times it is the very fact that they aren’t ‘education experts’ that makes their insight especially useful.

It’s true that Jobs said this is 1996, well before the internet and mobile technology truly became transcendent. But whether or not Jobs was ‘right’ seems less important than that someone in his position and with his experience would come to that conclusion. That, to me, is the ‘story’ here.

Below, I’ve included other Steve Jobs quotes about education–quotes I find very insightful and prescient and honest. Most is from a 1995 interview with Daniel Morrow, but all three share a common theme: The importance of non-academic things.

Other Steve Jobs Quotes About Education

As he emphasized in the quote above about ed reform, in a 1995 interview with PC World, Jobs again talked about the centering of ‘people’ over technology.

“The most important thing is a person. A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity; and machines cannot do that in the same way that people can. The elements of discovery are all around you. You don’t need a computer.”

Pushing the idea further, in a 1995 interview with author Daniel Morrow, Jobs talked about technology, the ‘big picture’ of public education, and the effect of public education being perma-funded with very little real competition.

“Computers are very reactive but they’re not proactive; they are not agents, if you will. They are very reactive. What children need is something more proactive. They need a guide. They don’t need an assistant. I think we have all the material in the world to solve this problem; it’s just being deployed in other places.”

I’ve long discussed the importance of parents in the learning process in education reform, an idea Jobs echoed. “If you ask who are the customers of education, the customers of education are the society at large, the employers who hire people, things like that. But ultimately I think the customers are the parents. Not even the students but the parents. The problem that we have in this country is that the customers went away. The customers stopped paying attention to their schools, for the most part.”

The interview continued:

Steve Jobs: One of the things I feel is that, right now, if you ask who are the customers of education, the customers of education are the society at large, the employers who hire people, things like that. But ultimately I think the customers are the parents. Not even the students but the parents. The problem that we have in this country is that the customers went away. The customers stopped paying attention to their schools, for the most part. What happened was that mothers started working and they didn’t have time to spend at PTA meetings and watching their kids’ school. Schools became much more institutionalized and parents spent less and less and less time involved in their kids’ education. What happens when a customer goes away and a monopoly gets control, which is what happened in our country, is that the service level almost always goes down. I remember seeing a bumper sticker when the telephone company was all one. I remember seeing a bumper sticker with the Bell Logo on it and it said “We don’t care. We don’t have to.” And that’s what a monopoly is. That’s what IBM was in their day. And that’s certainly what the public school system is. They don’t have to care.

Let’s go through some economics. The most expensive thing people buy in their lives is a house. The second most expensive thing is a car, usually, and an average car costs approximately twenty thousand dollars. And an average car lasts about eight years. Then you buy another one. Approximately two thousand dollars a year over an eight year period. Well, your child goes to school approximately eight years in K through 8. What does the State of California spent per pupil per year in a public school? About forty-four hundred dollars. Over twice as much as a car. It turns out that when you go to buy a car you have a lot of information available to you to make a choice and you have a lot of choices. General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Nissan. They are advertising to you like crazy. I can’t get through a day without seeing five car ads. And they seem to be able to make these cars efficiently enough that they can afford to take some of my money and advertise to other people. So that everybody knows about all these cars and they keep getting better and better because there’s a lot of competition.

Daniel Morrow: There’s a warranty.

SJ: And there’s a warranty. That’s right. But in schools people don’t feel that they’re spending their own money. They feel like it’s free, right? No one does any comparison shopping. A matter of fact if you want to put your kid in a private school, you can’t take the forty-four hundred dollars a year out of the public school and use it, you have to come up with five or six thousand of your own money. I believe very strongly that if the country gave each parent a voucher for forty-four hundred dollars that they could only spend at any accredited school several things would happen. Number one schools would start marketing themselves like crazy to get students. Secondly, I think you’d see a lot of new schools starting. I’ve suggested as an example, if you go to Stanford Business School, they have a public policy track; they could start a school administrator track. You could get a bunch of people coming out of college tying up with someone out of the business school, they could be starting their own school. You could have twenty-five year old students out of college, very idealistic, full of energy instead of starting a Silicon Valley company, they’d start a school. I believe that they would do far better than any of our public schools would. The third thing you’d see is I believe, is the quality of schools again, just in a competitive marketplace, start to rise. Some of the schools would go broke. Alot of the public schools would go broke. There’s no question about it. It would be rather painful for the first several years…But far less painful I think than the kids going through the system as it is right now.

One last quote about education? This is from his 2005 Standford Commencement Address about the importance of mindset and perspective–this time in college.

“I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.”

Interesting ideas every bit as relevant now as they were a decade and a half ago.