Steve Jobs' Higher Calling and Higher Education

Steve Jobs at Stanford University's Class of 2005 Commencement

More than once in his lifetime, Steve Jobs' success was cited as evidence that higher education is not only unnecessary for some individuals, but often acts as a detriment to the entrepenuerial spirit.  Jobs dropped out of Reed College after just 6 months.  Speaking at Standford's graduation in 2005, Jobs explained what happened. Jobs's biological mother was an unwed graduate student. When she gave him up for adoption, she was determined that he should be raised by college-educated parents. He was set to be adopted by a lawyer and his wife, but they recanted at the last minute because the couple decided they'd prefer a girl.  Jobs was then adopted by a working couple class couple. His adoptive mother never graduated from college, and his father did not even hold a high school diploma.  His biological mother only agreed to the adoption if Jobs' adoptive parents promised he would go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But 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....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.

In fact, Jobs hung around for another 18 months taking college classes, sleeping on the floors of friends' rooms, collecting bottles and returning them to get the deposit. Jobs said that one of the most valuable classes he took was a calligraphy course. In fact, he credited the course as being the reason for the Mac's multiple typefaces and proportionally spaced fonts - the things that made even the first Mac beautiful and elegant.  

Rather than being evidence of the futility of structured higher education, Jobs' experience is much more a testament to the power of serendipitous learning and the American educational system's potential to feed ideas.  It might be said that Jobs was a rare intelligence and that his case has nothing to bear on the masses who just need to earn a degree. This misses an important lesson about generating entrepeneurs and creativity. You never know from what source the next visionary idea will spring. Current policy debates often bemoan the demise of our universities.  But the fact that we have places where learners can pursue both esoteric and practical subjects stands to our credit, and faciliates the potential of our collective ideas.