A current debate about higher education seems actually to be an old one: practical science training vs. general education in the liberal arts. The contrast persists in the public mind even though the sciences are part of the liberal arts, and even though the best science education usually includes the arts and humanities. Now two heavyweights, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, are embodying the contrast. The Microsoft founder has called for a targeted investment in the sciences and engineering, while the Apple CEO has talked about the importance of the arts, humanities and design for the success of his company. So what is education, PC or Mac?
These two college dropouts have acquired important influence on education because their companies have shaped everything from the way we write, to how we practice medicine, from how we talk to one another to how we experience music and film. Defying the conventional so creatively and successfully has allowed them to set new conventions for what it means to be creative and successful. Both men went beyond developing specific products to creating new platforms. The Windows operating system infamously made Microsoft a necessary intermediary for all sorts of software and computer products. The iTunes Store model (replicated with the App Store) has made Apple an essential resource to supply content for its iPods, iPhones, and iPads. Platforms generate new products, and new ideas, experiences, and profits.
Bill Gates graduated from being the poster child for ruthless business success to being, together with his wife Melinda, the most important force in global philanthropy. His admirably disciplined approach to investing in solutions to major world problems in health and education has earned him respect and affection from the millions of people his programs have already benefited. From efforts to eradicate polio to initiatives to combat growing inequality in the United Sates, the Gates Foundation has reshaped the landscape of data driven philanthropy. So when Bill Gates calls for targeted investment in science and engineering, people listen.
Steve Jobs, for his part, is the entrepreneur who has figured out the recipe for sustainable innovation. Apple is a company that many have expected to "revert to the mean" of mediocrity, but through savvy risk taking and a devotion to design the organization has continued its amazing track record. Jobs' recent remarks about the humanities and arts being in the DNA of Apple reminded his audience that the company's success is built on a very broad base -- not just on engineering and computer science. His wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, has been an advocate for a well-rounded education for the underserved in Northern California. College Track, an organization that she has spearheaded, has done wonders in preparing at-risk students for successful college careers.
What can we learn from this latest mock debate between our two business-technology giants? Perhaps it's that we should look at education not as a product that you use to increase your income in that all-important first job but as a platform from which you will generate some of the most important features in your life. If you believed that education was a product, then it might make sense to construct it as narrowly instrumental as possible. It might make sense, then, to call for a tapering of the range of skills taught (to STEM fields, for example), to maximize your return on investment. If education is a product you are buying, why pay for things you really won't need?
But if education is a platform, then you should think of it as an intermediary, a capacity builder that leads to many more things than at any one moment you could possibly know would be useful. When you see education as a platform you see it as something that generates further curiosity, new needs, experiences to meet those needs, more curiosity, and so on. Education isn't just an object that you use to get started in a career; education is a catalytic resource that continues to energize and shape your life. Education enhances your ability to develop new skills and capacities for connectivity that allow you to solve problems and seize opportunities. Successful education is a platform of life-long learning is the platform from which new possibilities are created.
Let's not deprive our students of education's full benefits by being too narrowly focused on the production of specific marketable skills. In their business careers, both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have been so successful because they have developed flexible platforms and not just discrete products. Similarly, education is successful when students acquire a broad base from which they can continually generate new skills and capacities, including the ability to find meaning and pleasure in their work, and in their private and public lives. This is education worthy of our investments, and of our cultivation and care.