Friday, October 07, 2011

Steve Jobs, No Jobs, and the Job of the Teacher

It's been interesting listening to all of the reflections on the life of Steve Jobs on news programs sandwiched between reports on the failing world economy. We've got a fiscal infrastructure on the verge of collapse because of uncontrolled greed. Yet here is a man who changed the way people live, think, and communicate and in the process created a large amount of wealth. How did he do it? By not wanting to.

Much is being made of the way in which Jobs was a visionary in terms of design, in integrating form and function. Jobs humanized technology, saw it as life-changing only if it was life-enhancing in both an aesthetic and a functional sense. These were not gadgets created with the purpose of making money, but designed to enrich the lived experience of the user. He was a deadhead and a Buddhist, not someone dedicated to the acquisition of wealth for its own sake. He launched a visionary company and as soon as it started making money, the grey-suited, grey-minded business types made sure to run out the dirty hippies who would only inhibit the profit making capacity of the organization. And, as anyone not blinded by green could have guessed, they killed it. Of course, it was resurrected, but only when the hippies were brought back in.

The people who killed Apple are cut from the same cloth as those who killed the larger economy. Jobs saw money as a means and his work as an end in itself. The capitalists see the work as a means and money as an end in itself. That change of perspective is deadly. There's nothing wrong with capitalism...just as long as you don't let in the capitalists. Chuang Tzu tells a parable about a great archer whose intense desire to win an archery contest destroys his concentration. His need to win, we are told, robs him of his power to do what he needs to do to win. The all-consuming desire to maximize profits, likewise destroys not only your profits, but the entire system as well. If we lay-off all of the Carly Fiorinas, all of the MBAs with their skewed priorities and values, we might be able to have a capitalism that helps better the human condition.

But my fear is that the contagion is spreading. We see the same sort of thing infecting education. No longer is it about learning and growing, it's about assessment mechanisms that show how much we're learning and growing. In secondary education, the march of standardized testing has overtaken teachers ability to teach to their students, forcing them to teach to the test. Test scores are the coin of the realm, they are the new currency of education. In higher ed, we get regular orders to clearly lay out our learning goals and explicitly disclose what sort of assessment regimen we will be using to evaluate our success in achieving them. You build your classes around how you assess preconceived learning outcomes; you don't till the soil of your students mind and allow the intellectual wildflowers to be nurtured and develop. But the great teachers are the Steve Jobs of education. Just like Apple in the 80s, their ability to do what it is they do is now being subjugated to some larger grey-suited artificial end. A tool, a means, is being placed where ours ends go.

Maybe the passing of Steve Jobs will cause a moment of reflection that will begin to allow us to reassess how we structure the economy and education. Maybe we'll realize that a different approach which takes the emphasis off of what we are seeking will actually give us what we are seeking. Maybe we will realize how self-defeating our current path is. Maybe we'll let the Buddhist hippies back into the room to do what they do best, what they do for all of us.