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Steve Jobs: Liberal Arts Essential for Innovation

CJ Westerberg, June 20, 2016 5:12 PM


Editor's Note:  Continuing the Bill Gates vs. Steve Jobs saga about the purpose of
education, we liked post from The Next Web below, especially
how it ties entrepreneurism and creativity into the mix.  With Microsoft's Gates in one corner promoting the belief that education should be "well correlated to areas that actually produce jobs,"  and with Apple's Steve Jobs espousing the importance of the Humanities in education, it's another good read.
- C.J. Westerberg)

"We need to revolutionize education to encourage creativity
and need to teach our kids to play, take a chance and create. 
By not teaching our children
liberal arts we will hinder their capacity to innovate.

- Axelle Tessandier, The Next Web

Mixing liberal arts and technology for success in Silicon Valley

by Axelle Tessandier

Norio Ogha, the former president and chairman of Sony Corporation, just died. While I don't expect most readers to know him since his death barely made the news, this man had a fascinating and interesting career path. Not only was he the inventor of the CD but he was also an aspiring professional opera singer, and went on to read at the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. He was also a pilot and enjoyed flying Sony's chairman and himself around the world in the company's corporate jets.

Steve Jobs has mentioned Norio Ogha as a great inspiration as they shared the belief that to create true technological innovation you need a mix of technology and liberal arts. Jobs and Ogha knew that by exploring and going out of your comfort zone creates the most open and curious minds. Working with people that constantly question themselves and have different perspectives and new insights allows you to go beyond the obvious, to think outside the box,
 if you will.

"Thinking will be now more important than knowing."
                                      -Mark Randall

Creativity is not a concept, it's like any skill: a disposition you have to nurture.  As Steve Jobs explained last year during his Keynote at the WWDC: "We're not just a tech company, even though we invent some of the highest technology products in the world," he said.  "It's the marriage of that plus the humanities and the liberal arts that distinguishes Apple."

This philosophy irrigates the Silicon Valley more than any other place, not because of Apple, but because of the DNA in the area. Vivek Wadhwa, visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley, senior research associate at Harvard Law School and director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University says, "It's commonly believed that engineers dominate Silicon Valley and that there is a correlation between the capacity for innovation and an education in mathematics and the sciences. Both assumptions are false." His recent papers reveal that many of them have degrees in arts and the humanities. If you think of entrepreneurship not as a job but more as an art, integrating liberal arts with tech seems even more logical.

"Both founders and entrepreneurial employees prefer to build something from the ground up rather than join an existing company. Like jazz musicians or improv actors, they prefer to operate in a chaotic environment with multiple unknowns. They sense the general direction they're headed in, OK with uncertainty and surprises,
using the tools at hand, along with their instinct to achieve their vision. These types of people are rare, unique and crazy. They're artists."

- Steve Blank, a serial entrepreneur from the Silicon Valley and
   now teacher at multiple universities.

While art is hard to define, artists love to make the world their playground of experimentation.
I had a chance to be a resident artist in San Francisco in a gallery that represents this interaction perfectly between art and digital innovation that the valley loves to implement.  During my three months at GAFFTA, I learned to explore, but most of all I met people like "creative coders" and "data visualization artists" that never let any title define their work.  GAFFTA was created on this idea that innovation is an art and vice versa, and that you have
to create experiments to go further in the digital revolution.  The board of the foundation is composed of people from all over the tech scene be it from Twitter or Google Labs.

Aaron Koblin, from Google, one of the "data artists", a former resident and now on the board, was invited to talk at TED this year, as he represents the creative mind that makes data visualization not only a technological innovation but an art.  Being at Google does not
restrain him from working on projects as amazing as the Johnny Cash Project or his recent Arcade Fire collaboration, which was nominated this year for a Grammy.

During our recent TNW Conference, Mark Randall summarized how the digital revolution will make this exploration between technology and the liberal arts obvious for the next generation. "Thinking will be now more important than knowing," he said.

We need to revolutionize education to encourage creativity and need to teach our kids to play, take a chance and create.  By not teaching our children liberal arts we will hinder their capacity to innovate.  And this initiative and revolution is not just Silicon Valley's responsibility but a universal one.

Published The Daily Riff May 4, 2011

Related The Daily Riff:

Quincy Jones:  A three-sixty human being (Alan Kay)

What makes a kid creative?  A box or a spaceship?

The Creativity Crisis via Newsweek

How Creative are You? "The correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ."

The Creativity Initiative in Singapore by Bill Jackson

The Anti-Creativity Checklist Video

Charlie Rose:  The Creative Brain

  • CJ Westerberg

    It's not as if one can Google during a debate or science presentation, either ( I sadly saw this happen recently).

    On the flip side, I've witnessed creative problem solving from those "who don't know any better," meaning they are fairly clueless about the topic/field of study. Just look at what some very young kids come up with. I guess their problem solving comes from the sum of their "memorized experiences," which is another way of thinking about it.

    I have to think more about this, after I read those links this w/e --

  • although sometimes knowledge and memorization get conflated

    Yeah, CJ, and that's why I found it so interesting and ironic that the co-founder of Wikipedia wrote this:

    ...surely the only way to begin to know something is to have memorized it.

    People tout Wikipedia, and the Internet in general, for the fact that we don't have to memorize things anymore. Of course, "rote" memorization by itself is not enough, but cognitive science tells us that having things stored in long-term memory is important in learning, understanding and creativity.

  • CJ Westerberg

    Grace - That quote, I suppose, could be interpreted in several ways. My read was it wasn't an either/or scenario. I love the debate about how much knowledge in relation to critical thinking skills (although sometimes knowledge and memorization get conflated). Thanks for the interesting links - I will check them out -

  • "Thinking will be now more important than knowing."

    -Mark Randall

    Well, that seems just the opposite of a liberal arts education, where you learn to "know" things. "...a rich base of knowledge is the foundation for critical thinking and creative problem solving."


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The secret message communicated to most young people today by the society around them is that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they - at some distant point in the future - will take over the reigns. Yet the fact is that the society is not running itself nicely... because the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties. For society to attempt to solve its desperate problems without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile.
Alvin Toffler
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