Liberal Arts: Who’s Our Champion Now?

Last year, Ben Thompson traced the evolution of Apple product introductions in “Whither Liberal Arts?”, beginning with Steve Jobs’ iconic description of Apple being at the “intersection of technology and liberal arts” through Tim Cook’s emphasis on “feeds and speeds”; a move from human stories to product design. These transitions have resulted in difficulties with “that vision thing”, in Thompson’s view. But why? Thompson:

It’s telling that Jobs did not say that Apple was at the intersection of technology and design. While any designer will tell you that design is about how it works, not looks, to pretend there isn’t a tension is naive. The liberal arts, though, and the humanities, are literally about people. They are about how they learn and experience the world, and each other.

Go and check out the introduction of the Mac from 1984. It’s all great, but pay particular attention to the “Chariots of Fire” sequence from 1:43 to 3:15. Six different liberal arts majors are represented:

  • Scrolling MACINTOSH marquee + “insanely great”
  • Paint (geisha) [Art]
  • MacWrite [English]
  • Spreadsheet + calculator [Mathematics]
  • Print Shop certificate
  • A whole bunch of fonts [Graphic Design]
  • Greek columns [Architecture]
  • Pascal code [Computer Science]
  • Paint again (Steve Jobs)
  • Chess

You may find it cheesy, but I eat this stuff up, particularly Jobs’ emotional response to the crowd after the Mac’s ‘speech’ at 4:03. It’s all very…human. Sure, it’s a product introduction by a big company, yet it still resonates emotionally. It’s worth a thousand TED talks.

Recently I spent two days discussing the present and future of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Iowa in my capacity as Dean’s Advisory Board member. Reflecting on those discussions, and Thompson’s essay, it strikes me that Steve Jobs was perhaps the greatest advocate for liberal arts in our generation, at least in terms of societal impact. Liberal arts “champions”, almost by necessity, are difficult to spot because the power to influence is a product of their ability to articulate the value of liberal arts combined with their notoriety. Notoriety usually comes from exceptional achievement in a relatively narrow domain. We live in an era of specialization; a modern da Vinci would follow a radically different path than the genuine article. So while Jobs was a computer guy, I think it is fair to put him forward as a liberal arts champion.

It embarrasses me slightly that my self-appointed champion of liberal arts was a rich technologist, especially one as hyped as Steve Jobs. Even so, Jobs marshaled learning from related disciplines (architecture, computer science, art, and psychology among others) in pursuit of business success at Apple, resulting in one of the world’s most valued brands. Certainly these are significant achievements, however much or how little we choose to value them. It is uncouth to speak of brands as if they mean something, but because the Apple brand is so universally identified with creativity, aesthetics, and (gulp) a certain humanity, and because these qualities are essential to liberal arts, and because Jobs was the driving force behind the construction of this brand, who else but Jobs?

And after Jobs, now what? It’s hard to envision another technologist, as some descend into Silicon Valley self-parody, and others speak of “gamifying education”. Elon Musk shows signs of becoming the next great industrial titan, but has been content to drag race up and down Technology Avenue thus far. A politician? Doubtful, in this polarized time. A writer? Maybe somewhere else, but probably not in America. Any ideas?


Author: natebrix

Follow me on twitter at @natebrix.

One thought on “Liberal Arts: Who’s Our Champion Now?”

  1. In broad terms, the next evangelist for liberal arts needs two things. The first is an audience, which means some combination of fame/notoriety and visibility. The second is credibility, which in my opinion includes insulation from any appearance of self-justification. That second one seems to cry out for a STEM-type (saying, in effect, “it’s not all about the technology”) and not a liberal arts person (saying, in effect, “please don’t cut our funding”).

    In the absence of a tech person with Jobs’s star potential (and I think of him as a marketer, not a STEM star), perhaps a chorus of tech firm CEOs would serve?

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