Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2011
College students want to know what courses and majors will give them an edge in their careers. But the choices are not always clear, even if you are taking advice from Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.
In a talk to the nation’s governors earlier this month, Mr. Gates emphasized work-related learning, arguing that education investment should be aimed at academic disciplines and departments that are “well-correlated to areas that actually produce jobs.”
If this was not music to the ears of advocates of the humanities, they quickly found a soulmate in Steve Jobs. At an event unveiling new Apple products, Mr. Jobs said: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.”
What do we know about the relationship between college studies and majors and future employment? What gets you a good first job and what leads to career success?
Rival Views, Both Right
Is there an app for improving America’s educational system? Will watching a PowerPoint presentation about the nation’s educational challenge help to understand the opportunities and difficulties facing the country?
Two college dropouts, Steve Jobs (Reed College) and Bill Gates (Harvard University) have articulated theories about education. And their viewpoints are as different as are their companies (Apple and Microsoft, respectively), presenting a contrast in style and philosophy.
Gates hopes to analyze and adjust the education system in order to produce a more efficient and effective learning environment. He advocates sophisticated metrics to measure results. What makes one teacher better at her job than another and how can best practices be shared? Technology enables analysis and is also the delivery mechanism.
Once the education community receives reliable disaggregated research, the policy makers can allocate their limited resources in a fashion that will produce a higher yield. As Gates has said, “…we need to raise performance without spending a lot more.”
Jobs is focused more on individual learning and less on systemic education. Technology is his way to get a well-integrated mind flowing in multiple directions. His learning philosophy gives each person the ability to chart his own course. It is less about the structure of the system and more about free will.
A discerning mind, one that blends science and Springsteen, is the backbone of the creative spirit: ideas fuel entrepreneurship.
Gates’ recent speech to the nation’s governors stressed assessment, measuring outcomes and tracking students’ progress. Technology and benchmarking are joined at the hip. He feels it is worth charting the effectiveness of particular majors with regional job creation. (Does he favor vocational education?)
Jobs’ approach allows for individual experimentation to find a unique solution to each person’s quest. It is the symbol of intellectual multi-tasking. This is a more experimental, integrated search for a holistic view of the universe, one that has multiple access points. Each student becomes his or her own teacher.
My heart is with Jobs (full disclosure: I wrote this on a MacBook Pro). But my mind fully understands Gates’ mandate to discover ways to maximize scarce resources to best prepare the workforce. It is beyond noble; it is essential. Gates has contributed millions, perhaps even billions, for the study of education. He is looking for the vaccine to cure education’s ailing health. Jobs is tripping our mind with the jazz of life put before us to spark awareness that the more we learn the more powerful we become.
How does this relate to the curriculum of higher education? Keep poetry, architectural history and Russian literature alongside mechanical engineering and agricultural studies. A discerning mind, one that blends science and Springsteen, is the backbone of the creative spirit: ideas fuel entrepreneurship.
Gates is studying the science of education. Jobs is creating the art of learning. I’m sure there is an app for teaching arithmetic by watching the heavens and counting the stars.
About Steve Trachtenberg
Mr. Trachtenberg was the 15th president of The George Washington University since its founding in 1821, serving the university from 1988 to 2007. He combines his role at Korn/Ferry with his continued responsibilities at the university as president emeritus and university professor of public service.Mr. Trachtenberg was previously president and professor of law and public administration for 11 years at the University of Hartford. Prior to that, he was dean of arts and sciences and vice president at Boston University. During the Johnson Administration, he served as secretary for a White House Task Force on Education. He holds a juris doctorate from Yale University, a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University, and a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University.