Voices in Education

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”: the Deeper Legacy of Steve Jobs
It barely registers, if at all, that one can start, and operate, an automobile without knowing the physics and chemistry that run its combustion engine. And it is equally true, and perhaps more significant, that you do not need the car’s technical specifications to drive it to your own personal choice of a destination. If that choice turns out to be mistaken, you can potentially drive it elsewhere.

And so it is with the products brought to us by Steve Jobs, the Apple Computer founder and chairman, who died Wednesday. An ostensible theme Jobs sketched repeatedly was that one ought to be able to organize, present, and communicate information simply and coherently without knowing how to program a computer—and that it should be an aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable experience. In the public marketplace, this is one of the themes that drove Jobs to design machines and operating software for one of the first places we learn to work with information and data: school—a place Jobs legendarily found unispiring, at least, tellingly, until he could pick and choose what he wanted to study.

Conventionally speaking, this would sound like the marvelous Apple case study now being trumpeted, except that the genesis of this theme was driven not just by Jobs’s laser-like focus on thrilling consumers and creating life-long customers, but by his deeper desire to follow his heart and “do what [he] loves.” And to do that, as he exhorted in his 2005 commencement speech to Stanford’s graduating class, Job’s proposed one ignore “dogma, which is living with the results of other peoples’ thinking,” and listen to one’s “inner voice.” He pointed to his dropping out of Reed College, and taking a calligraphy class, as evidence of this.

At Stanford, he passed on to the graduates a bit of advice from The Whole Earth Catalog: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” The strength to do that, Jobs seemed to be saying, comes from loving your work. In other words, Jobs believed strongly in driving one’s life according to one’s own internal compass, not according to the external trappings of that journey, nor by its circumstances, to attain personal satisfaction and happiness.

What would it look like to take Jobs’s advice seriously in schools? How do you teach young people the skills needed to get a job at Apple while at the same time letting them explore “off-topic” interests that might inspire them to greatness later in life? In short, how can schools help students stay hungry and foolish?

Jobs’s larger idea, that we often are pulled or pushed to disavow what our soul and heart seeks for us, is clearly on display in the famous 1984 television commercial introducing the Macintosh computer. Using that staple of high school English classes, George Orwell’s 1984, the ad depicts a color-real female runner overwhelming the gray, mindless minions of Orwell’s dystopian future in order to physically smash the giant screen on which Big Brother’s doublespeak orations are being broadcast.

The implication for Orwell’s storyline was that his principals, Winston Smith and his secret love Julia, would be allowed to follow their hearts and stay together. The implication for Apple Computer’s prospective customers was that they could follow their hearts by using the Macintosh. And it would be difficult to deny that the implication for Steve Jobs and his personal philosophy was that dogma, and those who would try to determine our path, should be challenged—even if staying true to our character and desires means defying a frightening totalitarian state.

This, then, is Steve Jobs’ deeper, and more profound, legacy. To follow one’s heart, strike out on a path of one’s own choosing, is the way to lead a fulfilling life. In doing this, one can align one’s life with one’s destiny, and “do great work”—and you just might change others’ lives as well.

As educators, we need to think about what that might mean for the entire field of education so that students feel inspired by possibilities, rather than stifled by the paths laid out in front of them. If teachers are not supported in their efforts to inspire students and allow them to engage with their own interests, then perhaps we need to ask why that is and what can be done to change this.

About the Author: Dave Saltman is a writer and teacher in the Los Angeles area. He is a contributor to Spotlight on Technology in Education and a regular contributor to the Harvard Education Letter.