Steve Jobs said it was a calligraphy class that inspired him to create a computer with elegant fonts—a computer named Macintosh.
Jobs lived at the intersection of Art and Technology. He earned billions of dollars, but money was never his goal. His aim was simply to find satisfaction creating revolutionary tools that combined the best science with the highest esthetic.
Geniuses such as Jobs may not need to finish college, but, for most of us, getting a liberal arts education is a vital passage into the wider world. It is where we, too, get to stand at the corner of Art and Technology. In fact, it is like standing at an intellectual Arc de Triomphe where many roads converge—Music and Math, Philosophy and Physics, History and Horticulture, Geology and Geography, Creative Writing and Chemistry, English and Economics.
For me, circling through that convergence was the best thing I could do to prepare for a career as an opinion journalist. But I did not enter the University of Washington knowing what my life’s work would be. And that raises a point missed by the many people who believe high school graduates should just be on a fast track to a job.
Most 18-year-olds have no more than an inkling about what they want to do with their lives. At that age, I knew I was pretty good at art, but also that I was fascinated by history and literature and politics. If I had gone off to some art institute to study graphic design, it would have been a disaster. I could draw pretty well, but I was no prodigy. My real talent is in reducing complex issues to their essence and then creating visual metaphors that explain that essence to an audience. I had only a small clue that I could do that when I arrived on campus and I certainly didn’t know anyone would pay me for it after graduation.
My immersion in the liberal arts revealed that capacity in me. During my years at the university, I drew from many disciplines to form a base of knowledge on which I have built a career. I often say that, in my job, I am expected to comment on anything that happens on this planet. My liberal arts education empowered me to do that intelligently.
Quite a few politicians and at least a few businessmen consider the liberal arts a waste of time and money. They think kids should be channeled down a narrow path to become productive cogs in America’s economic engine. Tell that to Steve Jobs.
His path meandered. He dropped out of Reed College, but stayed to audit the classes that really interested him. Then, his path took him to India for Buddhist studies -- not exactly the one-lane road to business success. He founded his own company, Apple, at a young age and then lost it. He was redeemed by cartoons—Pixar animation studios—and returned in triumph to Apple where, by insisting on perfection and beauty in each new product, he grew it into the most valuable company in America. A quiet cubicle at IBM would have never contained him.
Quiet cubicles are not where our best and brightest should ever be stuck. This country has thrived through innovation. Creative people who can synthesize information from many sources and draw from many disciplines have always given us the edge. Show me a computer programmer who has read Cicero and admires Jackson Pollack and I’ll show you someone who is going to be far more than a conventionally productive employee.
Occasionally someone will describe me as a Renaissance man and I take it as a high compliment. I’ve had my art displayed in museums. I’ve played horn in a symphony orchestra. On my MacBook Pro (thank you, Steve Jobs), I’ve got a novel in revision and a photo book in the works. I can tell you why the War with Mexico started and how the Cold War ended. I’ve lectured at a gathering of geneticists. I’ve drawn caricatures for kindergartners. I’ve taken a boat up the Mekong and a black diamond run down a Swiss mountainside. I can ride a good horse and write a passable poem.
Someone else will have to judge if this makes me a productive member of society. What I know is this: my life feels rich and, without my unending education in the liberal arts, it would be far poorer.