I often find myself in front of policy and decision makers discussing the status and condition of arts education in our schools. I have been in front of state boards of education, state legislatures, the Oval Office, the corner office, the principals office, school boards, congressional caucuses, senators and superintendents, principals and four Presidents of the United States.

Some times they are supporters of arts education. Sometimes they are not. Often times they would ask me “why” we teach arts education in our schools. The story I share with them ALWAYS provides a new awareness of the power of the arts to transform our students and our world. I am certain their view of arts education is dramatically changed.

The story I share uses the words of Steve Jobs and Jef Raskin. And on the day of the passing of Steve Jobs… it is only fitting I share this story with you.

Jef Raskin

Jef Raskin was one of the inventors of the Macintosh Computer. In addition he had a lot to do with invention of “fonts” and helped pioneer the human interface with technology.

He studied music as a child in the 50s… learned piano, played in his school bands. But he was also enthralled by technology and desired to find a way to use technology to aid his musical activities. After early successes in the tech field he joined a small start-up company where he was asked to apply his technological genius to create a new machine. He would make it capable of creating music notation and have multi-voice sound generation… all inspired by his love of music.  He named the new machine it after his favorite fruit… the Macintosh.

Before he passed away he wrote:

I'd been thinking of writing about the benefits that music has brought to the four children in our family. The results have been rewarding for each of them. But they are young, and it is hard to predict the role music will ultimately play in their lives. So I will write about what music has done for one person on a longer time scale, and thereby relate a bit of my own experience.

For example, if I had not studied music, there would be no Macintosh computers today. (Link to full story)

After going into great detail about his journey with music, from his youth, to his internship with an organ maker to his first notation programming to the invention of the Macintosh he concludes:

Not all children will find music as central to their lives as I do, but a good education demands exposure to the wide panoply of human achievement. The arts, the sciences, and the humanities must all be represented — and represented well and in a positive light — by teachers who love and live them. And it wouldn't be bad to insist on learning a few technical skills as well. In my case, it was music and mathematics that struck a chord and took root. I would not have been able to accomplish what I have if my schools had not had active music programs and if my parents had not strongly supported (and enforced) my studies. Every child should have at least the same opportunity. Making music belongs in our homes and in our schools.

Steve Jobs

Now Jef’s boss at Apple was Steve Jobs. Steve has his own story on how the arts impacted him. While there are many variations of the tale… this excerpt from his Stanford Commencement address provides the proper context: 

The first story is about connecting the dots.

I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last-minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later. 

Jef Raskin and Steve Jobs did not study the arts to become great artists. They were actually unsure of why they did it at all… other than because of their own curiosity, inspiration, and some kind of creative connection. They did not study the arts as a predetermined strategy to invent the personal computer. But they both will tell you that without that knowledge and the experiences gained from the arts there would be no Apple computer today.

When I share this story I always see the connection made by the listener. The begin to get it.

Steve goes on to state:

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

We can’t connect the dots looking forward. But we must provide our students with opportunities and experiences so they may connect the dots in the future in a way that is beneficial to them!

The moral of this story which is always understood is this: We do not teach the arts to create great artists anymore than we teach math to create the next generation of mathematicians or language arts to create the next generation of writers. We teach the arts in our schools to create great people so they are empowered with skills and knowledge to be successful in life… to do great things regardless of the vocational pathway they choose.

Steve Jobs and Jef Raskin knew this.

Let’s hope our educational decision makes wake up and follow their lead.

Thank you, Steve…


4 Responses

  1. I want to cry when I think about what the education system does to children that are artistic rather than academically inclined. I have a 22 year old daughter who is so very talented artistically but has been so beat down by the educational system who expected her to be as academically gifted as her sister. She’s still struggling to climb up out of that pit but is making small strides every day. Why can’t the educators separate out the academically gifted and the artistic and teach them according to their talents? I read stories like this and only hope that my daughter will be able to see that you can be a genius and schools could possibly never notice.

  2. Both gentlemen “get it” — the importance of excellence in arts education in one’s formative years is key. As an administrator/director at a community school of music, and a student of music for the past 47 years, I am committed to spread the word/importance — to students AND parents — that doing “something well” in an artistic way when “growing” will not only add a magical value to the beauty of the arts in one’s life…BUT, with studying the arts – there is an inherent dedication, the “stick-to-it-ness” – due to the extra hours one needs to commit to, to learn and understand the music one is learning. All of this becomes “knowledge transferred” in later years. I have 3 siblings, and each of us studied piano from the age of 6. Only two of us continued our studies and chose a career in music; my other two siblings became doctors. What we have in common (besides our love for music/the arts) is tenacity and desire to accomplish something — from A-Z — with quality. Not perfection, but excellence. I truly attribute this to being alone in a piano studio, working hard to understand a composer’s desire — all which takes time and brain-power. Onward with the arts!!! So SO important! Gina

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