Steve Jobs on Education

These are from an excerpt from an interview Steve did in 1995, before he had sold NeXT to Apple, before his famous Apple turnaround. I’m a little surprised this interview isn’t more popular. Excerpted are my favorite quotes (nearly a transcript). Skip to the bottom for links to a video of the excerpt and the entire interview.

Equal opportunity, not equal outcome. Equal outcome would be nice, but the world isn’t like that. Equal opportunity more than anything means a good education. (A good family life would be nice but we can’t solve that problem)

We know how to provide a great education. We know how to do it. We could make sure every child got a great education if we wanted. But we fall short.

From my own education, if I hadn’t encountered two or three individuals, that spent extra time with me, I’m sure I’d be in jail. I’m 100% sure. If it hadn’t been for Mrs. Hill in 4th grade and a few others, I absolutely would’ve ended up in jail. Because I could see those tendencies in myself to have a certain energy that could’ve been directed at doing something interesting that people liked, or it could’ve been directed at doing something interesting that other people didn’t like so much.

I think when you’re young, a little bit of course correction goes a long way.

I think it takes pretty talented people to do that, and I don’t know that enough of them get attracted to go into public education. You can’t even support a family on what you get paid.

The majority of your children’s waking hours are spent not with your parents, but with your teachers. I’d like the people that are teaching my kids to be good enough that they could get a job at the company I work for making $100k a year. Why should they work at a school for $35k if they could get a job here making $100k / year. I mean, is that an intelligence test?

I think we should basically be hiring them and paying them $100k but of course the problem there is the unions. The unions are the worst thing to ever happen to education. Because it’s not a meritocracy. It turns into a bureaucracy, which is exactly what’s happened. And teachers can’t teach, and administrators run the place, and nobody can be fired…it’s terrible. 

Some people say that new technology may be a way to bypass that — I absolutely don’t believe that. I’ve probably helped put more computers in more schools than anyone else in the world, and I’m absolutely convinced that that is by no means the most important thing.

The most important thing is another person. Another person that incites your curiosity, that guides your curiosity, that feeds your curiosity. And machines cannot do that in the same way people can.

The elements of discovery are around you — you don’t need a computer to know….why does that fall?Nobody knows why. Nobody in the entire world knows why that falls. We can describe it pretty accurately, but no one knows why.

I don’t need a computer to get a kid interested in that. To spend a week playing with gravity and trying to understand it and come up with reasons why. You do need a person.

Especially with computers the way they are now. Computers now are very reactive. They’re not proactive. They are not agents. They are very reactive. What children need is something much more proactive. They need a guide. They don’t need an assistant.

I think we have the material to solve this problem in the world, it’s just being deployed in other places. I’ve been very strong believer that what we need to do in education is go to the full voucher system.

One of the things I feel is that right now, if you ask who are the customers of education, the customers of education are the society at large, employers that hire people, etc. But ultimately the customers are the parents not even the students. The parents. The problem we have in this country is that the customers went away. The customers stopped paying attention to their schools for the most part. Mothers started working, and they didn’t have time to spend at PTA meetings and watching they’re kids school.

Schools became much more institutionalized. And parents spent less and less time involved in their kids education. 

And what happens when a customer goes away, and a monopoly gets control, which is what’s happened in our country, is that the service level almost always goes down. I remember seeing a bumper sticker when the telephone company was all one company, AT&T, the bell system, I remember seeing a bumper sticker that had the bell logo on it, and it said “we don’t care, we don’t have to”.

And that’s what a monopoly is. That’s what IBM was in their day, and that’s certainly what the public school system is. They don’t have to care.

Now it turns out – let’s go through some economics. The most expensive thing people buy in their lives is a house. The second most expensive is probably a car, usually. And the average car is probably $16k – $20k. And it lasts what, about 8 years, then you buy another one. So approximately $2000 / year. Right? For an 8 year commitment.

Well, your child goes to school, approximately 8 years in K – 8. You don’t like to switch schools, 8 year commitment. The state of california spends $4400 per year per pupil. Over twice as much as a car. Now it turns out that when you go to buy a car, you have a lot of information available to you to make a choice, and you have a lot of choices.General Motors and Ford and Toyota and Chrysler and Nissan they are advertising at me like crazy. I can’t get through a day without seeing 5 car ads. And they seem to be able to make these cars efficiently enough that they can take some of my money and advertise to other people with it.

So that everyone knows all about these cars. And they keep getting better and better, and there’s a lot of competition.

But in schools, since people don’t feel like they’re spending their own money, they feel like its free, nobody does any comparison shopping. As a matter of fact, if you want to put your kid in a private school, you can’t take the $4400 / year from the public school and use it, you need to come up with $4400 of your own money.

I believe very strongly that if the country gave each parent a voucher for $4400 that they could only spend at any accredited school, that several things would happen. Number one, schools would start marketing themselves like crazy to parents, to get students. Secondly, I think you’d see a lot of new schools starting. I”ve suggested as an example, if you go to stanford business school, they have a public policy track…they could have a school administrator track. So you could get a bunch of people coming out of college, they could tie up with someone who just got out of business school, they could be starting their own schools. You could have 25 year old kids out of college very idealistic, full of energy, instead of starting a silicon valley company, they could start a school.

And I believe they would do far better than many of our public school teachers do.

The third thing you’d see is the quality of schools, just like in a competitive market, start to rise. Some schools would go broke. A lot of the public schools would go broke, there’s no question about it. It would be rather painful for the first several years. But, I think far less painful than the kids going through the system as it is right now.

The biggest complaint is, of course, that good schools would pick off all the good kids, and all the bad kids would be left to wallow together in the private school, or the remnants of the public school. To me that’s like saying well, all the car manufacturers are going to make BMWs and Mercedes, and nobody’s going to make a $10k car. Well, I think the most hotly competitive market right now is the $10k car area. You’ve got all the Japanese manufacturers playing in it, you’ve got general motors who spent $5 billion dollars subsidizing saturn so they can compete in that market. You’ve got Ford, who just released two new cars in that market. You’ve got Chrysler with the Neon.

The market competition market seems to indicate that where there is a need, there are a lot of providers available to tailor their products to fit that need and a lot of competition, which keeps forcing them to get better and better.

I used to think when I was in my twenties that technology was the solution to most of the world’s problems. And, unfortunately it ain’t so.

A lot of times we think: why is television programming so bad? Why are television programs so demeaning, so poor. The first thought that occurs to you is: there’s a conspiracy. The networks are feeding us this slop because it’s cheap to produce, because of this, because of that, it’s the networks that are controlling this and they are feeding us this stuff, to try to dumb down the american public. The truth of the matter, of course, if you study it in any depth, is the networks absolutely want to give people what they want, so that they watch the shows.

If people wanted something different, they would get it.

And the truth of the matter is that the shows that are on television are on television because that’s what people want.The majority of the people in this country want to turn on the television and turn of their brain. And that’s what they get.

And that’s far more depressing than a conspiracy. Conspiracies are far more fun than the truth of the matter, which is that the vast majority of the american public are pretty mindless most of the time.

There’s a parallel here when it comes to technology. It is so much more hopeful to think that technology can solve the problems that are really more human, and more organizational, and more political in nature. And it ain’t so. We need to attack these problems at the root, and that’s people. How much freedom we give people, the competition that will attract the best people. Unfortunately the side effect is pushing out a lot of 46-year-old teachers that lost their spirit 15 years ago and shouldn’t be teaching right now…I feel very strongly about this. And I wish it was as simple as giving each kid a computer. But it won’t work.

Original clip:

(Watch the entire 1h23m unabridged interview here: