Liberal Arts in the Land of Mac and Honey

Innovators, legislators and the beauty of old-school learning

Illustration by Thomas Speak

Illustration by Thomas Speak

I don’t always read newspapers, but when I do, I prefer The New York Times. This is why I am so interesting. Recently, I came upon a little forum the Times arranged in response to the disagreement between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as to how we should best shape the unformed ectoplasm known as the American college student. Gates was the cold, hard voice of reason, arguing that we need to apply strict metrics to ensure that we are producing graduates who fit existing job opportunities in science, engineering and technology. Jobs, on the other hand, said we should all lie on our backs on grassy hills, look up at the stars and think about dead poets while waiting for apples to land on our heads.

Because I am utopian by training, I favor Jobs over jobs. The university should be a place precisely for star-gazing. The relative benefits of the grassy-hill ethic are readily observable in the companies run by Gates and Jobs: While Windows comes from the mind of a practical person who knows how to, uh, borrow the Macintosh graphic interface concept and sell it to faceless corporations, the Macintosh itself comes from the mind of a guy who spent some time at Reed College in Portland, Ore., where the liberal arts are king, queen and bishop.

Nonetheless, this is one battle that Gates, whose last creative breakthrough was DOS, seems destined to win. The Gates narrative is anchored in the promise of statistical analysis, while the Jobs tale is supported by mere facts.

As they know in the world of hard science, if you gather lots and lots of anecdotal facts, what you’ve got is, well, an anecdote. So have fun telling your story, and leave the big choices to the grown-ups. To wit: It doesn’t matter that the artsy-fartsy Apple vision has brought the world the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad and other pocket-size devices that resemble the future we once thought we would have. It doesn’t matter that one of the minds behind the Macintosh was Joanna Hoffman, who studied archaeology, anthropology, physics and linguistics—obviously because some set of crunched numbers said it would make her an ideal match for a young computer company.

None of this matters because governors and state legislatures decide what kind of higher education is worth paying for, and, as we well know, these are mature and thoughtful people not easily swayed by mere facts. These folks need numbers, and they need a concrete and immediate justification for everything they do. Public spending decisions require statistically significant hypothetical prospective evidence of the potential return you may—if nothing in the outside world or the job market changes over the next 10 years—receive on the investment of your tax dollars. Never mind students’ tuition dollars, which are not an investment but a fee for service at the sort of shop where the customer is always wrong. Just ask state Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, who informed the Las Vegas Review-Journal that students protesting for the survival of well-rounded higher education in Nevada were pretty much wasting their time: “This doesn’t really influence me and my decision-making,” he said, “and they are sorely mistaken if they think it does.”

Somehow, the message is not getting out there that liberal arts education benefits the nation—and that includes the nation’s scientists, who are at their best when their dreams are big and their questions sharp. What we need to do, then, is rebrand the liberal arts so that they sound less liberal. After all, conservatives have recently exhibited an outsize interest in that most human of all the humanities, history: Perhaps you’ve noticed that the great American revolutionary Patrick Henry is all the rage. What’s more, history-loving conservatives have proven to be downright postmodern in their use of the past: What did Mr. Henry feel in his gut, and how can we make that feeling meaningful for us in the contemporary context? This is how “No taxation without representation” turns out, upon further review, to mean simply “no taxation.”

So conservatives are just as willing as marshmallow-minded liberals to get artsy with cold, hard data. In other words, dear believers in utopian education, they’re on our team. They just don’t know it yet. What we need is the right messenger to get them into our colors. And I’m afraid Steve Jobs might not be the guy. The mock turtlenecks and running shoes and NorCal address, not to mention the unmistakable patchouli scent left by Reed College, ensure that he will never be a tolerable avatar of educational philosophy for our legislators.

No, the spokesman I propose for the new Conservative Arts agenda is none other than the shade of Charlton Heston. This man, along with being my favorite actor, was a guy who talked even tougher than Michael Roberson: Gun-control advocates would have to pry his pistol from his cold, dead hands, and Pharaoh would have to let his people go. So his muscular-conservative credentials are considerably stronger than those of, say, Sean Hannity, who’s really just got the jaw and not much else.

But the real point here is that Heston was a conservative who truly understood the passion and power of the liberal arts—history, religion, cultural collisions, ideologies of resistance and liberation, philosophies of law and free will. When Heston took on history, he brought us to the promised land. When he focused on science, he merely learned that Soylent Green is People.

So here’s to the new Heston School of Conservative Arts, dedicated to the liberating proposal that ragtag humanity can build the future, one crazy freewheeling idea at a time. I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing Moses was a Mac.

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