Steve Jobs passes and the Internet speaks

I’ve never felt sad at the death of a famous person or someone I didn’t know. The recent news, however, does make me sad—probably because it seems like Steve Jobs’s personality infused everything Apple made. Maybe that’s just Apple’s marketing magic working on me, but if so, I’m still impressed, and I’m still not sure how to analyze a feeling of sadness about a person I never met, or how to go beyond what others have said about the loss of someone whose work and life’s work is so insanely great.

Like so many people writing about Jobs, I feel compelled to mention the hardware on which I’m doing it: a 27″ iMac with an impressively fast SSD and incredibly small footprint given the monitor’s size. Since getting an aluminum PowerBook in 2004, each subsequent Mac has been more amazing than the one preceding it—especially because I didn’t think it was possible to be more amazed than the one preceding it. There’s an iPhone sitting nearby, and in the near future that might become an iPhone 4S. So few devices feel so right, and I think people respond to Apple because it understands the link between technological function and feelings as few others do or few others can.

I look around to see what else I use and think about whether I know anything about the people behind those things: certainly not the Honda Civic I drive. Not the tea kettle I use to boil water. Not the Dell secondary monitor, whose badge could be stripped and another appended with absolutely no one noticing. I know a little about the Jeff Weber, who designed the Embody with Bill Stumpf, but that’s mostly because of wonky interest on my par. Try as I might, I can’t think of anyone else remotely like Jobs in achievement, fame, importance, and ubiquity. That person might be out there, but I don’t know who he is. His work is anonymous in a way Jobs’s has never been. He makes stuff with character in a world where so much stuff utterly lacks it.

Take the Apple logo off the iMac, and you’ll still have a machine that makes one stop and take account. And those improvements! Jobs offers lessons to the ambitious: Good is never good enough; you can always go further; done is never done enough; and, even if those things aren’t true, time will make them true. I wouldn’t be surprised if, 200 years from now, Jobs is still taken to be one of the pillars of his age, known to some extent by non-specialists, like Edison or Ford.

The Internet is saying a lot about Jobs. People are linking to the text version of his 2005 Stanford graduation speech. The Atlantic is explaining Why We Mourn Steve Jobs. Here’s someone almost as obscure as me writing Steve Jobs, 1955 – 2011: “Today marked the end of an era. Each of the quotes below is linked to a eulogy or collection of reflections on the passing of Steve Jobs.” Stephen Wolfram of Mathematica and A New Kind of Science fame remembers Jobs and Jobs’s encouragement too. There are probably more tributes and commentaries than anyone could read, even if they had the inclination. Let me add to the pile, and to the pile of people saying they feel a strange connection to the man, however ridiculous that feeling might be. It’s ridiculous, but it’s real, like that connection between person and tool, user and computer. The connection is real in part because Jobs helped make it real.

EDIT: See also Megan McArdle on the Jobs speech:

The problem is, the people who give these sorts of speeches are the outliers: the folks who have made a name for themselves in some very challenging, competitive, and high-status field. No one ever brings in the regional sales manager for a medical supplies firm to say, “Yeah, I didn’t get to be CEO. But I wake up happy most mornings, my kids are great, and my golf game gets better every year.”

In addition, I usually hate watching videos on the Internet because most are overrated, but Colbert on Jobs is not. Also available in the funny / genuine vein: “Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies,” courtesy of the Onion.

Heres’t the tech columnist Walt Mossberg on Jobs.

Student choice, employment skills, and grade inflation

Edward Tenner’s Atlantic post asks, “Should We Blame the Colleges for High Unemployment?” and mostly doesn’t answer the question, instead focusing on employer hiring behavior. But I’m interested in the title question and would note that the original story says, “Fundamentally, students aren’t learning [in college] what they need to compete for the jobs that do exist.”

That may be true. But colleges and universities, whatever their rhetoric, aren’t bastions of pure idealistic knowledge; they’re also businesses, and they respond to customer demand. In other words, student demand. Students choose their own major, and it isn’t exactly news that engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and the like tend to make much more money than other majors, or that people in those disciplines are much more likely to find jobs. Students, however, by and large don’t choose them: they choose business, communications (“comm” for the university set), and sociology—all majors that, in most forms in most places, aren’t terribly demanding. I’ve yet to hear an electrical engineering major say that comm was just too hard, so she switched to engineering instead. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa show in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, those majors aren’t, on average, very hard either, and they don’t impart much improvement in verbal or math skills. So what gives?

The easiest answer seems like the most right one: students aren’t going to universities primarily to get job skills. They’re going for other reasons: signaling; credentialing; a four-year party; to have fun; choose your reason here. And universities, eager for tuition dollars, will cater to those students—and to students who demand intellectual rigor. The former get business degrees and comm, while the latter get the harder parts of the humanities (like philosophy), the social sciences (like econ), or the hard sciences. It’s much easier to bash universities, with the implication of elaborately educated dons letting their product being watered down or failing, than it is to realize that universities are reacting to incentives, just as it’s much easier to bash weak politicians than it is to acknowledge that politicians give voters what they want—and voters want higher services and lower taxes, without wanting to pay for them. Then people paying attention to universities or politics notice, write articles and posts pointing out the contradiction, but fail to realize the contradiction exists.

You may also notice that most people don’t appear to choose schools based on academics. They choose schools based on proximity, or because their sports teams are popular. Indeed, another Atlantic blogger points out that “Teenagers [. . .] are apt to assemble lists of favored colleges through highly non-scientific methods involving innuendo, the results of televised football games, and what their friend’s older brother’s girlfriend said that one time at the mall.” Murray Sperber especially emphasizes sports in his book Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education.

By the way, this does bother me at least somewhat, and I’d like to imagine that universities are going to nobly hold the line against grade and credential inflation, against the desires of the people attending them. But I can also recognize the gap between my ideal world and the real world. I’m especially cognizant of the issue because student demand for English literature courses has held constant for decades, as Louis Menand says in The Marketplace of Ideas:

In 1970–71, English departments awarded 64,342 bachelor’s degrees; that represented 7.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, including those awarded in non-liberal arts fields, such as business. The only liberal arts category that awarded more degrees than English was history and social science, a category that combines several disciplines. Thirty years later, in 2000–01, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in all fields was 50 percent higher than in 1970–71, but the number of degrees in English was down both in absolute numbers—from 64,342 to 51,419—and as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, from 7.6 percent to around 4 percent.

Damn. Students, for whatever reason, don’t want English degrees as much as they once did. As a person engaged in English Literature grad school, this might make me unhappy, and I might argue for the importance of English lit. Still, I can’t deny that more people apparently want business degrees than English degrees, even if Academically Adrift demonstrates that humanities degrees actually impart critical thinking and other kinds of skills. I could blame “colleges” for this, as Tenner does; or I could acknowledge that colleges are reflecting demand, and the real issue isn’t with colleges—it’s with the students themselves.

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