In Praise of the Impractical

Steve Jobs died last week at age 55. One of the best reflections on the life of this visionary who defied conventional wisdom is in his own words: a 2005 commencement address given at Stanford University.

In it, Jobs recounts seminal experiences that shaped his life, including dropping out of Reed College before finishing freshman year. As he tells the story, he found himself enrolling in an occasional course at Reed—including a calligraphy class. He continues:

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 sans 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.

We can only assume that his parents were at least a little bit worried. Calligraphy? Really? He continues:

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.

This is the mystery of education: the absolute inability to predict with any certainty the ultimate impact of what we teach or learn.

There is an insidious modern impulse to plan and control everything that kids learn and do; to laud practical applications that lead in a linear path to a job, career, income level, or other immediately measurable result (even “happiness”) over things we learn simply because they are “beautiful, historical, artistically subtle, and fascinating.”

We open our electronic devices and the art of the medieval scribe still engages our modern eye.

Like calligraphy’s “impractical relevance” in the creation of the Mac, we need to preserve learning for its own sake. Steve Jobs gave himself permission to explore the interesting intersections between past, present and future; the ancient and the modern; the timeless and the new.

Surely this is education at its best.