Rare Interview: Steve Jobs Talking about Public Education

In this 1995 interview, Daniel Morrow(Executive Director of The Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program) interviews Steve Jobs.  After asking Jobs about whether computers were poised to replace the ineptness of teachers and administrators. He emphasizes the importance of keeping human beings at the center of education; he also shares how market-driven forces would fix public education.  Here’s an excerpt:

SJ: I absolutely don’t believe that. As you’ve pointed out I’ve helped with more computers in more schools than anybody else in the world and I absolutely convinced that is by no means the most important thing. The most important thing is a person. A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity; and machines cannot do that in the same way that people can. The elements of discovery are all around you. You don’t need a computer. Here – why does that fall? You know 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 that and come up with reasons why.

DM: But you do need a person.

SJ: You need a person. Especially with computers the way they are now. Computers are very reactive but they’re not proactive; they are not agents, if you will. They are very reactive. What children need is something more proactive. They need a guide. They don’t need an assistant. I think we have all the material in the world to solve this problem; it’s just being deployed in other places. I’ve been a very strong believer in that what we need to do in education is to go to the full voucher system. I know this isn’t what the interview was supposed to be about but it is what I care about a great deal.

DM: This question was meant to be at the end and we’re just getting to it now.

SJ: 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, the employers who hire people, things like that. But ultimately I think the customers are the parents. Not even the students but the parents. The problem that we have in this country is that the customers went away. The customers stopped paying attention to their schools, for the most part. What happened was that mothers started working and they didn’t have time to spend at PTA meetings and watching their kids’ school. Schools became much more institutionalized and parents spent less and less and less time involved in their kids’ education. What happens when a customer goes away and a monopoly gets control, which is what 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. I remember seeing a bumper sticker with 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.

Let’s go through some economics. The most expensive thing people buy in their lives is a house. The second most expensive thing is a car, usually, and an average car costs approximately twenty thousand dollars. And an average car lasts about eight years. Then you buy another one. Approximately two thousand dollars a year over an eight year period. Well, your child goes to school approximately eight years in K through 8. What does the State of California spent per pupil per year in a public school? About forty-four hundred dollars. Over twice as much as a car. 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, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Nissan. They are advertising to you like crazy. I can’t get through a day without seeing five car ads. And they seem to be able to make these cars efficiently enough that they can afford to take some of my money and advertise to other people. So that everybody knows about all these cars and they keep getting better and better because there’s a lot of competition.

DM: There’s a warranty.
SJ: And there’s a warranty. That’s right. But in schools people don’t feel that they’re spending their own money. They feel like it’s free, right? No one does any comparison shopping. A matter of fact if you want to put your kid in a private school, you can’t take the forty-four hundred dollars a year out of the public school and use it, you have to come up with five or six thousand of your own money. I believe very strongly that if the country gave each parent a voucher for forty-four hundred dollars that they could only spend at any accredited school several things would happen. Number one schools would start marketing themselves like crazy 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 start a school administrator track. You could get a bunch of people coming out of college tying up with someone out of the business school, they could be starting their own school. You could have twenty-five year old students out of college, very idealistic, full of energy instead of starting a Silicon Valley company, they’d start a school. I believe that they would do far better than any of our public schools would. The third thing you’d see is I believe, is the quality of schools again, just in a competitive marketplace, start to rise. Some of the schools would go broke. Alot of the public schools would go broke. There’s no question about it. It would be rather painful for the first several years

DM: But deservedly so.

SJ: But far less painful I think than the kids going through the system as it is right now. The biggest complaint of course is that schools would pick off all the good kids and all the bad kids would be left to wallow together in either a private school or remnants of a public school system. 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 ten thousand dollar car.” I think the most hotly competitive market right now is the ten thousand dollar car area. You’ve got all the Japanese playing in it. You’ve got General Motors who spent five million dollars subsidizing Saturn to compete in that market. You’ve got Ford which has just introduced two new cars in that market. You’ve got Chrysler with the Neon.

DM: So you’re spending thirty-two thousand and getting a five hundred dollar car in some cases.

SJ: The market competition model seems to indicate that where there is a need there is a lot of providers willing to tailor their products to fit that need and a lot of competition which forces 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, but unfortunately it just ain’t so. I’ll give you an analogy. Alot of times we think “Why is the television programming so bad? Why are television shows so demeaning, so poor?” The first thought that occurs to you is “Well, there is a conspiracy: the networks are feeding us this slop because its cheap to produce. It’s the networks that are controlling this and they are feeding us this stuff but the truth of the matter, if you study it in any depth, is that networks absolutely want to give people what they want so that will 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 people in this country want to turn on a television and turn off their brain and that’s what they get. And that’s far more depressing than a conspiracy. Conspiracies are much more fun than the truth of the matter, which is that the vast majority of the public are pretty mindless most of the time. I think the school situation has a parallel here when it comes to technology. It is so much more hopeful to think that technology can solve the problems that are more human and more organizational and more political in nature, and it ain’t so. We need to attack these things at the root, which is people and how much freedom we give people, the competition that will attract the best people. Unfortunately, there are side effects, like pushing out a lot of 46 year old teachers who lost their spirit fifteen years ago and shouldn’t be teaching anymore. I feel very strongly about this. I wish it was as simple as giving it over to the computer.

DM: I’m really glad we had a chance to talk about it. To talk about other things, so much has been written about you rather than go over a lot of those stories I was going to ask which one you think is the best and the fairest and if there are aspects of your career that you think have been left out.

SJ: I have to tell you truly that I’m pretty ignorant about it because I haven’t read any of them. I skimmed one one time and read the first ten pages and they got my birthday wrong by a year. If they can’t even get this right then this is probably not worth reading. I don’t even remember the name of the one I skimmed. I always considered part of my job was to keep the quality level of people in the organizations I work with very high. That’s what I consider one of the few things I actually can contribute individually–to to really try to instill in the organization the goal of only having ‘A’ players. Because in this field, like in a lot of fields, the difference between the worst taxi cab driver and the best taxi cab driver to get you crosstown Manhattan might be two to one. The best one will get you there in fifteen minutes, the worst one will get you there in a half an hour. Or the best cook and the worst cook, maybe it’s three to one. Pick something like that. In the field that I’m in the difference between the best person and the worst person is about a hundred to one or more. The difference between a good software person and a great software person is fifty to one, twenty-five to fifty to one, huge dynamic range. Therefore, I have found, not just in software, but in everything I’ve done it really pays to go after the best people in the world. It’s painful when you have some people who are not the best people in the world and you have to get rid of them; but I found that my job has sometimes exactly been that to get rid of some people who didn’t measure up and I’ve always tried to do it in a humane way. But nonetheless it has to be done and it is never fun.

DM:Is that the hardest and the most painful part of managing a company rom your point of view?

SJ: Oh sure. Of course. At times I’ve been pretty hard about it and a lot of times people haven’t wanted to leave and I haven’t given them any choices. If somebody wanted to write a book about me, most of my friends would never talk to them but they could go find the handful of a few dozen people that I fired in my life who hate my guts. It was certainly the case in the one book I skimmed. I mean it was just “let’s throw the darts at Steve.” Such is life. That’s the world I’ve chosen to live in. If I didn’t like that part of it enough, I’d escape and I haven’t so I’m willing to put up with that. But I certainly didn’t find it very accurate.

 

Read the whole interview over at the Smithsonian Institute –>

Photo by Carlos Varela