Monday, March 21, 2011

It's Liberal Arts, Stupid

One of FLG's long running themes has been that the cliche "We need to strengthen our science and math curriculum to compete and innovate in the 21 century economy" is a bunch of bullshit. It's the liberal arts that matters. As proof, FLG often turns to Steve Jobs and Apple as the prime example, as he did in the link provided above.

Well, today the NYTimes highlights differing advice on education from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Gates said:
in the past it felt fine to just say, 'OK, we’re over all going to be generous with this sector,' ” he continued. “But in this era, to break down and really say, ‘What are the categories that help fill jobs and drive that state economy in the future?’ -- you’ll find that it’s not across the board in terms of everything that the state subsidizes in higher education.

And here's a recent statement from Jobs:
It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough — it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.

FLG will be clear here. He owns a few iPods, but not much else from Apple. He certainly isn't an Apple fanboy. All his machines run Windows and Office. Well, he does have a linux server at home, but besides that it's all Microsoft. But a few things.

First, a businessman's opinions on these issues need to be taken with a grain of salt. Almost invariably, they recommend policies that would bring down their companies own labor costs.

Second, FLG isn't all that impressed with Bill Gates as a strategic thinker. Yes, the man is the richest person in the world, but almost all of that goes back to the operating system monopoly setup back in 1981-82. That was a stroke of genius, FLG agrees, but everything since that has been pretty much ugh. Not that it matters that much, since there's the monopoly rents to draw from, but overall Gates reputation as some sort of business visionary is vastly overrated. Well, maybe not overrated, because that it's hard to overstate the impact of the initial IBM licensing agreement, but FLG doesn't look to Gates for much insight. Shit, to name just one example, right before the Internet broke big into the public consciousness, Gates was going on and on about how people would have huge libraries of CD-ROMs to access data. We all get things wrong, especially if it comes to a fast-changing industry like computers, but that's not the only example of Gates' missteps by a long shot. Moreover, Gates' attitude pervades the entire Microsoft culture. The company's marketing is atrocious. When its executives go to other companies they make implausibly stupid decisions that happen to go along with the Microsoft line.

Third, while studying liberal arts as a path to a technology career will most likely put you into onto the starving blogger or web developer path rather than Steve Jobs, at least initially, it is also provides you an insight into what is meaningful to people. Again, this is something that science and engineering education seriously lacks, and the reason that user interface design is generally so poor in open source products and at place run by engineering geeks.

So, FLG's advice is this -- study liberal arts. Bill Gates' insights are vastly overrated. He was a one-shot genius. Although, what a one-shot. Far better to listen to Steve Jobs, who is a hype machine as well, but has churned out countless awesome products over the years.


Anonymous said...

I've always thought Bill Gates is a classic case of Aspergers.

Mrs. P

Andrew Stevens said...

Gates is definitely not Asperger's. I assume that Gates is very similar to myself - on the AQ test (Autism Spectrum Quotient), I score a 42. The average person scores 16 and 32 or higher is considered "clinically significant levels of autistic traits." I simply blow that away, but saying that I suffer from Asperger's is just silly. If I have Asperger's, I am so high functioning that it's simply absurd to classify it as a personality disorder. Despite a frequent preference for solitude, I make friends very easily, I get along with everybody, and virtually everybody gets along with me. It is merely a personality type.

Gates, by the way, has had a lot more good ideas than FLG is giving him credit for here.

Andrew Stevens said...

Just to clarify, it seems to be FLG's opinion that once Gates set up the initial operating system agreement that Microsoft was going to enjoy a monopoly forever and ever, amen, without any effort on their part. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Internet did take Gates a bit by surprise, but that was his first misstep (other than the stupid paper clip) in fifteen years and he didn't make many afterward either. He has, in fact, a remarkable track record in keeping on top of a rapidly changing field.

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