One relatively common critique of Steve Jobs was his lack of interest in philanthropy.
Most of the time I am unmoved by this critique. I believe it’s possible for goods provided by the market to significantly improve people’s life and it’s certainly a strong case that by focusing single-mindedly on Apple Jobs improved the world more than he would have by churning out mediocre products but having a building in his name in the Stanford campus.
The problem with the critique as it’s usually made (see for example Andrew Ross Sorkin here) is that it treats “philanthropy” for billionaires as this amorphous blob and noblesse-oblige box to check (by mailing a check). Which is too often what it is. And which I don’t think much of. This kind of philanthropy, certainly, is both beneath Steve Jobs and beneath what the actual word philanthropy means.
However, in one of the best Steve Jobs interviews out there, the man talks movingly about his terrible and all-too-common education, and on how poor public education almost drove him away from the quest for knowledge and self-improvement and might have prevented him from having a productive role in society. And he goes on to endorse a full voucher system.
I firmly believe that our current education system has deprived us of many, many Steve Jobses who didn’t have the lucky break of one good teacher. And I believe that a (well-designed) voucher system would go a very long way to setting this right.
Jobs understood it, better than anyone. Jobs glimpsed a solution. And yet Jobs did nothing.
This is much harder to forgive.
It’s much harder to forgive because Jobs didn’t seize the chance to truly create a dent in the universe by applying his considerable inventiveness (and wealth!) to the cause of school reform.
It’s much harder to forgive because of the practical politics of school vouchers in the United States, where the cause of vouchers is associated with the conservative right for purely electoral reasons (it’s not “progressive” to want poor people to have access to better schools? Oh, but teachers’ unions drive money and votes to your coalition? Okay then. Fuck you.) and someone with such iconic status so closely associated with the progressive cultural strain in America might have changed that perception.
Maybe Jobs gave it thought and decided that, because politics are so fraught and complex and alien, he couldn’t have made a difference. It’s too bad, though, that he didn’t try. He slayed some pretty big dragons after all. Seems like there’s some things he was afraid of.
In 1993 California voters rejected a school vouchers initiative. Might the scales have tipped if Steve Jobs had put his wealth and persona behind it? We’ll never know.
Again, because of his combination of wealth, iconic public persona and gifts of invention, Steve Jobs was uniquely positioned to try to make that particular dent in the universe. (Bill Gates, for example, should certainly be lauded for his support of education reform; and yet because he wants to stay buddies with liberal school reformers and their friends in the media who he believes will decide his legacy, he shirks from radical options that he, also, would be uniquely placed to attempt.) One that might have been as momentous as anything except perhaps the iPhone.
This is a problem he personally suffered from. This is something he knew crushed many millions of young people, many of them people like him. He had children, and presumably shielded them in the way he and millions of others weren’t, from the deleteriousness of public education. And as far as we know, he did nothing to help the others.
I can forgive not mailing a check to the Red Cross. This is much harder.