On Human Creativity and the Liberal Arts: Walter Isaacson on Philanthropy

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Isaacson at COF

At the 2015 annual meeting of the Council on Foundations, the opening plenary’s star speaker was Walter Isaacson, the Chair and CEO of the Aspen Institute. His speech was delivered in TED-talk style, which seems to be the public speaking mode of many top speakers nowadays (Arthur Brooks, the CEO of the American Enterprise Institute, did the same at the conference). Those of us who are still dependent on things like notes and daises and such are quite envious, to be sure.

While much of what Isaacson addressed on the subject of collaboration was generically applicable enough to most attendees to garner him a standing ovation from the audience and gushing comments in the hallways, one point that didn’t seem to get a lot of COF attendee notice was particularly interesting—though we’ve heard Isaacson address it before in almost the same manner.

For speech material, Isaacson comfortably drew from the multiple biographies he has written about Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Ada Lovelace (the daughter of Lord Byron) and others to make his argument about technological progress as a collaborative activity, distinguishing the most successful innovators from others by their willingness to work together and share credit. But he also made a point about Steve Jobs regarding the importance of studying—and hopefully valuing—the liberal arts.

In 2014, Isaacson won “the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities,” the Jefferson Lecture, given by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and spoke upon the same issues he addressed at the Council meeting, with this comment about Apple’s Steve Jobs:

“In his product demos, Jobs would conclude with a slide, projected on the big screen behind him, of a street sign showing the intersection of the Liberal Arts and the Sciences. At his last major product launch, the iPad 2, in 2011, he ended again with those street signs and said: ‘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.’ That’s what made him the most creative technology innovator of our era, and that’s what he infused into the DNA of Apple, which is still evident today.”

To further make the point, in his Jefferson lecture, as he did in his Council on Foundations speech, Isaacson talked about scientists Albert Einstein and Ada Lovelace, who both valued the liberal arts:

  • About Einstein, Isaacson said, “His success came from his imagination, rebellious spirit, and his willingness to question authority. These are things the humanities teach….He had an artist’s visual imagination. He could visualize how equations were reflected in realities. As he once declared, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’”
  • About Lady Lovelace, who he described as the world’s “first computer programmer,” Isaacson observed: “She was a romantic as well as a rationalist. The resulting combination produced in Ada a love for what she took to calling ‘poetical science,’ which linked her rebellious imagination to an enchantment with numbers…Ada’s great strength was her ability to appreciate the beauty of mathematics, something that eludes many people, including some who fancy themselves intellectual. She realized that math was a lovely language, one that describes the harmonies of the universe, and it could be poetic at times.”

We hope that the audience got the point—but we fear that it didn’t. It’s scary how little appreciation there is of the value of the liberal arts, even in philanthropy where there is immense grantmaking support for the arts themselves. It is as though philanthropy for the arts is a pleasant philanthropic artifact, but what’s really philanthropically useful is creating and re-creating lots of Silicon Valleys populated by STEM-obsessed geeks.

Political conservatives have been seen in recent years “trashing” the liberal arts, exemplified by Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) witticism that college students ought to think hard about “whether it’s worth borrowing $40,000 to be a Greek philosophy major—because the market for Greek philosophers is tight” and Governor Pat McCrory’s (R-NC) statement on higher education funding, “I don’t want to subsidize [a major] that’s not going to get someone a job.” To be fair, we suspect that liberal politicians might say much the same as they focus on training inner-city kids to prepare them for the world of high tech employment.

Christopher J. Scalia, an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia (a school established by Thomas Jefferson, who both Scalia and Isaacson recognized as a defender of the importance of the liberal arts), wrote this defense of liberal arts in the Wall Street Journal last month:

“Apart from specific historical and philosophical knowledge, the liberal arts also provide general intellectual tools that reinforce democracy. Liberal-arts professors use the phrase ‘critical thinking skills’ so often that our students could turn it into a drinking game. But we do so because the term conveys a serious and valuable idea: Students who read and comprehend difficult works, engage with sophisticated ideas, and express themselves clearly are well suited to contribute to a representative government. Such a citizenry is valued by the left—speak truth to power!—but also by the right, which distrusts centralized power and promotes a stronger civil society.”

Isaacson said roughly the same in his 2014 Jefferson Lecture, and we think he did so at the Council meeting in San Francisco, too. In the 2014 lecture, he put it this way: “Human creativity involves values, aesthetic judgments, social emotions, personal consciousness, and yes, a moral sense. These are what the arts and humanities teach us—and why those realms are as valuable to our education as science, technology, engineering, and math.”

Let’s hope that in the philanthropic imperative to address critical issues such as job training and placement, improvement of public education, criminal justice reform (as promoted by plenary speakers Newt Gingrich and Van Jones), and civil rights (the focus of the plenary speech by the NAACP’s Cornell Brooks), foundations don’t leave liberal arts and the humanities at the curb, both for society’s benefit and for the effectiveness, vision, and, yes, the humanity of their own grantmaking.—Rick Cohen


  • Lewis M. Smoley

    It is always appreciated when we read of a figure like Mr. Isaacson expressing his recognition of the importance of the liberal arts in the face of such criticism as he mentions. But he does not address the special significance of the visual and performing arts in the development of human character. Although music and art are appreciated by the general public, most people (including those how should know better) seem unable to articulate their value or why they should even be part of a standard curriculum. Esoteric concepts, such as character and moral development, seem to be too dangerous or not sufficiently analytical to even refer to much less discuss. Consequently, more and more money for education insists on its being used for more materialistic matters, like job training. As a result, the principles upon which liberal arts colleges were founded–development of the whole human being–have been dangerously eroded, if not virtually eliminated. Yet we do read about how our ethical and intellectual standards, not to mention our moral fibre, self-control, discipline and awareness, have eroded without our being aware that it has happened. We should return to the liberal arts notion of educating the whole person, not merely for the purpose of fostering a future career, but to instill civic values that were once the foundation for human development.

  • Michael Wyland

    South Dakota, my hone state, is embarking on several workforce development initiatives that have significant education components. Much of the dialogue and work focuses on certification and associate degrees rather than baccalaureate degrees, and even the traditional universities are touting their workforce relevance.

    [Note: President Obama is visiting South Dakota tomorrow to speak at the graduation ceremony for a public postsecondary tech institute (we don’t have community colleges). South Dakota is the only US state the President has not yet visited.]

    The workforce development discussions in South Dakota are similar to those around the country, with the possible exception that we have had full employment or near-full employment for many years.

    One point that becomes clear is that there is no consensus on the purpose of education generally, or whether there can be different “tracks” of purpose. To paraphrase Peter Drucker, if we don’t know what end we have in mind, it’s hard to agree on even a beginning to get there.

    Education is like healthcare in that there are so many moving parts, different needs and constituencies, etc., that it’s virtually impossible to wrap one’s intellect around the issues. In my opinion, that leads to two traps: 1) attacking a part of the problem; and/or 2) seeking to create a single answer that addresses all issues simultaneously (think the ACA).

    The “answer” is that there are many answers, many approaches to address education and workforce development. [Just one recent example is Mitch Daniels’s efforts as President of Purdue University, featured recently a Wall Street Journal “Saturday Conversation,” is provocative within the higher education culture.] Rather than listen to those who say, “We need more of what I’m good at,” we need to hear voices that say, “I/we need to change in ways that are personally uncomfortable – for me. I need to change what *I* do in order for all of us to succeed.”

  • Jeanne M. Yomine

    The ability to explore ones creative side is there for everyone open to the idea. To quote Walter Isaacson’s reference on Albert Einstein [His success came from his imagination, rebellious spirit, and his willingness to question authority], as we look at behavioral trends today, those are three characteristics are not necessarily promoted by employers, parents, teachers, and a host of other individuals and entities. Rick Cohen’s comment, “…one point that didn’t seem to get a lot of COF attendee notice was particularly interesting—though we’ve heard Isaacson address it before in almost the same manner” does not surprise me. Foundation executives are apt to be wrapped in issues related to their Foundation’s mission, finding and keeping sponsors; and some foundations created by NFP organizations also have commitments to their membership and the larger organization with greater demands on their time. It’s hard to focus on the one message which could energize their own capacity to see potential new innovations and to better support the creativity of the organizations volunteer members and staff. The National Governors Association, NGA Center for Best Practices champions arts and culture as assets leading to stimulate state economies. From what I learned from this article, Walter Isaacson brought COF a vision that that it is well worth understanding. As individuals do we stay in our safe box of understanding or dare to step outside the box when something new is presented.

  • Kim Dougherty

    Thank you, Rick, for reinforcing the value of a liberal arts education. I went into (big) debt to get my BA from a liberal arts institution and I would do it all over again, without hesitation.