I think teenagers today have somehow joined a dangerous cult, and I am here to warn you of it in curmedgeonly old-timer fashion. It is the cult of Steve Jobs, and the cult is ubiquitous.
Here’s how I know: over the last six months or so, I’ve spent part of my time tutoring high school students, including in preparation for the SAT. The new SAT has (for at least another year) a session which involves writing an essay in 25 minutes on a given prompt. Example prompts can be seen here, and involve open-ended questions like the importance of heroes and role models, the role of chance in life, and so on.
One problem with my students’ essays is that they often have a tendency to not support their arguments. For instance they would claim that some occurrence would certainly cause you (the reader) to feel some way, but not back that up. Thus, I have been stressing the idea of including concrete examples in the essays. But 25 minutes and no materials doesn’t give you much of an opportunity to find evidence or develop interesting examples, so a lot of these examples tend to be the lives of famous people. And it is here that I have encountered more than my share of Steve Jobs.
The sheer prevalence of Steve Jobs is unnerving. Imagine that scene in “Being John Malkovich” where John Malkovich goes into John Malkovich’s head and you start to have some idea of how Jobs-ian the discourse really is. Here is the proportion of students I have tutored that have used Steve Jobs as an example in an essay: 100%. Most students have used him several times. Here is the list of all other people used as examples: Albert Einstein once, Helen Keller once, George Washington once, Maurice Duplessis (!) once.
That is, Steve Jobs is on the mind of my high school students more than all other people put together. Say what you will about Steve Jobs, he is not by far the greatest or most important person of all time. But apparently that’s what teenagers believe.
Of course, I don’t have a representative sample. For one, my students all have parents status-conscious enough to want their Canadian kids to take the SAT in order to get into a US school. And rich enough to afford a private or semi-private SAT tutor. But the sheer breadth of Jobs-ness cuts through these caveats. Steve Jobs comes up regardless of gender, ethnicity, or grade level.
You’ll not be surprised to hear that Steve Jobs is cited positively in every single mention. The lessons that Jobs is recruited to illustrate are themselves not necessarily bad: passion in work is more important than money. Perseverance can help overcome adversity. There is value to a life lived for the sake of art. Role models are important. But if your primary example of not caring about money is Steve Jobs, that’s at least strange. And if your primary example of overcoming adversity is Steve Jobs, that’s pretty short-sighted. If your primary example of living life for art is Steve Jobs, you are missing out. And if your primary role model is Steve Jobs, you should find a better role model.
I once went dressed up as Steve Jobs for Halloween. My motivation was simple: I am a balding, scruffy-faced white dude who owns glasses, a turtleneck, a blazer and Apple paraphenalia. (Also my friend looks somewhat like Bill Gates and I was (unsuccessfully) trying to recruit him to go as Gates). So I’m not immune to referencing Steve Jobs unnecessarily. But at this point, I kind of think we don’t need to be any further saturated with Steve Jobs.