The Education of Mark Zuckerberg

Bill Gates, speaking recently at a meeting of governors, suggested that state money allocated to education should go to those programs that prepare students for jobs. While he did not directly impugn the value of a liberal arts education, apologists for the humanities, always a hypersensitive group, were quick to take umbrage, as the humanities are notorious for preparing students for everything but a job. In an economy as bad as ours, it is natural to champion a practical education over an impractical one. We hear much of unemployed English and anthropology majors, who struggle, even in good times, to find employers willing to take a chance on something as vague and unproven as their communication skills and multitasking abilities. (Having made the pitch myself, I’m aware of just how ludicrous it can sound). But unless I’m mistaken, employers seem as indifferent to those with practical degrees. It’s no longer just PhD’s with an expertise in Keats making your venti skim lattes and skinny cappuccinos; they have been joined—one hopes not (it would be too brutal) supplanted—behind the counter by MBAs and JDs from very prestigious schools. Don’t expect these people to be writing into their alumni magazines anytime soon, though naturally they can still expect the biannual letter kindly asking them to “remember” alma mater, as if they, with their massive debt, could ever forget her. Their humbling provides a stark reminder that the days of complacently and too often mindlessly acquiring degrees are over. That is not a bad thing, for universities are obviously reluctant to cure prospective students of their delusions, and indeed, as this New York Times exposé of law schools shows, often actively encourage them.


As someone who is content to defend the liberal arts for their own sake and is not particularly troubled by their inability to prepare students for the “real world,” the “real world” being an invention of cranky people desperate to give the time honored lecture on how tough they had it, it was refreshing to hear Gates’ ailing counterpart, Steve Jobs, celebrate them during the recent unveiling of the iPAD 2. “It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough,” Jobs said. “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.”  Though Jobs fell into the usual trap of equating the value of a liberal arts education to its utility, one cannot blame him: knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a motto for prosperous times.


It is interesting to note that another technological titan, Mark Zuckerberg, quoted lines from poems such as The Iliad during his time at Harvard. Wikipedia also states that Zuckerberg won a Classics prize while a student at Phillips Exeter. It’s probably unwise to speculate what influence Zuckerberg’s classical education had on Facebook, but I cannot resist the temptation. For Zuckerberg the experience of the user trumps every other consideration. It is the user, and the user alone, who gives his page value, who dazzles his friends with his aphorisms or exasperates them with idiotic updates on the progress of his day from the moment he gets out of the shower. (In some very bad cases, there is no cessation in reportage. Users have been known to wake up just so they can report that they have been sleeping). Zuckerberg, in his constant emphasis on the individual’s experience, has gone much further than even Jobs, for what is Facebook but a vast blank slate on which one strives to break out of the anonymity of his own small circle by informing people he has never met of his story, as told through status updates, wall posts, comments, videos, and, in the case of teenage girls, bountiful helpings of OMG? The hero of antiquity—as the classicist Zuckerberg knows—wanted to be remembered through the ages; we, being more modest and lacking any grand theatre for our deeds, seek the recognition of our unknown contemporaries. It was Zuckerberg’s genius to realize that the heroic impulse is not completely spent; it just survives in an impoverished form.


When legislators weigh which majors at state universities to cut and which to keep, they might consider the education of Facebook’s founder. I’ll anticipate the usual objections: of course, we can’t all turn out like Mr. Zuckerberg with his six billion. We can’t all go to Exeter, and then Harvard. But after we have put the personal aspects of Mr. Zuckerberg’s story aside, we must admit that the model for his education is really as old as time itself, harkening back to the days when there was nothing implausible about a farmer who knew his Plato, or a philosopher who knew, as Socrates did, what war was.