James Scott Kemper, the creator of the foundation that bears his name, genuinely appreciated Benjamin Franklin as a model of the educated person and a lifelong learner. Ambassador Kemper valued the way Franklin combined hands-on scientific inventiveness with a lifelong commitment to being liberally educated.
In an editorial titled “On Liberal Education and the Insurance Business” which he wrote for Insurance magazine in 1965, Ambassador Kemper recommended that top managers should read Franklin’s autobiography. Later he argued “Since liberal education must be a continuous process, companies must provide a climate where liberal education can flourish, company programs must not solely be concerned with training in particular aspects of the business. Training is necessary but not enough. Training makes employees experts in answering questions. Education helps employees to determine what questions should be asked.”
That observation warms the heart of this former liberal arts college dean, for it undermines the notion held by many that a liberal arts education is not a good preparation for the workplace. The quotation also helps explain why the mission of the James S. Kemper Foundation is built upon the belief “that a college-level education in the liberal arts complemented by workplace experiential education represents the ideal preparation for life and work, especially for careers in administration and business.”
Ambassador Kemper’s commitment to Benjamin Franklin’s model of lifelong learning and to liberal arts education came to my mind again after I read an October 29, 2011 essay in the New York Times by Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Apple founder Steve Jobs. [You can read Isaacson's NYT essay here.]
Under the headline “The Genius of Jobs,” Isaacson’s essay seeks to answer the question of whether Steve Jobs was “very, very smart” or a genius. After comparing Steve Jobs’s mind to Bill Gates’s and Einstein’s, Isaacson concludes that Jobs was different from Gates and not at the same level of genius as Einstein. He concludes “Bill Gates is super-smart, but Steve Jobs was super-ingenious. The primary distinction, I think, is the ability to apply creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to a challenge.”
“In the world of invention and innovation,” continues Isaacson, “that means combining an appreciation of the humanities with an understanding of science — connecting artistry to technology, poetry to processors. This was Mr. Jobs’s specialty. ‘I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics,’ he said.”
Indeed many have commented on Jobs’s ability to blend technological inventiveness and aesthetic sensibility to create aesthetically appealing products that work well and do very useful things. As Benjamin Franklin and James S. Kemper knew, poetry and humanities are inseparable parts of ingenuity; and ingenuity is a critical part of being an excellent leader.
Isaacson’s article concludes “America’s advantage, if it continues to have one, will be that it can produce people who are also more creative and imaginative, those who know how to stand at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences.” And creating such people is the mission of the James S. Kemper Foundation and the liberal arts colleges with whom we collaborate.