Johnnie Alum Considers Heidegger and Plato’s Place in Silicon Valley
February 12, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin
At first glance, the mission of Silicon Valley’s Make School seems in direct opposition to the St. John’s College ethos. After all, the two-year program is designed specifically to teach students to be software engineers.
But things aren’t as antithetical as they seem, says Adam Braus (SF08), who was hired to develop Make School’s curriculum.
“I think on the face of it, it’s kind of easy or pat to say there’s some kind of giant chasm of difference between the two schools,” he explains. “But I don’t actually feel that way. I think they’re quite similar, actually. They’re both very small, and I think that in terms of the students’ experience, that makes them almost identical. They’re both small schools of very diverse people, unified by a single interest. At St. John’s, everyone is there to study the great books, and at Make School, everyone’s there to do software engineering, and that pretty much dominates all the conversations and jokes and everything.”
They even do their own version of Don Rags. But what’s most important, Braus believes, is that they both offer an unconventional approach.
“My perspective is that what’s wrong with education is that it’s monolithic,” he says. “All colleges, except St. John’s, Make School, and some others, are exactly the same. There need to be many different ways that people are getting educated. That’s my fundamental belief; if everyone is being educated the same way, we’re going to have societal blind spots. We need more forms of education.”
To create these new forms of education, according to Braus, requires a return to the Platonic concept of first principles, rather than “inherited tradition.” In helping to build the Make School curriculum, Braus and his colleagues asked the most basic questions they could think of about the nature of education and its place in the world.
This was particularly relevant to Braus’ development of Make School’s liberal arts curriculum, which is a requirement for accreditation. When considering its components, he thought about the role of technology in the establishment of the St. John’s Program.
“[The Program] arose out of a technological crisis in the ’20s,” he says. “Society was changing completely due to technology, and it was making people question what it meant to be educated. It was this brave new world with a new educational system that trained people in different skills that they could go out and use for different professions. At St. John’s, when everyone else was zigging, they were zagging. They said ‘No, to be educated is to have a direct confrontation intellectually with the greatest books ever written and the foundations of the civilization that we live in.’”
For Make School, Braus aimed to forge a similarly unconventional path—again relying on the ancient Greeks.
“I think there is a room for an interpretation of the liberal arts based on first principles. And that first principle, oddly enough, is best encapsulated in Aristotle’s definition of the liberal arts,” he explains. “He at one point talks about the liberal arts as arts that have no end outside of themselves, but he also at another point in the Politics talks about the liberal arts being ‘those arts worthy of free people.’ And that definition is, for me, the one that is really prescient and worthy of someone that is trying to innovate.”
A “refounding” of the liberal arts, then, requires consideration of what makes free people successful today. Rather than the geometry, logic, and rhetoric that were critical to agora-centered ancient Greece, Braus argues that today’s students need to learn, say, data analysis.
“I’d urge other educators to come up with competing ones, but one example we’ve come up with is data analysis,” he says. “You really can’t understand the world and continue to be a free person unless you can understand basic concepts about standard deviation, sample size, etc.”
The new approach to the liberal arts is part and parcel of Make School’s mission to train its students in software engineering and give them job-ready skills while earning a bachelor’s degree in applied computer science. Students do not pay for their education until they have secured a job post-graduation making more than $60,000 per year, and the college’s goal is to compete with the likes of Stanford and M.I.T. (though Make School graduates already compete with these students for job openings, Braus says, and often emerge victorious).
But for Braus, who embraces his identity as a serial entrepreneur, the most critical aspect is continued innovation.
“I did a preceptorial on Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, and in [the text] he basically says the world is created by poets,” Braus explains. “You can, he says, suspend yourself over the nothing, or you can dive into the unformed abyss of the world without knowledge, without being certain, and you can wrest new things out of that doubt to create the world.”
Johnnies, he says, are uniquely equipped when it comes to comfort with uncertainty.
“Business people are trying to deal with certainty, but entrepreneurs are really trying to say, ‘Well, what is a new business model? Will this work?’ And really, you don’t know, and you have to be comfortable with that. [Entrepreneur and co-founder of Apple Inc.] Steve Jobs said that the world is made by people who ‘were no smarter than you.’ So as soon as you figure that out, you get a lot more courage to change things.”