The LEAP Challenge Blog

Hollywood: An Industry Built on Dreams, Liberal Education

Steve Jobs’s comments about the importance of the liberal arts for his personal development and the success of Apple Inc. are now quite familiar in higher education circles, and for good reason. Jobs’s story of how a calligraphy class at Reed College inspired his approach to creating computer fonts, which helped set Apple apart from its competitors early on, is a perfect example of the unexpected ways that a liberal education can foster interests and skills that learners will use throughout their lives. And the incredible success of Apple in the twenty-first century—deriving from a combination of powerful technology, attention to user interface, and elegant designs—offers a strong argument for the equal importance, and intertwined nature, of the sciences, humanities, and fine arts.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Yohe, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Jobs’s public persona, too, made him a valuable spokesman—a corporate CEO who achieved true celebrity status, he presided over product launches that felt more like a Hollywood premiers. When Jobs died, liberal education lost one of its most celebrated and influential supporters. Fortunately, Tom Hanks—a wildly successful actor who has presided over a number of actual Hollywood premiers—has stepped in to fill the gap. Last month, Hanks published an op-ed in the New York Times asserting that classes he took at Chabot College “made me what I am today.” 

While Jobs briefly attended in Reed College, a selective private liberal arts college in Oregon, Hanks first enrolled at Chabot, a community college in Hayward, California, before transferring to California State University–Sacramento. Neither man completed a degree, but both have spoken about the importance of their time as students, attributing much of their later success to the skills and knowledge they acquired studying the liberal arts.

Photo courtesy of US Department of State

Hanks initially enrolled at Chabot because, as he so familiarly put it, it would allow him to “get [his] general education requirements out of the way.” But those general education courses ended up being pivotal, not incidental.  “Classes I took at Chabot have rippled through my professional pond,” Hanks says. “I produced the HBO mini-series ‘John Adams’ with an outline format I learned from a pipe-smoking historian, James Coovelis, whose lectures were riveting. Mary Lou Fitzgerald’s Studies in Shakespeare taught me how the five-act structures of ‘Richard III,’ ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Othello’ focused their themes.”

Hanks is not the only Hollywood A-lister whose career was shaped by experiences in the California community college system. George Lucas first discovered his interest in film at Modesto Junior College, where he majored in anthropology. “I was always extremely curious about why people did the things they do. I was very interested in what motivates people and in telling stories and building things,” Lucas said in speech at the Academy of Achievement in 1999.  “I didn't know that I could actually put them all together in one occupation and love it.

Similarly, Steve Martin started out at Santa Ana College, taking classes in drama and literature before transferring to California State University–Long Beach and majoring in philosophy. Although he eventually dropped out, Martin says his courses in philosophy and psychology, which introduced him to new concepts related to logic and causation, were incredibly influential on his approach to comedy. “It changed what I believe and what I think about everything,” he told Rolling Stone in 1982.

Like Hanks, Martin and Lucas eventually transferred (a second time, in Martin’s case) to study theater and cinematography, respectively, but all three men attribute their success as filmmakers in part to the broader liberal education they began at community colleges. Another Hollywood success story, television actress Lauren Graham, took a reverse trajectory—she started out studying drama at a conservatory program but transferred to Barnard College to complete a BA in English. “I actually thought I would learn more as a person if I got a more liberal arts education,” she told the theater magazine Backstage

Indeed, the benefits of higher education are apparent enough that some stars have taken time out of their careers to pursue college degrees, often at prestigious institutions. Jodie Foster paused to attend Yale, Natalie Portman enrolled at Harvard, and James Franco has studied at more institutions than anyone can count anymore.

But as Hanks and Martin and Jobs demonstrate, it’s not necessarily the prestige of an institution that matters, or even the degree itself. We should be cautious about glorifying drop outs, of course—while Steve Jobs may have created one of the wealthiest companies in the world, most students who fail to complete their degrees don’t fare so well, and colleges and universities should continue to focus on the educational practices and support structures that encourage student persistence. Still, it’s worth noting how much these successful men and women have benefited not from the status of their educational credentials, but from the skills and knowledge they developed through studying the liberal arts. For anyone tuning in to the Oscars this weekend, this is a chance to think about where some of our most creative artists received their first inspiration.

AAC&U’s project General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) is dedicated to making general education more integrative, intentional, and effective, at all colleges and universities. General education is the largest educational program in the country, the part of the curriculum where all students begin their studies, and, as examples like Tom Hanks demonstrate, where they can—but don’t always—acquire some of the most important skills and knowledge for their lives and careers. If we wait until students have begun study in their major fields to engage them, we may wait too late—students need vigorous, high-impact learning at all levels of study, at all institutions. At a time when so much of the rhetoric around education focuses on starting salaries and completion rates, we need these reminders about what’s most important in higher education—the quality of the learning that students experience.