I keep up with many of my old U of Minnesota colleagues on Facebook. A few days ago College of Liberal Arts Assistant Dean for Student Services Chris Kearns posted an interesting analysis of how the choice between Apple iPad and Microsoft Surface tablets mirrors choices faced by those of us in Liberal Arts sectors of higher education today. With his permission, I’m reprinting the post here.


I read a NY Times blog by Nick Bolton titled “Why the Surface RT Failed and the iPad Did Not.” Bolton says the key reason the Surface RT failed and the iPad succeeded hinges on Apple’s willingness to cater to consumer impatience by artfully limiting choice. The key to understanding today’s consumers, in other words, is recognizing that they don’t want to think, they want to consume. The Surface RT requires them to think about ports, SD slots, pens, and a host of other choices. With the iPad, they simply start using. The device, not the choices buyers have to make in order to use it, is the hero of the story.

Bolton wrote an earlier post on 19 June 2013, before it was clear the Surface would not sell well. It is titled: “Microsoft Surface Allows People to Create.” There he begins with these observations:

Did Microsoft just pull off the impossible? Creating a beautifully designed tablet computer that might compete with theApple iPad?

The iPad, for all its glory, suffers from one very distinct flaw: It’s very difficult to use for creation. The keyboard on the screen, although pretty to look at, is abysmal for typing anything over 140 characters. There isn’t a built-in pen for note-taking, either. Of course all of this is intentional by Apple. Although there are hundreds of third party products available, Apple doesn’t seem to want the iPad to be a creator, but more of a consumer.

Microsoft, and its new Surface tablet, wants to do both.

I had not thought much about the different corporate strategies of Microsoft and Apple. And like seemingly everyone, I love my iPad. But I’ve had to work hard with additional hardware and third party apps to pull it into the territory of being a creative tool. Apple wants me to consume, to remain a cog in the corporate wheel. MicroSoft is banking that I’ll also want to participate in creating.

When I look at the situation in higher education today, I see the arts and humanities — the traditional liberal arts in general — are in the same basic position with respect to the more job-oriented colleges as Microsoft is with Apple in this this iteration of the tablet wars. Liberal Arts colleges work to train adaptability experts capable of creative thinking in response to change. That self-directed thinking begins with the undergraduate career. A student majoring in the arts, humanities, or social sciences faces a host of choices in order to plan a pathway to degree and the world beyond graduation.

Most faculty and professionals working in the liberal arts see these choices and this level of choice as a competitive advantage. But as Microsoft is demonstrating, today’s consumers don’t want choice, they want immediate gratification. They want to remove their beautifully packaged toy and begin using it immediately. And if the professional literature of higher education teaches anything unambiguous about trends in undergraduate education it is that today’s students see higher education as a consumer product, not as an investment in the next generation.

I suspect this is why the liberal arts face such tough competition with business schools or colleges of engineering. A student choosing those routes believes, wrongly — but firmly — that they need to make one choice: They simply buy their degree and all of life’s problems are solved. The liberal arts delivers the message that life is more complicated than that, and it says that the specific content you learn at 18 is not likely to apply to the world in which you find yourself at 40, 50, or older. Indeed most of what I learned as a freshman in 1973 is irrelevant to what I do in my daily work life and personal life.

The skills that last across the changing years are those that teach us to think clearly, communicate persuasively, and continue learning and adapting. These are the skills that increase our ability to choose and to create. But creative choice is out of cultural fashion in a frightened age — which may be why I read the NY Times this morning on my iPad rather than a Surface.


Thanks Chris!