Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bill Gates Is Ignorant

Bill Gates is ignorant. The alternative is that he's a cold-hearted money-grubber, but I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

He knows a lot about tipping the economy so as to fill his own pockets and I reckon he's not entirely ignorant about computer technology (although if you judge by the inferior software his company Microsoft produces, one wonders). Gates is clearly not ignorant about business, in fact, he's a business genius, but when it comes to education he's demonstrably ignorant. He's probably also ignorant about most of the other fields in which he's involved via his foundation, but I can't comment on those areas because I too am ignorant. I am not, however, ignorant about education. I live and work education, it is my profession, I study it, I do it, and when a cocksure dilettante starts knocking over the tables and chairs, making the kids cry, and bossing the professionals around by virtue of having been told he's a business genius, I'll call him out.

Bill Gates is ignorant.

The federal Common Core K-12 curriculum, a product more or less bought and paid for by Bill Gates, is a disaster for public education. Built around scripted lessons and high stakes standardized tests that focus almost exclusively on math and literacy to the exclusion of everything else that makes for an educated human, Common Core is designed not to educate, but, according to Gates himself, to "unleash powerful market forces" that will somehow magically fix public education. 

Bill Gates is ignorant. Public education, like all human institutions including Microsoft, is imperfect, and there is plenty of room for improvement, but it's hardly broken. What is broken is our economy, one in which nearly one in four children live in poverty. In fact, when comparing developed nations, only Romania has a higher rate of childhood poverty than the US. The average developed nation's poverty rate is around 10 percent: when comparing apples with apples, our public schools are the best performing in the world, ahead of even the vaunted Finns who, incidentally have a childhood poverty rate below 5 percent. The Gates mindset, one based upon ideology rather than knowledge, is that poverty can be fixed by education. What professional educators know, what researchers know, is that this places the cart before the horse. When we fix poverty, we will "fix" education. Of course, doing that would require us to question the virtue of those powerful market forces, something Gates and his fellow ideologues, in their ignorance, don't seem eager to do.

Bill Gates is ignorant. Scripted lessons and high stakes standardized tests, have been shown time and again to be inferior models for teaching and assessment. What professional teachers know is that we are not teaching "classes" of name-less, face-less children; this is not an assembly line. We are responsible for the education of individual human beings, each one uniquely capable of learning, each requiring a non-standardized education. What professional educators know is that a well-round, well-educated citizen is someone who has had the opportunity to explore, on his own terms, science, history, art, dance, economics, psychology, languages, dance, social skills, athletics and all the other things that make up our world. Indeed, we know that math and literacy should not stand at the center or the top, but are mere tools for our greater explorations. The Gates mindset, is one based upon creating, using his own metaphor, standardized "electrical outlets" so that business people can more easily sell plug-in products to to schools, again, I reckon, unleashing those market forces upon our children.

Bill Gates is ignorant. I've not said he's a cold-hearted money grubber because I genuinely believe he thinks he's involved in philanthropy, but powerful market forces are the domain of cold-hearted money grubbers. Gates is not evil, but those he's pulling along on his coattails are. He is ignorant in his belief that these cold-hearted money grubbers, these Wall Street hedge fund managers, these venture capitalists, have anything but money grubbing as a goal. He is ignorant because he seems to believe, bizarrely, that the very people who have created an economy in which one in four children live in poverty, will, when given the opportunity, do anything other than treat them as free labor in their test score coal mines.

Bill Gates is ignorant, but I expect he's capable of learning because as a professional educator I know this is true of everyone. I know that he's heard all of this criticism before, from people with more substantial soap boxes than mine, although in last spring's interview with the Washington Post, he seemed genuinely surprised and upset that anyone could suggest his motives were anything other than pure. Certainly he knows that Microsoft itself is poised to make millions off Common Core. This sort of cognitive dissonance is a well-known psychological phenomenon. The more committed a person is to a particular opinion, the more tenaciously he clings to it, even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It's hard for any of us to admit when we are wrong, but it must be near impossible for a man who has, since boyhood, been told he was a genius to find himself exposed as ignorant.

As professional teachers, we deal with cognitive dissonance all the time. No matter how much I pick and prod, for instance, at the children's belief in Santa Claus, they cling to their beliefs, even in the face of contradictory evidence, adjusting their views to defend their old opinion. I'm content, in this case, to leave them in their ignorance because it's of the blissful sort and doing no one any harm. But when the wealthiest man in the world decides to foist his ignorance upon the rest of us, it's a re-telling of the story of Dr. Frankenstein's monster.

Gates once had a reputation as a man who admired those who would stand up to him, who would challenge him. I've not heard this in many years. Although I don't expect him to pick up the mantel, nor even to hear of it, today I challenge him to a debate on education, in public or in private, at a place and time of his choosing. I am ignorant about many things, but not education: I don't think I'm naive in hoping I can change his mind. I'd sure like to have him on the side of education. Just think what we could do.

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Nona orbach said...

Well said!
You are very brave to speak up.
Nona Orbach,
educator,artist, therapist

Rafer Nelsen said...

Tom, I've had dreams/fantasies the past couple months or your debating Bill Gates. Or even better, having him spend a year in the classroom, even a couple weeks, to get immersed in it all. I wish that could happen. I have a friend at The Foundation, I think I will email her on the topic, you never know.

Of course, I also wish you had Arne Duncan's job, but I bet you wouldn't want that job!