Bill Gates’ Bold Move

September 24, 2007

by Tammy Drennan

“Bill Gates Makes His Next Bold Move” says the front of this week’s Parade Magazine. I turned directly to the report. “Bold move” was an overstatement on the magazine’s part by a long shot. It highlighted two things: Mr. Gates thinks children should be taught to read phonetically and he thinks we should have a national standardized test that all students must pass, barring special needs.

Before I go on, I want you to know that I spent a considerable amount of time on the Gates Foundation web site and was impressed with some of their methodology. Assuming they practice what they print, when considering new ideas they research them, listen to multiple opinions, try them where they deem it wise, and refine them for further utility if they prove hopeful. That’s all good, sound strategy.

But clearly there are people they are not listening to, or maybe they’ve listened a bit and feel that their ideas are just a little too bold.

I wonder if they’ve listened to John Taylor Gatto. He’s worth listening to and asking questions of when he says things like, “Who besides a degraded rabble would voluntarily present itself to be graded and classified like meat? No wonder school is compulsory.” (The Underground History of American Education)

And from the same book: “Growth and mastery come only to those who vigorously self-direct. Initiating, creating, doing, reflecting, freely associating, enjoying privacy—these are precisely what the structures of schooling are set up to prevent, on one pretext or another.”

Mr. Gatto is no crank. He is a deeply thoughtful and intelligent man who has spent a lifetime experiencing, thinking about and exploring the way children grow and learn. When someone like John Gatto speaks, I want to hear more. I want to ask questions, because I know the answers will issue from honest inquiry and research and reflection and not from an agenda.

If anyone from the Gates Foundation stumbles upon this article, please, I beg of you, read Gatto. Give him a chance to broaden your horizons.

Someone else it seems researchers are not listening to is themselves.

When I’m working my brain around an idea, after doing some reading and research, I start my application process. First, I apply the idea as close to home as possible. I ask, In my experience does this idea ring true? Can I think of personal supporting evidence or contradictions?

Next I ask myself, Is my personal experience broad enough to draw any conclusions? Usually it’s not. So I extend my search. I talk to other people, read further, observe where possible. I examine the original idea in every possible light. I read supporting and opposing opinions. I try to make myself more knowledgeable so I can better trust my judgments in the future.

One particular thing I try to do is listen very closely to people who have put careful thought into their opinions. If I happen upon a thinking individual and they say something that contradicts my perception of a thing, I want to hear more. What makes them say what they do? What are the sources of their ideas, their experiences that have contributed to them?

Fortunately, we don’t have to draw only on people we know; there are plenty of good books to guide our journey toward truth.

On the education front, every time I hear someone ringing alarm bells about students graduating high school without having passed algebra or students not graduating at all or students not going on to college, I think of the large retinue of very successful people I know who meet all those criteria.

The successful people I know are ones who live on their own terms. Some have college degrees and even work in areas related to them, some have degrees and work in completely unrelated areas, many have no degrees and run successful businesses and work at jobs they love. This is one area I do have plenty of personal experience in, but I’ve also encountered considerable evidence outside my personal realm.

It’s amazing how often people do not listen to themselves or listen to themselves when they ought not to.

Two examples.

1. When someone starts carrying on about how important it is for all students to master algebra, I ask, “Do you know algebra?” Most often they’ve taken it in school but couldn’t work an equation to save their lives. I pursue the question, “How many people do you know who could help your child with his/her algebra homework today?” Usually, it’s none or only one or two. They have not applied their personal experience to the question; instead, they parrot what they hear. This is a case of not listening to what you really know.

2. On the other hand, odd human beings that we are, we all too often do listen to ourselves when our experience is too limited to make it worthwhile. For instance, someone may say to us, “Children learn to read best when they’re taught phonetically,” and we’ll jump in with, “My son taught himself to read; I know someone who learned to read by the sight method…” And so on. Our experience is very likely far too limited to make any judgment about how to teach reading, but our little bit of personal exposure to learning to read makes us confident that we need not explore further.

Conclusion: Let’s learn to listen where and how it’s most fruitful. When you find a thinking person, listen deeply, ask questions, explore, learn, think. Seek out thinking people. Listen to yourself judiciously. Apply a standard to your own judgment and experience, evaluate the reliability of all information and ideas that you encounter.

Finding the truth about any matter is hard work. Alexander Hamilton expressed it perfectly:

“Men give me some credit for genius. All the genius I have lies in this: when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me, I explore it in all its bearings. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort which I make, the people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.”

Hamilton wasn’t always right. We won’t always be right. But we must try harder, be more demanding of ourselves intellectually. And above all, we must exercise the utmost caution and reserve when we have the power to thrust our conclusions down other people’s throats.

The Gates Foundation is in a position of great power. Some day, I (and many others) hope to see education free of state control, but until that day comes, I urge those with power to think deeply before using it as a tool to force their vision of the future.

I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Bill and Melinda Gates’ concern for American young people. I hope they will find their way to using their mighty resources to empower people rather than to enslave them to the state and their own ideology and vision.