My wife was scheduled to travel on business this week, and after
she arrived at her destination on Sunday evening, she asked me if I
would set the Tivo to record Monday's episode of
Now, my wife and I have an understanding. She doesn't poke fun
at Star Trek, I lay off any cracks about Oprah Winfrey
(like "piercing your ears... on the next Oprah"). It's all
good that way. Still, she doesn't usually go out of her way to Tivo
an episode, so I asked her what the topic was.
"You might be interested in it," she said over the phone, "it'll
have Bill and Melinda Gates on."
Bill Gates meets the Oprahnator? This I did have to
see. Monday night I settled in with the remote and a strong drink
and fired up the episode, chillingly titled "What Bill and Melinda
Gates Want You to Know." Turns out the Gates were on the show to
talk about something they feel strongly about: the declining
quality of US schools, which was the focus of the entire show that
Here's how Oprah introduced the interview with the Gates: "With
a net worth of about $51 billion, Microsoft founder and world's
richest man, Bill Gates, and his wife, Melinda (two of Time
magazine's 'Persons of the Year' in 2005), are determined to use
their fortune to change the crisis in American schools. Through
their influential Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they are
trying to revolutionize an education system that, if it were a
business, Bill says, 'would be bankrupt.'"
Clearly, this was going to be a hard-hitting episode.
I won't bore you with the minutia (the content of the episode is
online), nor get into a debate about what the best solution to
this education problem might be. (Privately, I think it's going to
take a lot more effort on the part of the parents to keep their
kids involved in learning, not just more money.)
No, what made me sit up and take notice was this gem from
Oprah's narration: "Bill and Melinda point to an obsolete
education--built for the industrial age, not the digital age--as a
keystone to the problem. The Gates Foundation pointedly asks, 'What
good is it for kids to graduate in 2006 from a school system that
was designed for 1956?'"
At first glance, this is exactly the kind of thing you would
think a billionaire who made his money with software would say. And
the cynics among us would say this is just another way of opening
up another market for his company's products. That may very well
be. But the first thing I thought when I'd heard this particular
statement was "where have I heard something like that before?"
Then I remembered: India's Education Secretary Sudeep Banerjee
said something very similar when he formally rejected the notion
that India would be ordering machines from the One Laptop Per Child
(OLPC) project. Banerjee believes the $100 laptops would not
benefit Indian students as much as more teachers and classrooms. In
other words, India needs more infrastructure. A statement he made
well before this interview with the Gates was aired.
India has other objections to the OLPC plan, make no mistake.
For one, they're not convinced that this laptop would be a worthy
teaching tool. And while I find it interesting that Bill Gates is
pushing for exactly the same things in American schools at India's
government is in Indian schools, I don't really believe that it's
the only agenda of the Gates Foundation to make sure Windows is on
every PC troubled schools in any nation eventually receive.
At least, it's not an agenda at the top of the list.
But on a smaller level it has to be a win-win for Bill. If his
Foundation is successful at funding and/or raising awareness to
help US schools, then clearly if there's any kind of PC deployment
involved, individual schools are going to feel squeamish about
saying "no, thanks" to Vista-loaded machines when so much else has
been donated to them. (That's even if they're aware of the
alternatives like Linux--many school may receive new PCs like it's
Getting Windows, especially Vista, in front of as many new
eyeballs as possible is critical to success of Microsoft. Locking
out potential open source deployments in the US (or, indeed, any)
school system is an added plus, as well.
There are flaws to my arguments, not the least of which is that
it trivializes a real threat to education, both in the US and
abroad, and I do not want to do that. Problems exist and any
potential solution must be looked at with an objective eye.
I cannot help but wonder, though, if the Gates Foundation
is--deliberately or otherwise--about to raise a whole new
generation of students and workers dependent on Microsoft
Ideally, projects like Indiana high schools' deployment of
Novell and SUSE software will help schools realize that they do
have a choice in what tools to use.
Maybe we'll see programs like that some day... on the next
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