Stick With Toilets and Condoms, Bill Gates

Why does a Thinker for Hire waste even a fragment of a second?

A fragment of a second is 3 seconds too long on these cover stories about (I can’t even TYPE the phrase “education reform” without feeling queasy) in national magazines.

But when it’s spread out on the kitchen table, and reading is a temporary but welcome respite from weekday morning chaos, and her eyes must rest somewhere while chewing her sugary cud, where else should a TfH look?

And here’s what those fragments of time taught me: that as bad as I already thought Bill Gates was for education, with his self-made billionaire high school dropout hubris,


Bill Gates was riding the treadmill one day and saw a cool thing on tv.

You know what? So was I!! I saw a cool thing on tv at the gym and I went home and told my  buddies about it.

Bill Gates saw a cool thing at the gym (his own personal gym, at his home, because he’s Bill Gates, but that’s only ancillary to my point which is that he saw this cool thing) and decided to MAKE EVERY SINGLE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT AND MOST COLLEGE STUDENTS IN THE US AND MAYBE THE WORLD SEE IT TOO.


He did this by paying the professor who said the cool thing to build a high school online/class robot learning module and persuade teachers to buy and use it. Or maybe they don’t buy it? Maybe Bill Gates gives it to them? Because of philanthropy giving his billionaire life what some of us call “meaning”?

We already know that when Bill Gates has a feeling about school he can make all states tell all districts to adopt Common Core standards.

He can make the president and Congress tell all states tell all districts to use digital technology to fire teachers and close schools for their own good. (Technically NCLB wasn’t his idea but data-driven teacher evaluation certainly is on his Christmas list, the one he writes for everyone else, because what could you give Bill Gates for Christmas?)

So why can’t he decide that the cool DVD he saw at the gym should be the new way to teach history to all children and young adults foreverandeveramen?

That was rhetorical. There’s no answer to that question. That question doesn’t tangiblyexist in our universe because Bill Gates doesn’t need to question anything. All questions vanish into ether the moment of their conception, before the thoughts even morph into language.

The other problem with Big History is that it’s based on a shocking disregard of the last several decades of scholarship.

Christian began wondering if he could apply this everything-is-connected idea to a larger scale: “I began thinking, Could I teach a course not of Russia but of humanity?” He soon became infatuated with the concept.“I remember the chain of thought,” he said. “I had to do prehistory, so I have to do some archaeology. But to do it seriously, I’m going to talk about how humans evolved, so, yikes, I’m in biology now. I thought: To do it seriously, I have to talk about how mammals evolved, how primates evolved. I have to go back to multicelled organisms, I have to go back to primeval slime. And then I thought: I have to talk about how life was created, how life appeared on earth! I have to talk geology, the history of the planet. And so you can see, this is pushing me back and back and back, until I realized there’s a stopping point — which is the Big Bang.” He paused. “I thought, Boy, would that be exciting to teach a course like this!”

When this guy who invented Big History did so, it may have seemed ok to think that he could leap, with intellectual responsibility, from Russian history to world history/biology/anthropology/physics/astronomy. But the problem with thinking that we understand the universal is that we can’t.

Which postmodernism taught us. And for this we should all be grateful. Not annoyed, as most are when hearing or reading that word.

I’m glad that I can’t responsibly leap from “American” to “global” or from “Shakespeare” to “human.” I’d rather pay attention to what such moves leave out.

The article, of course, quotes people criticizing Big History on most of these grounds–except my principled rejection of its very premise takes the form of a brief comment that Bill Gates history course only glances on robber nsrrons and omits any other mention of a non-dominant social group. And the article quotes another teacher pointing out, quite reasonably, that history courses nowadays ought to be teaching appropriate use of sources.

Because “truth” is now perceived as ideological, a trend enabled by the very intellectual innovations–postmodernism, again–that many on the Right deride as culturally harmful.

So we should be teaching our youth how to evaluate historical knowledge. How we know what we know. That they may better discern truthiness from fact.

But when robber barrons control almost the entirety of our information sources, why wouldn’t they want to keep children from learning alternative ways of knowing?

Of acting? And fighting?

I’m not saying that Bill Gates thought out loud that he’d like to ensure that every high school student does not spend her time learning about how to evaluate media content—including primary historical documents—to learn about how economic inequality has reached its current proportions and the historical trends aggravating it.

Or that he desired specifically to raise an entire generation of youth to enter the workforce with almost no understanding of history, actual history–the story of how we know what we know about our past. And almost no ability to read, understand, and apply to our lives old documents. And, like, basic facts about the world wars, and the global economy that they laid groundwork for.

It’s too easy to despair about these trends in education.

But I’ve yet to see valid evidence that I shouldn’t take that easy road.

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