Where the Gates Foundation Goes Astray
Let us first pause to admire what Bill and Melinda Gates are attempting to do, which is awe-inspiring. Put yourself in their position, which is a mental exercise well-nigh impossible. Consider the small club of humans in history who have amassed, by means of talent, circumstance, pure luck, or some degree of chicanery, truly vast sums of wealth. Not millions, but billions of dollars in 2014 terms. Now reduce that club to those that have given considerable sums back to their society.
Now you have a much smaller group. Some that come to mind are Alfred Nobel, who created the Nobel Peace Prize after he realized, to his horror, that his development of what we call TNT was responsible for the deaths of untold masses of humanity. That was not his intent. Then there is Andrew Carnegie, who took the money from his steel expertise and created libraries all over this country, dramatically affecting literacy rates. There is Warren Buffet, who has given enormous sums to his friend Bill Gates, and even Ted Turner, who donated, if I recall correctly, ten million to the United Nations. For sure there are others, but the number is still going to be small.
Bill and Melissa Gates have set out to donate all of his fortune to the world. Given the sums at hand, this is a daunting task. You do not want to waste the sums, and you have to consider the long range goals and affects of what you do. They are in a position where they will dramatically affect the future of the entire world, and the downside of that is the felt need to make sure the effects are positive – not just this year but for all time. It would be far simpler, like Ozymandias, to simply erect a huge statue to your own significance.
In sum, I have all the respect in the world for Mr. and Mrs. Gates, which does not deter me for a second in mourning where I think they are making errors. Three of them, at least.
First, public education. Simply put, Mr. and Mrs. Gates should never allow themselves to be quoted, in any context, on any issue relating to public education. Neither of them has any experience teaching in a public school. Being a teacher is a lot like being a cop in that, if you’re not doing it, you have no idea what the job is really like. This goes for retired teachers as well, including me. I stepped out of a public school classroom for the last time in 2000, and I would not trust anything I had to say about the tasks at hand today.
One thing my experiences in both education and motorsports taught me in the past decades is that, for most people, perception is their reality. The perception is that Bill and Melissa had the good fortune to be born into loving families with the resources to provide them with all the education they desired. They have no experience of being in a public school as a student or, more importantly, as a direct provider of education. I.E., as a teacher. As such, whenever they open their mouths on this topic, which is regrettably often, the perception is that they do not know what they are talking about, even if they do. For teachers who are actively trying their best, every criticism or even intended positive idea, is a slap in the face from powerful people with a bully pulpit denied those who deal with the issues in real time, every day.
Massive and comprehensive utilization of computers is not the answer for every child nor every subject. Testing students to the point that ten year olds throw up on a regular basis when faced with yet another state-mandated test is a form of child abuse. Taking creativity out of the teacher’s bag of talents and substituting mandated lesson plans of a one size rammed into all is a disaster. There are days where issues arise in the classroom that must be dealt with immediately as a part of the education, and to turn away from the judgment and experience of thousands of dedicated professionals in search of a panacea of mandated tests is a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.
There are people who could speak to these issues effectively, but they are all currently employed as teachers. The Gates’ have a need to find one or a few of them to speak for them on education, after consultation on a particular issue. At this time, the Gates are just one more drop of a tidal wave of criticisms and ignorance that depress teachers, who did not sign up to be abused for their very strengths.
Secondly, genetically modified foods are not a step toward the future. They are a short term ploy to generate massive profits for agri-business and the big pharma companies that feed it. Can we feed all the people in the world with non-modified foods? Yes. It would be more difficult, and it would require a lot of change, but it could be done and it would produce profit. Less profit from greater investment? Yes. For a healthier long-term result? Absolutely. It’s a question of what is good for people and good for the planet versus corporate greed, and the Gates’ are on the wrong side, for reasons unknown.
Third, the use of charity to improve all of our lives. The amounts of money spent by the Gates foundation are vast, and to be admired. But money does not create lasting change – attitude shifts do.
In my years in motorsports I spent a lot of time working for various charitable groups. All of them have a compelling story to tell that gives you the desire to help. Some of them are scams, and others are disorganized and waste a lot of the funds generated, or spend most of their time and money generating more money. Let’s ignore all of those for a second and just consider charitable causes that are “pure.”
What all of them have in common is that at the end of the story, there’s a hand put out. They need your money, or a combination of your physical and mental efforts and your money. The Gates Foundation stands alone in my experience in that they do not need either. They have the money, and they can hire buildings’ worth of experts to complete any task.
What they have is a pure charity with a compelling mission, (actually, several thousand missions), and all the resources they need. Why not use that solitary advantage by using social media to spread the word of successes large and small?
I would love to receive a daily e-mail from the Gates Foundation about a project, large or small, somewhere in the world, that is succeeding and making positive change. Wouldn’t you? There would be no pitch at the end for a contribution, just a small glimmer of positive news to provide hope for the future.
What would the effect of a daily bombardment of good and inspiring news be? One outcome would be an increased motivation for all of us to make similar changes in our own small world. Reading of such news every day would make you more likely to step out of your own ego-centric life and do more to help others, with no expectation of reward. There are thousands of volunteer opportunities around, or you can create your own.
I have a neighbor down the street who lives alone. Nobody on the block seems to talk to him much. His house is falling into disrepair at an astonishing rate. The roof is covered in thick moss. The lawn gets mowed perhaps three times a year. There’s a street light that has disappeared because a tree has so overgrown itself around it that the light is totally blocked. An actual hole in the siding under the roof is allowing birds and who knows what else to have access to the attic. It is a horror story. I have talked with neighbors about perhaps a gang assault on his yard and house, and one neighbor tells me he is gone for a week at a time. It could be done while he was away. Others demur, as when they have spoken to him about his yard the response has not been jolly. Another opines that the back deck is so far gone it would be dangerous to set foot on it, and is worried the entire house might collapse if we tried to work around it. And so, nothing gets done and the situation worsens day by dreary day.
A Gates Foundation outreach e-mail and social media campaign, over time, could change attitudes all over the world and would have the potential for positive outcomes exceeding anything that money, even hundreds of billions of dollars of it, can do.
I admire the Gates Foundation and wish them success, but mourn the errors and lost opportunities.
Copyright 2014 David Preston