Tuesday, October 18, 2005

I love Bill

[I edited some parts of this post because I wrote it really late at night and was dissatisfied with it.]

This will have to be short because I'm tired and also because today made me want to hammer a bullet into my skull.

A small taste of the day: I was back at my regular school. I left at 3 pm (so early!) with most of the kids. One of the women who works at the school was standing on the corner, sort of marshaling kids onward and making sure they didn't block the sidewalk. There was a whole crowd sort of surging down the sidewalk. One kid, probably about 14, was yelling something to his friend which included the animated use of a swear word. The school woman started to yell at him, but he cut her off and snarled, "It's after school! Fuck! Shit! Bitch! ..." and continuing on with some other words particularly offensive to women. The kid was already past her, and I'm not sure if she knew who he was. I was already on edge from witnessing yet another pointless day filled with non-learning, and I really almost cried right then and there. The kid had so little respect for school, the other kids, the woman, himself, or anyone else around him. I felt I should do or say something, but I didn't know what. It's the kind of thing that can (with a ton of work and stress) be prevented, but not stopped, if you see the distinction.

Oh, and in class we're making history mobiles. I really prefer dioramas, as long as we're going with 6th grade type projects, but whatever.

Now then, if you are a New Yorker subscriber (aka snobby jerk) like I am, you can find a great article in this week's issue. It's called "What Money Can Buy," and it's about the Gates Foundation's work on global health issues, particularly malaria. Gates also supports domestic education reforms, particularly the small school movement (breaking up huge urban high schools into smaller schools or programs). I think small schools are definitely a great idea and are particularly helpful in cutting down on school violence and dropout rates. However, I think of them more as a prerequisite for high academic achievement than as a catalyst for it. You can go to a warm, safe, enjoyable place every day for years and not learn anything. For example, graduate school. But anyway, what I think is important about this article is Gates's will to do something about a terrible tragedy. He's not interested in sitting around and talking and bemoaning the problem. He talks to scientists and researchers and says, what can we do about this? What will work? And then he helps them do it. And if it's not working, he cuts off funds and goes for something else. Some selected quotes:

--"It would be hard to overstate the impact that the Gates foundation has had: the research programs of entire countries have been restored, and fields that had languished for years, like tropical medicine, have once again burst to life. In a world where a fast reaction to the threat of disease is imperative, bureaucracies like the W.H.O.--which make decisions by consensus--are often too cumbersome to compete at the speed of a maturing virus. Gates and his wife need consensus only between themselves."

Is there a parallel here to the lumbering speed of public schools, and the potential agility of charters (or any independent school), to meet the needs of students?

--"The rock star and anti-poverty evangelist Bono put it: 'This isn't about compassion. It's about results. It's not some sort of well-meaning-hippie stuff. Bill Gates is not into nice sentimental efforts or whimsical support of hopeless causes. When Bill walks into the room, we are not expecting to have a warm fuzzy feeling."

Seriously, who can say it better than Bono? This is the kind of hard-hearted, driven attitude we need for education.

--This quote starts with Gates speaking. "'Human suffering as a result of malaria is incomparable. By many measures, it's easily the worst thing on the planet. I refuse to accept it. I refuse to sit there and say, O.K., next problem, this one doesn't bother me. It does bother me. Very much. And the only way for that to change is to stop malaria. So that is what we are going to have to do.'"

I love it. I seriously love it. This man, who has the worst bowl cut in the history of the world, is standing there saying, 'I do not like this disease. And because I am so incredibly wealthy that sometimes I involuntarily throw up all over, I really don't think I should have to stand for it.' That is some awesome logic, and sooo American. But who says it can't work? The guy has so much money that IRS computers literally cannot handle his tax return. They have to use some kind of special computer that allows more digits in the income column. I'm not kidding. Plus, who knew the guy had a soul?

--"'there has always been this sense of malaria fatalism. There has been the idea that this is just part of Africa and being African.'"

Hmm...like urban education fatalism? That the failure is just part of America and being African-American (/poor/Latino/lots of other things)' ?

So you're going to think that, to fight malaria, we need some kind of breakthrough discovery or vaccine. That's what I thought. And certainly that's being sought. But guess what could save 30-50% of malaria victims, according to the article? Nets sprayed with insecticide. Nets! You put the nets over your beds, and the mosquitoes die and don't bite you and you don't get malaria. And actually, you don't even have to sleep under the net to benefit! The article says, "death rates, the incidence of anemia, and even the level of parasites in the bloodstream were lowered in children who lived within three hundred metres of houses that had nets." The nets have to be replaced or resprayed with insecticide fairly often, but even so they would significantly impact malarial infection rates. Additionally, new types of nets with imbedded insecticide are being developed that would last a lot longer. NETS, for God's sake! And they've known this for 20 years!

A Tanzanian health entomologist told the reporter, "I am sitting here watching my hair go gray and waiting for those nets. Every year a million more kids die. A decade ago, they were saying 'Let people die; there is nothing we can do.' Then Gates came along and he said this is not acceptable. That was more important than his money."

There are so many parallels here with education. Just as they know nets and insecticide work for malaria (they helped to eradicate it among officials in the British Raj in India), we know that discipline, hard work, and attention to academic rigor work for urban education. What's missing is merely the will to do it, someone to come and say "this is not acceptable." Everyone would rather wait for a magic bullet that's easy and cheap. Or perhaps they just don't care. The Tanzanian scientist said, "We already know how much eight hundred thousand African children are worth to the rich world. We have known it for a long time."

I hope that's not true, for African children or American children. But it's sad that a cold fish like Gates is the guy who has to save the rest of us from the collective guilt of a natural holocaust in Africa. We should take his initiative for ourselves here in America, regarding education. We should say something like, "The underclass in this country, who are disproportionately minorities, have hardly a chance to improve their circumstances. And the only way for that to change is to give everyone a good education. So that is what we are going to have to do." In other words, "This shit is not getting done. Therefore, we will have to do it."


At October 18, 2005 10:11 PM, Blogger Flint said...

I realize that this isn't what your article is about - but starting to use DDT again would also seriously reduce malaria as well.

Malaria rates have actually gone up since we stopped using DDT - and apparently all of the research that showed had bad DDT is wasn't accurate.

On top of that - the stuff we use in place of DDT is actually more toxic than DDT was - go figure.

At October 19, 2005 2:51 AM, Anonymous Sherman Dorn said...

There's a moment in Stuart Math's great documentary Shaker Heights: The Struggle for Integration when a longtime resident describes his argument to fellow residents of the Cleveland suburb, "Just because we're liberal doesn't mean we can't be effective," in pushing what becames the community efforts to prevent blockbusting in the early 1960s. And there, as well as elsewhere, you do see effective community efforts to change lives, both communities and in schools. You're right: it doesn't require waiting for a magic bullet, and magic bullets aren't out there. They're not in philosophical platitudes, charter schools, technocratic accountability systems, or in a host of other fads. That doesn't mean that some things aren't valuable, but that there's nothing that will change schooling without effort, humane follow-through, and what I think of as simple shrewdness (such as the principal's tardy line at the school you visited).

(Incidentally, flint, I understand the bit blaming the ban on DDT is an urban legend, in large part because resistance to DDT develops in less than a decade and in part because opponents of DDT were opposed its its broad use in agriculture, not spraying within households. The nets are an example of shrewd, low-tech precision use of pesticides within households.)

At October 19, 2005 7:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The key point in prevention, by the way, is not the nets but the pesticides. Nets without pesticides offer no benefits whatsoever.

At October 19, 2005 9:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're right about the parallels, which is probably why the Gates Foundation also does a lot of work on high school reform here in the U.S. They've invested a lot of money in trying to create more small high schools.

At October 20, 2005 3:22 AM, Anonymous rstanton said...

About the student using bad language after school and then using worse language combined with an asinine jailhouse lawyer argument when told to stop: you are right to be disturbed by the encounter. Think of it this way: Being a foul-mouthed punk is against the rules of life, not just the school rules. So his reply was nonsense, and depressing nonsense at that. Basically, most kids nowadays want to be able to do whatever they want as long as nothing happens to them. That's their guiding light. They aren't really rebellious, that would imply principles. Most behavior problems recede when the students know that something will happen if they don't stop. Simplistic, but it stops a lot of horrible situations from developing.

At October 21, 2005 8:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is some disturbing news that surfaced about Gates. He's outsourcing jobs and hiring female CEO's because they require lower salaries than male CEO's. I have not yet verified this for myself but (in addition to having heard this from a very discerning and intelligent source) find it believable. After all, money corrupts the soul of even "seemingly" caring people like Gates (and let's not forget Oprah :).
Regarding your comment about improving education for the poor in this country. Where is Gates' effort in helping to eradicte poverty in this country? He could do a world of good with his billions to improve education for the poorest here as well, don't you think? In the mean time Bill is one of the folks on top of the capitalist pyramid and just makes himself look like a saint by spreading some of his wealth around. Obviously it's still a drop in the bucket since he still has so much left that IRS computers (as you said) can not deal with the amount he still has left:)

At October 21, 2005 9:40 AM, Blogger David said...

anonymous...what on earth are you talking about when you refer to Gates "hiring female CEOs?" The only CEO in Microsoft is Steve Ballmer.

At October 25, 2005 9:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should probably make your readers aware of the world swim for malaria and dunkmalaria.org


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