Why do I pick on Bill Gates?

I usually ignore education reformers who have never been teachers.  I ignore them because they want to improve student test scores, while ignoring unequal opportunity.  Only philosophical, K-12 teachers understand that our greatest failure is not students’ low test scores; it is our failure to provide equal educational opportunity.

But I have written about Bill Gates in these blogs.  (See https://sixvirtues.com/blog/2011/07/19/bill-gates-teachers-are-like-athletes-artists-or-social-scientists)

I don’t know Bill Gates, but I know his ideas get a lot of publicity. Our society develops according to the ideas of people who have access to the media.  Bill Gates has the money and power to promote his ideas, even if they lack merit.  That is why I blog about him.

It’s not about the person, Bill Gates.  It’s about knowing that a billionaire’s education improvement ideas aren’t any more worthy than anybody else’s, who has never been a K-12 teacher. I should ignore Bill Gates, but I can’t when his philanthropy gets him a place at the education reform table.

Gates does not have a rich set of ideas about improving public school teaching any more than I have a rich set of ideas about developing software and prospering in business.  He would never listen to my ideas about that topic, and he shouldn’t.  Similarly, I should not listen to his ideas about education.

He has earned millions of dollars; but he has never been a public school teacher.  When it comes to having worthwhile educational improvement ideas, the second experience is essential.  The first is insignificant.

Let me explain.

Elementary school teachers try desperately to teach all their students, as they periodically learn from the guidance counselor that:

1.  the distracted girl in their class has been molested by an uncle.

2.  the Smith children are early for school on Mondays because the school breakfast is their first meal since Friday.

3.  the family of the best boy athlete cannot afford travel baseball, and the family of the girl with the prettiest voice cannot afford voice lessons.

Middle school teachers try desperately to teach all their students to study hard as they realize that: 

1.  two girls in their class are cutting themselves.

2.  several boys think it’s hilarious to call their teachers “baldy” (or worse), so they have to ignore their snickering in the back of the classroom, in the cafeteria and hallway, and while shopping at the mall.

3.  the sneer on the faces of their seventh graders was not there last year.

High school teachers try desperately to teach all their students to study hard as they realize that:

1.  weekend high school parties are a market for drug sellers.

2.  the sneers they experience on the faces of their juniors have been there since seventh grade.

3.  not only are the Smith children no longer in school, but neither are the Carters, the Whites, the Browns, etc.

4.  MTV and other popular teen shows portray hard working students as nerds.

Bill Gates and other school reformers know these things, but they have not experienced them.  Anybody who has not experienced them has not experienced America’s struggle to provide equal educational opportunity.  (Gates’ mother was a teacher, so she experienced them.)

If the American dream of being successful (like Bill Gates) is still possible, it is the equal opportunity ideal driving public education that makes it so.  Providing those opportunities under difficult circumstances defines the American public school teacher’s experience.

Non-teachers don’t have the shared experience of that definition. Only dedicated, K-12 teachers know that proposals to improve public education are not American, if they don’t improve the provision of equal educational opportunity.  And those same teachers know that proposals aimed at improving student test scores are unfair to children with the least educational opportunity.

Reformers haven’t experienced this, if they haven’t been public school teachers.

Finally, Walt Gardner is another former teacher blogging about Bill Gates:



#1 Andrew Saldino on 06.08.16 at 4:14 pm

After reading your critique, I went back and looked at how Gardner writes about truth, beauty, and goodness. The first place that I see where he uses the word virtue to describe these words is page 32 (I may be wrong). He then does go on to use the word virtues to describe these words, which is clearly a category mistake, as you rightly point out. Now, I have not read Gardner’s entire book, nor your book, but based on what I have read, I do not think that your critique of Gardner is based on a sympathetic reading of his work. I believe that Gardner is naming the inquiry into truth, beauty, and goodness as a virtue. When Gardner calls these ideals virtues, we can easily substitute “the pursuit of an understanding of truth, beauty, and goodness” to honor his intention and provide more terminological clarity to his project. This reading is supported by Gardner’s words: “The ancient Greeks evolved a sense of the virtuous person, the individual who was fully developed. Such individuals cultivated knowledge; were courageous, loyal, just, physically strong and supple; and evinced a developed sense of beauty in matters of body and spirit” (33). Thus virtues are cultivated and evinced. Grammatically speaking, we don’t cultivate and evince truth, but truthfulness. So in a sense, your critique of Gardner is a critique of his grammar. Gardner also writes, “I have emphasized the trio of virtues that have long animated education: a search within one’s own culture for what is true, what is beautiful, and what is good” (36). Notice that virtues are described as “a search for . . . “. For Gardner, we study examples of truth, beauty, and goodness (or evil) in order to gain understanding of ways in which humans have modeled these ideals effectively (or not). Thus, I would argue that what Gardner is doing is giving examples of both the content of, and how to model, the virtue of understanding, to put it your lexicon. Gardner is guilty of lack of terminological clarity, but ultimately, I think that his project is highly consistent with what I understand of yours. For examples, about the tradition of education, he writes, affirmatively, “Indeed, the two major goals of education across time and space could be called the modeling of adult roles and the transmission of cultural values” (28). This sounds basically identical to your philosophical baseline about what to teach and how to teach. What am I missing?

#2 casey on 06.08.16 at 9:58 pm

Thanks for commenting, Andrew. First, I admit to being harsh with Gardner’s use of words. There is a reason. He plays loose with words and ideas. For example, as I mentioned last night, the seven intelligences, are really the different talents we all knew were distributed differently across our elementary school classrooms. Some students were good at music, some math, some English, some physical education, etc. Why does he call these “intelligences,” when we always knew them as talents? Maybe it is to make them sound like something new that should be put into schools. The irony, of course, is that they have ALWAYS been in schools. Has there ever been an elementary school student who did not say that he/she has a classmate who “is good at math, reading, music, sports,” or something else?
Judging by the popularity of the phrase “seven intelligences,” educators fell for it. Somebody has to call Gardner on his twisting of words and ideas, so I do.
At the end you asked if you missed anything. Let me point you to the following blogs to learn about what makes a virtue list useful (a list like one that singles out the pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness):

In other words, if Gardner does not explain why educated people should pursue truth, beauty and goodness instead of justice, peace, harmony, wisdom, knowledge, self-control, or any other ideal; he is telling us what we already know — people should be virtuous. I already knew that. It is the meaning of the word, virtue.

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