March 1, 2018 – Tokyo

Interesting article in today’s paper. A silicon Valley exec has started a school in Australia. No classrooms. Just lots of open spaces and couches and white boards. The school is modeled, apparently, after SV start-up mentality. Curriculum as described confused the hell out of me. Something about blue sky thinking and bean bag chairs.

‘there are “creator spaces,” “blue-sky thinking” sessions and “pitch decks.”’

There’s a lot to be said for doing the basics—but doing them very well. It’s not clear to me that we are teaching the wrong things in school, but it does seem as if we are not teaching the right things effectively. Presumably, all the SV billionaires who have hit it big on their own or been fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time, went to schools that taught the basics. How to read, write, do math and understand science and develop cognitive thinking skills around more advanced topics, again, using the building blocks that were so carefully laid in the elementary years.

Years ago, when a well intentioned MIT professor was raising capital for the ‘$100 laptop project, an article appeared in the USA Today highlighting the virtues of this program. The essence of One Laptop per child ‘OLPC’ was a desire to produce laptop computers for school kids at a cost of $100USD that could be made available to disadvantaged youth in developing countries. It was of course likely based in virtuous intent, but was always doomed to failure—at least in my view at the time. I wrote a rebuttal to the piece which was published in the on-line version of the paper. My argument was this. How and why would you put something of such high value in the backpack of a kid. At MYO, we had to take precautions so that our kids’ peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were not stolen from them when they were walking to class. How would you protect a piece of technology with a much higher street value? You would simply be putting a target on the back of every 10-year old in the country. There were many other flaws in the program. One obvious one was that in order to get the price to $100, a country or school system had to order $1M units. So what kind of poor African country has $100M lying around for laptops? Most schools in Namibia only have textbooks enough for about 25% of the class and rarely have enough paper or pencils or other basics to run a school. Often kids must sit on the floor for a lack of desks or chairs. I felt the program was laughably ill conceived from the beginning, but because the founders included Google money and an MIT stud, of course any criticism by a poorly funded practitioner in the field was not taken seriously.

Interestingly, Bill Gates also opposed the project. His argument was that cell phones were to be the computers of the future. They were multi-disciplinary and were evolving so quickly and memory was getting so cheap so fast, that it was inevitable that they could fill this niche in the developing world. The founders of OLPC attacked Bill’s integrity—suggesting he only took that stand because their laptop was using free Linux software as an OS to save money. They suggested Bill’s ideas stemmed from resentment at the idea that computers be marketed without Windows OS. This from a guy who has pledged some $75B to charity or some such thing.

Bill was right of course. Cell phones are the new computers in the developing world. OLPC died an early death.

My point. Rich people throw money around all the time on education projects. Like this new school in Australia that charges $8,000 a year. How is that supposed to help the world? Children of rich people do not have an education problem. Our education problem globally is that quality education in many areas is only available to people with lots of money. Namibia has some excellent schools—the majority of them private and very expensive; attended by the children of rich private citizens and government ministers. Poverty is perpetuated through lack of access to quality education as well as many other barriers intrinsic in an impoverished environment (nutrition, alcoholism, drugs, violence, lack of social structure and basis necessities such as health care or other social services).

Even when rich people try to help the disadvantaged, they often do it so clumsily that it’s impossible not to question their motivations and/or intelligence. I have read dozens of articles about how people were scammed out of their money when a little research and local consulting could have helped them find a good organization to support.

Years ago, Brad and Angelina Pitt were holed up in a coastal retreat a few miles from our program. A friend of mine, a Hollywood producer who had made a movie with Angelina and knew her personally sent a welcome package from our school, along with a request to meet to discuss our program and see if they may be interested in supporting our efforts. We never got a response. Instead, they donated $40K to a local program that was widely regarded as corrupt and preying on tourists for easy dollars. The money disappeared, most likely to build a home for the principal who disappeared soon after and the school closed. It became a local joke about how naive and immature they were—when even just paying the slightest bit of attention could have resulted in a meaningful contribution to the local situation and avoided the bad press.

In 2004, Dennis Quaid filmed a movie in our town. I was friendly with one of his office staff and we made a pitch but he made a token donation elsewhere. In fairness, we were a start-up then and while I had a good story, we had little to show off at that time.

A few years later, through a personal connection, we were able to get a package of materials to Oprah’s personal assistant but we never heard from her organization. I am sure she gets a lot of requests, but still—we were so close…..

MYO has a sterling reputation for quality and financial efficiency. I ran MYO for the first 5 years, when we were a start-up and finding our way. In those years, we were very fortunate to get funding from a few individuals who wrote good sized checks, The Nobel Foundation, The Rossing Foundation and a lovely American lady living in Paris who took a shine to us. In recent times we have been funded primarily by an Australian mining company operating in the area. We have made our share of mistakes, but being inconsiderate of donors’ support has never been one of them. Vera Leech has done a tremendous job taking MYO from a start-up to what I believe is the most credible, effective, and efficient program of its kind in the country.

One last story. Years ago, an American lawyer and his wife wanted to spend a year in Namibia and we organized for them to volunteer. The man (retired lawyer) would function as our principal and his wife would assist with classroom duties—she was a well regarded retired teacher.

Within a month, the principal had self-destructed over a wild display of childish and ignorant behavior, none more so than his calling our local board members racists in the first board meeting he attended. Why? Because we refused to give control of our bank account to a young administrative assistant whom I had known for 6 years and knew could not be trusted with more than a few dollars, let alone have access to more money than he would ever see in his lifetime. This lawyer fella was too lazy to do the payroll and bill paying himself and so wanted to allow this young man to do it. It was a terrible idea and would have been a disaster and so his obvious conclusion—those of us who had donated time and many tens of thousands of dollars to help poor kids must be ‘racist’ because we opposed his plan to give the keys to the kingdom to a guy who we paid a few bucks to run errands and help around the facility. The lawyer was sent home soon after and Vera agreed to step in.

So I suppose I do get a little defensive when I see people with loads of money tossing it around so carelessly when we have been doing excellent work, and have the results to prove it, for 14 years now.

I realize this is a disjointed ramble, but it’s a blog, not a book or a feature piece.

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