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Bill Gates Discovers Education’s “Invisible Man”

“I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids,” the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man proclaims. “I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

In education, teachers, parents and community organizations often feel like the narrator of Ellison’s great novel — made invisible, simply because the power brokers and educrats refuse to see us.

There is an interesting admission of this problem in the Time Magazine cameo essay on Bill Gates, written on the occasion of his commencement address to the school from which he dropped out thirty years ago, Harvard.

The essay recounts how Gates, in classic technocratic fashion, views social change much like the process of engineering computer software. What’s tough about the work of social engineering, he concedes, is that the people involved refuse to be ‘invisible men': they demand a full voice in change which involves them.

If there’s a limit to what Gates can do, it’s always going to be found in that human element, the messy, fallible, unquantifiable stuff that doesn’t respond to engineering. His limitations as a technologist will be his limitations as a philanthropist. But he knows he’s not writing software anymore. “There are some [problems], like discovering a vaccine for malaria, that actually are surprisingly similar,” he says. “That is, a bit like a software project. Some things like designing high schools and new high school curricula and the way that you need to have the community and the teachers, particularly their union, feel like they need to participate in that … that’s a very tough thing.”

It may be tough, Bill, but no one ever said that democratic change was easy — just necessary and right.

Hat tip to Small Talk.