One of the most interesting things about Bill Gates’ appearance at the University of Washington yesterday was the way the students brought out his widely varied interests — including not just technology but also education, politics and science. I posted my rough notes of the talk shortly after it ended yesterday afternoon, but here are some verbatim excerpts, along a video highlight above.
Gates: As you go from kindergarten up to college, certainly the need for adult supervision hopefully goes down somewhat. But remember education to some degree is about motivation. If you want to learn physics, and you’re highly motivated, you know, Feynman wrote a book. It’s called the Feynman Lectures on Physics. Read it. You don’t need a university. And if you’re that motivated, and you can sit and read that thing, wow. Or the theory of algorithms, just read Knuth. By the way, do the problem sets while you’re at it. So education is not about the unique availability of information. It’s about some pureeing of the information into a forum that the student chooses to ingest. So how do you create that framework? Well, I think there will always be a teacher to some degree. But the place that that’s most replaceable is in the case of the lecture.
So I think the answer to your question is you can take slight advantage of Khan at all just as a supplement. Mom, I was confused about this. Mom doesn’t know. Mom will point you to Khan, you watch the thing, try some things out. It helps. It’s a supplement. But the big impact of Khan so far is where the teacher has been willing to flip the classroom, and what’s meant by that is that there are no lectures done in the classroom. You assign lectures, which are watching the Khan videos, maybe two or three a night. Then you do the basic problem sets associated with those lectures. When you come in the next day, the teacher sees who watched those lectures and who didn’t and sees how well people did on those problems. And so that teacher can then divide the class up into groups and do problems that develop that model, put that knowledge in context. Make the knowledge interesting. Why would you want to know about that? Which is not the part that Khan is focused on. …
So we have about 20 schools now, and they’ve redesigned the entire classroom experience around those Khan lectures. … Within a year we’ll have the results of that. Only one school did that last year, Los Altos fifth grade, and the numbers appear to be very strong.
Q: Over the last couple of decades, at least in the United States, we’ve seen a growing disparity of wealth. We’ve seen money concentrated in the hands of just a couple people. You among them. I’d say you’re doing pretty good. But in addition to this we’ve also seen the growing power of money to influence politics .. .
Gates: I wish.
Q: We have kind of a cycle where who has the money influences the information that gets out. Do you think making voters more informed, increasing people’s ability to make rational decisions in regards to politics is something that we should be focusing on as a nation.
Gates: First of all, the world at large is less inequitable today than at any time in history. That is, the poorer countries are getting richer faster than the richer countries are getting richer. So the number of people in abject poverty, percentage of people, is at an all-time low today, and that continues to go down. Innovation will continue to drive that down. My favorite metric is global under-5 children deaths, which is now somewhat under 8 million a year. 50 years ago that was over 20 million. So I do think in most problems time is on our side.
You’re absolutely right, there are some big fortunes. It’s not good to have a society where you don’t have mobility in between different income levels. If you’re born in the bottom quartile, education ought to be good enough that you have a reasonable chance of getting into the first or second quartile. If you really look at where we’re letting people down in terms of the American dream, you can say this is self-serving, I wouldn’t it’s because people are very rich. I’d say it’s because we aren’t doing a good job in education to give them an opportunity to move up into the top 2 percent.
In terms of the very rich, Warren Buffett and I, who are the two wealthiest Americans, are certainly believing that the rich should be taxed a lot more than they should, and the rich should give away more of their wealth than they currently do. And we’ve certainly been willing to speak out about that. Warren is the only person who has ever had a tax named after him, the Buffett tax, which is about he should pay more than his secretary should. So you can be very frustrated with the political system. I certainly am myself right now. I was in Washington, D.C., Monday and Tuesday meeting with members of the House, talking about things like cutting science budgets is not the way to keep the country strong.
I don’t know exactly why politics feels so frustrating right now. Certainly worked very well up to now, and so maybe the system will realize the problems that it has there. But I don’t think just by getting rid of the wealthiest in the country that will automatically solve these other problems. I really do think you need to fix the education system. I do think you need to get the cost of health care to go down. Then I think our society will feel far more equitable just for those reasons alone.
Q: I want to be you, I guess. What is one word of advice that you would give someone like me to become someone like you?
I didn’t start out with the dream of being super-rich. Even after we started Microsoft, and the guys who ran Intel, Gordon Moore and those guys were billionaires, I was like, wow, that must be strange. It is, quite strange. I think most people who have done well have found something that they are nuts about doing and then they figure out a system to hire their friends to do it with them. If it’s an area of great impact, then sometimes you get sort of financial independence.
But wealth above a certain level really is just, it’s a responsibility that then you’re going to have to either a) leave it to your children, which may not be good for them or b) try and be smart about giving it away. I can understand wanting to have millions of dollars. There’s certain meaningful freedom that comes with that but once you get much beyond that, I have to tell you, it’s the same hamburger. Dicks has not raised their prices enough. But you know, being ambitious is good. You just have to pick what you enjoy doing.