Tag Archives: change

Educated Girls

I recently finished reading two books by very different individuals who have a common goal: educating all the children in the world (especially girls, who are more likely to be deprived of an education).  The books are I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and The Promise of a Pencil by Adam Braun.

Malala was born into a very poor family in the Swat Valley of Pakistan while Adam was born into an upper-middle-class family in Connecticut.  Their lives could hardly have begun in more different circumstances, but both realized an important truth: individuals can have a powerful impact.  They didn’t need to wait for the world to change; they decided to act.

Malala, encouraged by her father (who, with much difficulty and privation, opened a school in the Swat Valley), became the voice for girls’ education in Pakistan.   Adam initially followed a conventional path by becoming a consultant at Bain, although it was never a comfortable fit: he was left feeling empty and unfulfilled.

Malala and her father defied death threats to continue her education and that of other girls.  They realized that educated girls could improve their own and their families’ lives and that nothing should prevent that education.

Adam, an adventurous traveler, discovered how desperately education was needed throughout the impoverished regions of the world.  He wanted to create a foundation to build schools in those regions, but his parents and co-workers felt that leaving his job at Bain was too big a risk to take.

When the Taliban shot Malala, it was truly a shot heard ’round the world.  Malala’s voice, which primarily had been heard in Pakistan, has now become the international voice championing girls’ education.  With the aid of Shiza Shahid, Malala has an organization to raise awareness of the importance of girls’ education.

 

 

 

 

 

After several months of a sabbatical from Bain during which he focused on laying the groundwork for his education foundation, Adam realized that he couldn’t return to Bain.  He plunged fully into his organization: Pencils of Promise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are two individuals who come from very different backgrounds, but who have common goals.  They want to live in ways that make a positive difference in the world by making sure that all children (but especially girls) receive an education.

As Malala states in her book, reflecting on being shot, everyone will die.  What matters is how you live.

 

Focusing on Differences Can Lead to Mistakes

Anyone who has studied the concept of Natural Selection knows that one of the requirements is a variable population.  Adaptation to a changing environment cannot occur if every individual in the population is very similar.  So, variability is a given.  However, when scientists look at fossil material, many of them seem to forget this important tenet.  Any differences they find in fossil material are given, minimally, a new species name, and frequently, a new genus name.  That fossil then becomes the type specimen of a new species, and any other material found in that region that looks different will be given yet another new species name instead of considering whether, in fact, it is just a new individual in a variable population.

Or, in the case of dinosaurs, a juvenile rather than a small adult of a different species.  Jack Horner’s TED talk on this topic is both amusing and enlightening. Paleontologists who focused on differences created many dinosaur species which had no juvenile forms.  Horner felt that this was not only odd, but clearly impossible.  By carefully analyzing the skeletons, he discovered that many species of dinosaurs were just the juvenile forms of other species.  The focus on differences was a mistake.

Focusing on differences and assigning new species names to every new find is also common among many paleoanthropologists who study primate/human origins.  Natural selection and population variability are thrown out the door.  If we treated present human diversity the way we treat past diversity, every different population of humans would be a different species.  We know this is not the case since all humans can potentially mate with each other.

There are two major groups of paleoanthropologists: those who operate from a population viewpoint and those who operate from an essentialist viewpoint.  For instance, populationists view Neanderthals as a population of modern humans, while essentialists view Neanderthals as a different species.  Why does this matter to the average person?  It matters because the underlying viewpoints affect how we view each other.  Essentialists view anyone who differs from their idea of the ‘norm’ (generally someone like themselves, i.e. of European ancestry) as deeply biologically distinct from themselves.  In effect, that there are distinct races of humans that are somehow quite different from each other.  Populationists, on the other hand, expect there to be many people who differ from themselves because that is what a successful, adaptable population requires.  They do not view these differences as creating deep distinctions.  That is, they do not view humans as being divided into distinct racial groups.  Rather, humans form varying, over-lapping, constantly mixing populations.  They also hold that this has been true since the beginning of the Homo genus.

Genes flow, drift, mutate, select, and adapt as the individuals carrying those genes meet, mate, and adapt.  For the past two million years our ancestors have been meeting,mating, mixing, and adapting to differing environments as one unified, but variable species.  Just as the lack of juvenile dinosaurs was an artifact of paleontologists who operated from an essentialist mindset, the many “species” of human ancestors are an artifact of paleoanthropologists who operate from an essentialist mindset.  The juvenile dinos were there all along.  The necessary variability of the human population that allows it to adapt to the vast array of environments on our planet has been there all along, too.  The essentialist’s mistake has been to divide that variability into different species or races.

 

Half the Sky

We ignore women, their needs, their rights, their abilities, at the peril of our future.  Their issues are not ‘women’s issues’, they are humanity’s issues. The attempts to marginalize and/or ignore women may well be major factors in why the world is in such trouble economically and politically.  Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in her recent TED talk points out that women are marginalized in financing: they get micro-loans rather than entrepreneurial loans.  Granted, a micro-loan is better than no loan, but her point is that when a woman creates a business it is viewed as less important and less economically valuable than when a man creates one.  Treating women as ‘less than’ negatively affects all aspects of not only their lives, but their children’s lives, and, although the men generally do not recognize it, the lives of men, too.  Simple reasoning makes this obvious: women make up half of humanity; or, as in the Chinese proverb that provided the title for Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky, “Women hold up half the sky.”

As I write this, it is reported in the news that an Afghani women was strangled by her mother-in-law because she gave birth to a third daughter and not a son.  Her husband also appears to have been involved in her murder.  Sons are valued so much more than daughters that failure to give birth to one can lead to a woman’s death.  A woman can destroy her family’s honor by being raped.  The ‘solution’ is for her to marry her rapist, or to be put to death.  Being jailed for being raped actually protects the woman from abuse and/or death.  The girl’s hymen is no longer intact, so she no longer has value and has thus dishonored her family. As Kristof and WuDunn state, “The paradox of honor killings is that societies with the most rigid moral codes end up sanctioning behavior that is supremely immoral: murder.” (p. 82)

Young girls are ‘sold’ into marriages where they become virtual slaves.  Choosing your own boyfriend can result in your death. These examples all involve Afghanis, but any culture that does not value woman equally with men will find ways to demean, mistreat, and abuse women.  For instance, a judge in Canada (and he is not alone in this, as similar views have been expressed by judges in the United States) gave a mild (no jail time) sentence to a rapist because he, the judge, felt the woman had asked for it. These actions are done to keep women in their place, a place that is well below that of men.

Kristof and WuDunn have written a moving book highlighting the many, many ways women suffer from oppression throughout the world.  But they have also written about the women who have fought back against oppression and who are making better lives for themselves and other women.  For this to happen, the women must see themselves as valuable and as equal to men.  Education is the key.  Cultures that oppress women seek to deny girls access to education.  But cultures can change.  This is something that is too often ignored.  Simply because it has ‘always’ been done this way does not mean that it always will be done that way.  Holding back girls and women results in holding back the future.  Clinging to the culture of the past not only marginalizes women, but marginalizes that culture in an interconnected and globalized world.  Cultures can and do change.  Education is the first, vital step.

Education gives girls knowledge and with knowledge they begin to realize that they should have a voice in their lives; a say in what happens to them. With knowledge comes the power to fight back against injustice.  The first girls and women in their communities to come to this realization are very courageous.  They frequently must endure great abuse and hardship.  But they and their stories, as told by Kristof and WuDunn, serve as examples to other women and girls that change is possible, and change begins to happen.

Enmeshed with education are the healthcare needs of girls and women.  Girls who do manage to attend grade school often disappear from school when they begin to menstruate because the schools lack the facilities the girls need during their period.  A husband and brother in India realized just obtaining pads for menstruating girls and women was a problem, so he set out to solve this.  Girls are also often forced into marriage at that time, which also ends their education.  They need a way to manage their menstrual cycle and to obtain birth control so that they can continue their education.  Denying birth control to girls and women because of religious reasons (as has been done with US foreign aid) in effect denies them a future of their own choice.

When a large percentage of women in a particular country are educated and enfranchised, their political power is harder to ignore.  Issues that had been ignored, such as public health and children’s health, move to the political mainstream.  When women become the majority in the government, massive cultural change is certain.  In 1994, Rwanda was the scene of a bloody genocide.  When peace was restored, a new government decreed that women had to hold at least 30% of the seats in all legislative bodies.  Women now hold 56% of the seats in Parliament.  Rwandan culture has changed dramatically.  Rwanda is leap-frogging into the 21st century because the country realized that women are as valuable as men.

China has a long history of valuing sons more than daughters, so much so that with the one child policy and elective abortion, the country now has an unbalanced male/female ratio.  However, the government now realizes that a better policy is to educate girls and women.  When women are well-educated, they want to use their skills in the workplace.  This delays marriage and child-bearing while also improving the economy. Parents now realize that daughters can be just as valuable as sons. A win-win for China: slowed population growth along with rapid growth in gross domestic product. India also sees the value of educating women.  Bunker Roy created the Barefoot College which educates the poor to become technicians and engineers, among other occupations.  According to Roy, men are untrainable.  Instead, the Barefoot College trains grandmothers.

In the 21st century, women in all cultures must be equal participants in all aspects of life and business if we are to deal with the challenges the world will face.  Corporations are discovering that those boards of directors with a higher percentage of women are significantly more profitable than those with the lowest number of women on their boards.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide should be read by anyone who cares about the future.  The tales the authors have collected in their journeys around the world are moving, enlightening, and uplifting.  While oppression is common and severe, it is possible for change to occur.  The book concludes with a plan of action and a long list of things that the reader can do to contribute to the change that must occur.  The website (linked to above) also provides opportunities for action.  “Women are half the sky.”  We cannot succeed in the 21st century without equality for all women and men.

 

Science is Political

I recently finished reading Shawn Lawrence Otto’s book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.  Otto co-founded Science Debate 2008 which was an effort to get the presidential candidates to have a debate on the important science issues affecting the United States.  Despite strenuous efforts, the candidates refused to agree to such a debate.  The only outcome was that the final nominees, Obama and McCain, did finally agree to answer, in writing, not in debate, “The 14 Top Science Questions Facing America.”   I would like to think that there will be an actual Science Debate in 2012, but given that the only Republican candidate who seems concerned about science and the scientific illiteracy of his fellow candidates is Jon Huntsman, a man who has no chance to be the Republican nominee in 2012, this seems improbable.

Otto’s main thesis is that for the last several decades, scientists, while busy doing science, ignored the erosion of the public’s confidence in science and the rise of a belief system that claimed there is no objective reality; that we each create our own subjective ‘reality;’ therefore, the conclusions of science are only one way of viewing the world, and not necessarily the ‘best’ way.  This flight from objective reality may well be why the United States ranks #23 in the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test of scientific knowledge.  In addition, the United States ranks just above Turkey in a graph of countries depicting the percentage of the population accepting the validity of evolution, based on research published in Science. The educational system is failing the United States given that the researchers found that percentage accepting evolution actually declined over twenty years.  Otto is convinced that this is because scientists failed to recognize that science is political; that scientists have to write for and speak to the public in language that will make it clear that science is necessary for the future stability, growth, and well being of the United States.  Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin understood that science was political.  Their goal was to create a country where science could flourish.  They would be appalled to discover that at the beginning of the 21st century, a huge chunk of the population is retreating into the anti-science mysticism of the centuries prior to the Enlightenment of the 18th century.

One of the key concepts that has been lost in the relativistic present is that there are not necessarily two sides to every argument.  Otto points this out in the following example (p. 10):

Journalism: There are always two sides to every story.  Bob says 2 + 2 = 4.  Mary says it is 6.  The controversy rages.

Science:  Most times, one side is simply wrong.  I can demonstrate using these apples that Bob is right.

Politics:  How about a compromise?  New law: 2 + 2 = 5.”

Journalists create controversy where, based on the scientific facts, there is none.  “If one side presents knowledge and the other ‘but faith, or opinion, but not knowledge,’ [John Locke] simply reporting both sides is not balanced journalism and constitutes malfeasance by the press.” (p.204-05) Such malfeasance is in large measure due to the fact that few media sources in the United States actually have scientifically-trained reporters.  In fact, according to Otto, most media sources have cut or cut out their science departments.  This is in contrast to the rest of the world where science news remains a vital part of media coverage.

Otto also discusses de Tocqueville‘s views of American democracy, published in 1835, after his travels throughout the new country.  While impressed by many things, de Tocqueville also saw cause for concern.  He saw Americans as tinkerers/inventors rather than as thinkers.  The focus was on practicality rather than the search to understand the unknown; i.e. pure research without thought of how it might be used.  “His [de Tocqueville's] tale [of 19th century China's retreat from science] suggests the dangers posed by embracing tradition and precedent at the expense of openness and creativity, applied research at the expense of basic science, fear at the expense of wonder, utility at the expense of beauty, and an insistence on financially quantifiable projections before an investment is made, the idea of which runs contrary to the entire process of discovery and creativity.” (pp. 58-9)

“If knowledge does not have primacy in public decision making, then no truth can be said to be self-evident, and we are left with the tyranny of ideology enforced by might (p. 219)…led [by] a generation of leaders that are at once arrogant and ignorant…(p. 134) Ignorance is not bliss.  It’s tyranny.” (p. 252)

Otto points out that scientifically-literate children are most likely to have parents who are scientists or, and this is critically important, parents who are immigrants.  “Fully 70 percent of the finalists in the 2011 Intel Science Talent Search competition were the children of immigrants–a stunning figure considering that immigrants make up only 12 percent of the US population…” (pp. 291-92)

This matters because if the United States continues to restrict immigration and/or makes life difficult for immigrants, these talented students will be lost to the United States, while at the same time providing a ‘brain gain’ to other countries.  If anti-science attitudes continue to prevail in the United States, it will lose the future to other nations, particularly those in Asia.  During the Middle Ages, science burned brightly in the Islamic countries.  But fundamentalist, anti-science views came to dominate in those regions, and science was lost.  To say such a future is not possible in an anti-science United States is arrogant ignorance.

 

 

 

 

 

Morality and Adaptability

Jonthan Haidt, a psychologist speaking at TED, has some intriguing thoughts on morality and adaptability, and how these relate to liberal and conservative attitudes and behaviors.

Since change will happen, and since one’s ability to adapt to that change will determine one’s success in the future, resistance to change is a problem.  What can be done?  Watch the video and leave your comments below.

 

Bounding in to Solve the Textbook Cost Dilemma

Students are always strapped for cash.  Textbooks cost a bundle.  Some schools are now renting textbooks to students who cannot afford to buy new and/or for whom used texts are unavailable.  Many students hope to get by without buying the textbook.  But that can be a risky option.

Three entrepreneurs decided to solve this dilemma by creating a company that produces open-sourced, online textbooks matched to a popular textbook in a particular subject that students can access for free.  Free!!  How do they do that?  Well, with a major venture capital investment and a lot of contracted consultants, including me.

I worked on the college Biology textbook: mapping content, validating the content others mapped, and synthesizing the content of still other consultants into cohesive chapters that covered the same topics in the same order as in the chapters of the reference Biology textbook.  We consultants scoured the web for the best open-source materials on a particular topic.  The end result is an interactive text with graphics and video clips embedded within the text.  It looks great and functions well.  And it’s free.  Boundless Learning also has free textbooks for college Economics and Psychology.  They plan to produce free textbooks for more subjects in future months.

I was involved, in one way or another, in the creation of about 40% of the chapters.  So, believe me when I say, “This was a huge endeavor.”  Student-user input will be used to tweak and modify the text for an even better learning experience.  Is this the future of textbooks?  Maybe, for a subset of the most commonly-used texts; but probably not for the vast majority of textbooks for at least two reasons:   it is not that easy to re-create a textbook using open source material; and professors are unlikely to willingly give up both the prestige and revenue stream of writing and publishing textbooks.

What is this firm that is creating these free textbooks?   Boundless Learning was founded in March, 2011, in Boston, MA by three serial entrepreneur friends (Aaron White, Ariel Diaz, and Brian Balfour) with venture capital funding of $1.75 million. While their track record as entrepreneurs and knowledge of funding sources surely played a large role in obtaining those funds, improving education and educational products is very ‘sexy’ right now.   Bill Gates invests millions in schemes to improve education. Peter Thiel (of PayPal) has his own take on higher education: skip it and start a business.   He is providing fellowships to 20 young entrepreneurs under age 20.

Anyone who pays attention knows that education does need an overhaul, so the Boundless Learning Trio made a smart decision to move into this potentially lucrative field; which makes it intriguing that they are giving away their product.  Their ultimate goal appears to be to hook students with the free textbooks, and then to later offer premium services that will include ‘online tutoring, prep test help, and premium study aids.’  This is smart marketing, but will their funding carry them through until they are profitable?  This seems doubtful, so I presume they are looking for more funding from their original investors and from new investors.

Another concern is over how they will differentiate their premium products from those already offered by the Princeton Review or Kaplan, among many others.  How is the Boundless Learning team going to shake up the market for online tutoring and test prep?  And are those really the premium services they should offer?  In a phone conversation I had with Arial Diaz on October 18, 2011, I asked him about the viability of the premium services Boundless Learning is thinking about offering.  He admitted that even though students do have plenty of disposable income for pizza and movies, it may be difficult to turn free textbook users into paying customers.  Currently, only about 10% of those students who downloaded a textbook use it once a week or more.  At least 50% of the students appear to use it only to study for exams.  This is a major hurdle the team will have to overcome if they want to move these students into premium products.  Students may not know what they really need to succeed.  Tutoring and test prep have their place, but if Boundless Learning really wants to be on the cutting edge of an educational revolution, the team needs to think beyond the typical products.

According to Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, business leaders want employees who demonstrate Seven Survival Skills:

•    Critical thinking and problem solving
•    Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
•    Agility and adaptability
•    Initiative and entrepreneurialism
•    Effective oral and written communication
•    Accessing and analyzing information
•    Curiosity and imagination

Perhaps Boundless Learning could really differentiate itself from the pack by developing premium services that aid students in achieving those Seven Survival Skills.  I suggested to Ariel that his team develop a game that increases critical thinking skills and offers a certificate of achievement for reaching the highest levels.  If they could get support for such a product from major businesses who recruit on campuses, this would encourage students to play the game so that they could show the certificate to recruiters.  Developing products and services which offer students the opportunity to increase their Seven Survival Skills may be a more difficult task than offering online tutoring and test prep services, but it would be more exciting, cutting edge, and a potentially huge game-changer in education.