I love Philip Greenspun. And I love this post about his participation in a workshop at MIT on technology for community-building in America. The workshop’s focus was on how to help the poor. Philip, as always, asks the simple question: can technology really help the poor? Maybe the real problem is the more fundamental problem of education:
Schools for poor people are government schools. Everyone who works there is either a bureaucrat or a union member. None of these people incurs any kind of pay loss or risk of firing if the kids remain totally ignorant. All attempts at reform over the past 40 years have failed. So people give up. One community organizing expert sitting next to me responded to my observation that if everyone had a first class education the other stuff would fix itself with “that’s just not realistic”
I think it’s realistic, mostly because it’s necessary. Now, obviously, would be unrealistic to minimize the heroic challenge that is presented by the notion of education reform. What’s unrealistic is to assume that technology is going to help fix the deep-seated problems with our education system. On the other hand, perhaps technology will make our education system less relevant, so maybe the poor will find a way to educate themselves, as Philip points out when referring to ‘one bright spot’ in efforts to use technology to help the poor:
a handful of folks had set up free wireless Internet access blankets over struggling neighborhoods in various parts of the country. All of the academic papers written about the “Digital Divide” turned out to be nonsense. As soon as a poor person had an opportunity to get broadband without being reamed out for $50/month by the local telco or cable monopoly the poor person was able to leap right over the exotic language and cultural barriers that sociologists had posited. I.e., it turned out that these folks were poor, not stupid.
How true. But what’s government’s excuse for failing to fix the education system? Poverty? Yeah, give me a break.