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Question: What are the biggest challenges facing global education?

Howard Gardner: Derek Bok, who was the president of Harvard, used to have this quote I don't know that it's original with him—which is if you think education is expensive, try estimating the cost of ignorance. And the truth is, until a century or so ago, formal education for the elite was fine, but there was really no need to educate the mass of society, at least beyond the basic literacies. But now it's completely obvious that unless people are not only educated to a higher level, but want to continue to learn—can be motivated to continue to learn; don't feel it's a gun to their head—that they will not be very useful to themselves or to their society.

The problem is that a small proportion of the population gets a very good education. For shorthand I would say the international baccalaureate crowd, which is a kind of education which elites are able to get whether or not they belong to the IB. But of course that's expensive education, and it presupposes a lot of parental and teacher support. In large parts of the world that's just not a practical reality, and that's why people who are in policy, which I don't, think about much more macro things ranging from one laptop per child toward making sure that women are able to go to school, to ensuring that the country isn't last on some kind of international comparison. And we can't think about education in that—as if it were just one thing.

My focus has been on educational aspirations—but that's an ideal, and I'm quite aware that it's easier to achieve at Phillips Academy Andover than it is in a one-room schoolhouse in Bangladesh with 60 kids and not enough food to eat. And if I can close with one sentence, I think the major problem with the No Child Left Behind policy, which is a completely bipartisan policy, is it uses the country to solve the problems of inner-city Detroit or D.C., and that's just mixing apples and oranges. The way I've put it is, the problem in the inner city is excellence; the problem in the heartland is engagement; the problem among the elites is ethics.

Recorded On: September 3, 2009



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