Finding Leaders for the Next Generation

Yesterday I was surfing the internet when I happened upon the website of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. If you’re not familiar with it, Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft) and his wife, Melinda, run a charitable foundation that funds projects all over the world, including those that combat poverty and disease.

I began to read Bill Gates’ annual letter, one that he wrote in January of 2009, and was immediately intrigued. In it, he talks about the successes (and some failures) that the Foundation has experienced since it began. He talks about what they would like to accomplish in the future and how they will reach those goals.

Since two of the main areas of focus for the Foundation are poverty and disease, they have funded many programs that are targeting those afflictions. They have scientists who are working to develop crops that can grow in regions of Africa that do not receive much (if any) rain. They have scientists who are working on vaccinations and treatments for diseases like HIV/AIDS and rotavirus.

The Gates Foundation is having an amazing impact on infant/child mortality and quality of life in 3rd world countries. But what intrigued me most about his letter is how he describes himself and the people who work for his foundation. Let me explain.

Gates begins his section on education (another area that is receiving significant funding from the Gates Foundation, especially in the US) by talking about his own education. Listen to what he says (emphasis mine):

“I was lucky enough to accumulate the wealth that is going into the foundation because I got a great education and was born in the United States, where innovation and risk-taking are rewarded.”

and a little later:

“The private high school I attended, Lakeside in Seattle, made a huge difference in my life. The teachers fueled my interests and encouraged me to read and learn as much as I could. Without those teachers I never would have gotten on the path of getting deeply engaged in math and software.”

In another section of his letter, on eradicating malaria, he talks about the various tools used to fight malaria, including better bed nets, better drugs, and better insecticides. Here’s the ground-breaking way they decide which tools to use where:

“We brought in an expert in mathematical modeling who is applying a technique called Monte Carlo Simulations. This modeling work, which will show where we can eliminate malaria and where we can just reduce the disease burden, is a wonderful use of advanced mathematics to save lives…”

Why did these quotes stand out to me? And what is their connection to Montessori? (Great questions, glad you asked!)

Here’s what I got out of Gates’ letter.

Children today are entering a world that is complex and scary. Fighting disease and poverty on a grand scale requires money, yes, but more than that. It takes creativity, logic, reasoning skills, and the courage to use resources on the poorest of the poor.

Where will we find leaders like that for the next generation? I believe that the Montessori Method – implemented in so many countries, homes, and schools around the world – is producing children who will be, as Gates himself is, innovative risk-takers.

Montessori children have teachers and parents who will, as Gates’ teachers did, encourage them to pursue their own interests and to read and learn as much as possible.

As I was reading, I imagined my own children using their privileged upbringing as a springboard to helping those less fortunate. Perhaps they will fund charitable projects, do research in a lab, apply mathematical models to diseases, or practice medicine in a country filled with desperate need.

As I said in my article entitled Why Our World Needs Montessori,

“In today’s crowded world of power struggles and ego trips, the Montessori method serves as a guide to raising unselfish, self-regulated, caring human beings who are problem solvers and have the self confidence to lead successful lives by their own efforts, rather than at the expense of their fellow citizens.” These words were true three years ago and are even truer today.

Stand firm, Montessorians! The world needs Montessori.

A quick footnote: I don’t want to make it sound like the Gates Foundation is perfect; it has been criticized most notably for having investments that directly contradict the charitable work it performs. This article at the LA Times does a good job of reporting that story, although since it was written the Gates Foundation may have changed their policies about investing.

Also, you may note that Gates himself is not a Montessori child (although other technological innovators are). He did, however, attend a private prep school in Seattle, WA. According to the research of John Taylor Gatto, prep schools encourage leadership skills and creative thinking, in direct contrast to traditional public school education, which generally does not.