Standing before a packed Memorial Auditorium on Monday, Bill Gates asked, “Are the brightest minds working on the most important problems?”
Despite a number of significant breakthroughs over the past decades, the answer for Gates is far from a resounding “yes.”
“My view is that we could do a lot better on this and it would make a huge difference,” he said.
As this year’s Payne Distinguished Lecturer, Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, spoke to the Stanford community about the world’s biggest problems and the means by which bright minds can address them. The computing magnate’s talk, sponsored by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, underscored two problems: global health and education.
Gates said childhood survival rates serve as an important metric when measuring global health. The sad truth of the matter, he said, is that “childhood deaths are still a huge problem.” He said new vaccines and effective delivery methods are needed. Though the visibility of health concerns has improved from 10 years ago, medical innovations have yet to eradicate the host of diseases that plague the developing world.
But health care is just one woe among myriad challenges that the global community must address, Gates said; education is another.
Gates stated the United States saw rapid improvements in primary and secondary education in the decades following World War II, but that progress has leveled off in recent years.
“It’s a system that really needs more excellence,” Gates said of the American public school system. “We need to find out what are good teaching techniques. We need to figure out not only what works but how to spread those things.”
The dearth of research in education is strongly felt in a country where 30 percent of students drop out of high school. “I think you would be amazed how little work there is in this area,” Gates said.
Gates’ lecture on health and education was followed by a question-and-answer session in which the billionaire answered audience members’ queries. He touched upon topics varying from successful charter schools to the release of Apple’s iPad.
At the beginning of the lecture, Stanford Provost John Etchemendy introduced Gates as “a visionary technologist and business leader.”
Encouraging Firsthand Action
In an interview with The Daily, Gates spoke in depth about his personal travels and life experiences.
Gates, who travels to India and Africa at least once a year, said these journeys have opened up his eyes in many ways.
“It’s inspirational in that you see the needs, you see the importance of the work,” he said.
“I’d say the same thing about visiting inner-city schools with the kids that are doing their best but not getting the resources they deserve,” he added.
Though the United States spends far more than any other wealthy country on education, it has seen little improvement in K-12 learning. “In the last 30 years, since we increased resources dramatically, we’ve had no payoff at all in terms of students’ basic literacy or basic math,” Gates said.
“Nobody can defend the high school system that we have today,” he added.
The Microsoft mogul called upon students to publicize their thoughts about ways to combat global problems on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Facebook page. He encouraged them to create interest groups through mailing lists, bulletin boards and Facebook groups.
“For the money that’s invested, under the right systems, something fantastic can be done with the right people,” Gates said.