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Lily Foundation 16th Annual Appreciation Dinner

August 27, 2016

Good Evening, Ladies and Gentlemen.  It’s a tremendous privilege for me to speak to you this evening.  Many talk about the power of education, but few truly understand the changes that it can bring, and even fewer spend the time and effort to enable the advantages of education to be realized by others.  You belong to that small number because through the Lily Foundation you are enabling changes that affect not just individuals but families and communities.  Building on the basic principles of humanity, hope, and honesty you are having a significant impact not just on children, but also on the future of an entire nation.  You have my deep respect and admiration for what you are doing – silently, but continuously, and with strength of purpose.

We live in a world driven by advances in technology – robotic surgery and genetically engineered immune cells that could help cure diseases, self-driving cars and autonomous vehicles on land, in water, and in the sky, transformative advances in power generation and storage, virtual reality and the internet of things.  Yet amidst all these advances as a civilization we still lack the ability or rather, the will, to enable a high quality education for all.

We often speak of education as being the great equalizer and having the power to transform lives.  We know that an educated citizenry is the best way of narrowing inequalities including those of gender and social status, reducing poverty, increasing opportunity and achieving higher levels of economic development, and ensuring social justice.  We are reminded almost every day that a college degree increases earning potential by over a million dollars over one’s lifetime as compared to that earned with a high school diploma.

In both the United States and India we have a history and legacy showing the importance of education.  As far back as 1818 and 1826 the first schools for women were opened in India and the United States, respectively.  Yet today we have tremendous challenges in both with the needle not having moved perceptibly, or even having slid backwards over the past few years.

While substantial progress has been made in India as related to increasing access to education, with over 350,000 new schools being opened over the last decade enabling 99 percent of India’s rural population to be within two thirds of a mile of a primary school, there are still millions without access to even primary education.  Despite the passing of the Right to Education Act in 2009, the enrollment of girls has increased only slightly from 48.12 percent in 2009-10 to 48.19 percent in 2014-15 at the elementary level. And for boys it’s still at about 52 percent.  If that’s the state at the elementary level one does not need to try hard to recognize that the numbers at the high school and college levels are low indeed.

In the United States we are fortunate to have one of the best educational systems in the world and we attract the brightest minds from across the globe to our universities both as students and on the faculty.  Yet student retention and progression are increasingly national issues of significant concern with statistics provided by various agencies showing that over 1.2 million students drop out of high school every year.  Put another way, one student drops out every 26 seconds.  Just think about it – since I joined you at this event at 6:30 pm this evening over 200 additional students have dropped out across the United States.

Statistics from NSC and NCES show that 36 percent of students in the secondary education pipeline drop out in or at the 9th grade level.  Put another way, of every 100 students who come into the 9th grade, only 64 will continue to high school, of which only 40 will begin a two-year or four-year education.  And of these 40, only 22 will receive an associates or bachelor’s degree or certificate in six years, and only two more will achieve that in eight.  This is indeed a challenge that we cannot hide from – it’s a terrible waste of human capital.

We live in a world that is beset with challenges, many of them tearing at the very core of our being and undermining the stability of modern society.  Poverty is on the rise as are the inequities between the rich and the poor.  Headlines across all media every day report on increases in unemployment, a range of natural and man-made disasters, superbugs and challenges in health-care, violence, and increasing hostility between communities, decreases in social norms, and increasing conflict worldwide.  Our economy appears to be getting worse rather than better with each passing year and this might well be the first time than an entire generation is worse off than the one that preceded it.

In 1920 the noted author and futurist, HG Wells in his Outline of History, wrote: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”  That statement is perhaps truer today than when it was first written.  Social injustices and inequalities stem largely from ignorance.  Education is not just the great equalizer but it is an enabler.  I’m sure each of you knows personally of an individual, or more, who has worked up from extreme poverty or hardship or lack of social mobility to achieve milestones that might have seemed impossible.  Yes – determination, persistence and courage were probably common qualities that drove that success, but in most cases it was also education – the ability to see and know about the world around us, to read, to count, to write, to understand and to analyze.  These are the characteristics that often separate success from failure and the ability to rise above one’s situation, and each is integral to education.

Babies do not have a choice of where or when they are born and neither do they have the choice as related to the socio-economic situation that they inherit.  But what we can give each of them is the opportunity to make their own destiny – and that needs education.

It’s education that starts at the elementary level and continues at least through high school, providing what should be considered as a basic necessity at the same level as food, shelter and clothing.  “To be counted,” and that’s an extremely impersonal term, but one we use perhaps to absolve ourselves from the feelings of responsibility and failure – to be counted as illiterate is a tremendous deprivation, an insecurity, and we need to do all we can to resolve this situation.  WE need to do this not by talk but through action focusing on a need that is immediate and cannot wait for committees, task forces, and global agreements.

We often talk about the power of education to allow people to dream, to reach for the stars and to enable new knowledge – and we do this because it’s uplifting, it’s exciting, and it provides a basis for our imaginations.  But the real power of education is in creating upward socio-economic mobility.  It’s in breaking the chains of poverty, unemployment and hopelessness.  It’s in enabling better health outcomes and less conflict.  It’s in providing opportunity and enabling ambition to create a better life for one’s children than one had oneself.

Knowledge comes in various forms and so does instruction.  While we might all want to follow the Socratic ideal of education – the learned teacher, or guru, imparting knowledge to a small group of pupils through focused individual attention, the reality is that is just an ideal and the faster we accept its constraints of time and number, the better off we will be.  We need to use the power of technology to extend the reach of education, enable learning rather than the transactional passing of information.  Who among us has not sat in a class hearing the teacher drone on – in boring, monotonous fashion – did we learn anything – probably not.  But if we had the ability to read and write could we have, and did we, learn from books, from each other, and the web – absolutely.

We need to enable learning and teaching to expand beyond the confines of time, space and location.  Worldwide there are an estimated 75 million children not in school and already tens of millions drop out due to overcrowding, safety issues, or poor teaching.  Let’s work to resolve that, and resolve it through non-traditional means since years of discussion and even full-fledged efforts using traditional means have barely moved the needle.  Make no mistake – this is a race and right now we are losing it.

Let’s enable the power of communication and media, and of instructional technology, to reach ever larger audiences and let’s use our growing understanding of augmented learning to allow individualized instruction and facilitated group instruction wherever the Socratic ideal cannot be assured.  We will reach greater numbers especially those in poverty and the underprivileged and give them the means to rise above their situation in life.

But as we do this we need to focus also on simultaneously re-envisioning secondary and higher education ensuring that students are not only enabled to become part of an educated citizenry but that they have the skills and training to become productive members of society.  Workforce needs and the training associated with those requirements will be critical.  Not everyone needs to become a lawyer or a Ph.D. – the world might actually need more electricians, customer relations personnel, salespeople, machinists, and teachers.  We have to recognize and focus on the interaction between poverty, education and employment.  The provision of knowledge is a tremendous boon but without a marketable skill that knowledge will not result in an improvement of one’s position in life.

We need to provide pathways and pipelines for education with multiple points for access and exit – with the exit being to productive careers and thus at each stage we need options and alternatives – continuing to a higher level of education or developing immediately usable skills in the workforce acknowledging that the workforce is itself changing and thus our curricula needs to change as well – rapidly and often.  There is no disconnect between vocational education and scholarship – it needs to be part of a continuum of offerings with the ability for people to continuously gain new knowledge and skills as required.

At The University of Texas at Arlington we are working closely with ISDs to provide early levels of high quality education including through the establishment of academies, early college high schools and other innovative partnerships.  We have strong partnerships with two-year colleges and we even conduct through our professional and continuing education division a Masonry Academy with the support of ACME Brick for the training of masons – a top notch R-1 research university that provides vocational training – now that’s new but we see this as part of what is needed to change the status quo just as we see the need for more focused degree programs.  We have started talking about providing “knowledge in a package,” enabling nanodegrees, and making very high quality online instruction available for working professionals so that the necessities of employment and education are not in conflict with one another but can be integrated.  Further we work with partners in South America to make high quality education and training available along the continuum I had mentioned earlier – from vocational to purely academic with multiple entry and exit points, all focused on developing skilled and knowledgeable individuals.

We need to shape an approach that recognizes the interdependence of education and jobs and collaborate across the academic, corporate, and government sectors to bring these together, providing knowledge, skills, and careers.  Creating a highly educated citizenry that is unemployable only results in conflict and social angst resulting from raising expectations and then not providing opportunities.  The world is filled with examples from Venezuela to India, Europe and the United States of cases where the promise of education drew in masses filled with excitement about opportunities to improve their lot in life only for those hopes and dreams to be crushed after months and years of hard work because of the lack of jobs and the inability of the education provided to enable a change in socio-economic status.

We also need to recognize that careers are not solely defined by working for corporations or the government.  Great advances are made by entrepreneurs, people who take the knowledge they have gained and transform that into innovation.  So as we think about the spread of education and the creation of skills, we also need to ensure the establishment of an environment that enables innovation and entrepreneurship.  In this very room there are probably people who can make that possible – small loans, mentorship, initial opportunities – all these are of crucial importance to the development and sustainment of a knowledge-based entrepreneurial environment.

While it’s tempting to believe that if we do all this we will have resolved all the issues, that’s not quite true.  There are other barriers beyond those of access to education.  Poverty and its ramifications are a significant constraint in that it develops an expectation and necessity for everyone in the family to work to add food on the table.  This responsibility competes with the opportunity for education and needs to be addressed through regulation, state subsidies and changes in social customs.

Each of us has a role to play, but if we all do our part we will create a better future not just for the underprivileged but also for all of us and for generations yet to come.  Issues of health, social conflict, global understanding and so many others are linked to education, and we have the opportunity to change the status quo.  But it is a window that will not remain open forever.

As I end today, I’d like to leave us with the inspiring words of a 17 year old who reminds us in no uncertain terms of our failures to date, and our responsibility to dig deeper, strive harder, to ensure a better future for all of us.  Malala Yousafzai, in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, exhorted “Let us become the first generation to decide to be the last, let us become the first generation that decides to be the last that sees empty classrooms, lost childhoods, and wasted potentials.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, as she said, “Let’s begin that ending, together, today, right here, right now.”

Thank you very much for being here and for all that you are doing and will undoubtedly continue to do to use education to resolve the world’s problems.