Just before starting my fourth year of college, my housemate and I decided to throw a party for the professors we admired and secretly lusted after. They were all male in those days (I had only one female professor my entire four years at Reed), and we requested they come alone, without their wives or whatevers, decades before the introduction of “significant others.” The party was to begin at midnight.
We cleaned up our one-bedroom, uninsulated house as much as it was possible. We had just furnished it from Goodwill, and my bed, situated in a corner of the living room, released its white gobs of stuffing whenever anyone sat on the Indian bedspread covering it. At midnight, our dream of creating the ideal salon began when our sociology professor and mentor sauntered in, as if this were just a classroom, except he wasn’t wearing his usual tweed jacket.
By 2 a.m., the room was buzzing with the bloom of ideas. The door opened and Galway Kinnell, our poet in residence, strode in as if he had been out foraging for a muse. He found one in our third hostess, a recent Reed graduate and friend of my housemate who was about to fly to graduate school that morning. Her natural blonde hair Rapunzeled down below her waist and seemed to beckon Kinnell, who spent the rest of the night at her side and later driving her to the airport.
Kinnell said to me during the night, “A man can be alone but he is never lonely.” I argued with him that a woman could also be alone without being lonely, but he wouldn’t concede.
That’s all I remember about that night, except for the palpable sense of earthly exuberance in the flow of ideas. And also the wonder at a great poet who could be so mistaken about the sexes.
Fast forward 47 years to the Big Ideas Fest 2013, an exhuberant convening of educators and anyone involved with learning that took place at the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, where ISKME, the host, an education institute, is based. The fest felt like a three-day all-night party with purpose: to create and spread the best tools for learning around the globe. Indeed, much of the event takes place in workshops, where participants physically design and prototype a solution to an education challenge, such as making lessons more accessible to students in developing countries.
The first keynote was by Shiza Shahid, CEO of The Malala Fund, which seeks to support education for girls in developing countries. Most of the speakers and attendees, including a team of students from a low-income high school in South San Francisco, wove social and economic justice into the fabric of learning solutions. Until the final keynote when Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and new education company BrainRush, took the stand.
Bushnell bragged about his having eight children to counter the people who have hordes of “stupid” offspring. Not aware his remark might offend participants who came from large and poverty-stricken families, to which he was alluding, Bushnell went on to attack the usefulness of a college education.
What kind of job will a degree in women’s studies get you, he asked? The audience took a deep breath and the Twitter stream swelled.
Forty-seven years later and women are still being treated as separate beings, I thought. Whereas the opening keynote affirmed the right of girls to education, the closing keynote not only denied the merits of education but also the study of women’s contribution to the history of civilization.
Someone needs to educate the Kinnells and Bushnells of the world. I think the developing world might be no more advanced on this issue than those who presume to lead the world in brilliance, a brilliance that also serve to shed light on their ignorance.