The One Laptop Per Child initiative begun by Nicholas Negroponte at MIT has become the poster child for international development through the spread of technology at a grassroots level. Its mission: to equip poor schoolchildren in developing countries with laptops costing less than $100 (although the initial XO model currently costs double).
NPR recently ran an interesting two-part series on the one of the initial rollouts, in an isolated village high in the Peruvian Andes. It describes the benefits as well as the challenges involved in bringing 21st century technology into the lives of schoolchildren who live for the most part without electricity at home.
What jumped out at me was a comment from a Lima university professor, who feared the program would exacerbate the brain drain from rural areas. Exposed by the Internet to the world outside their village, children will learn skills beyond those needed on the farm, contributing to their sense of dissatisfaction and desire to migrate to cities. This condescending argument struck me as similar to the one espoused by medieval landlords, antebellum plantation owners, and Industrial Age factory owners when they made it a punishable offense to teach serfs, slaves and sweatshop toilers to read. To quote a lighthearted, WWI-era song: “How ya gonna keep’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?”
Where might the president-elect be today if his father’s teachers had held the same attitude? You never know from what soil the next great leader may spring, if given the right opportunities.