On MLK Day, A Forum of Change and Discovery

Tuck students shared their formative international experiences at annual Student Forum on Global Learning.

Tuck students share their formative international experiences at annual Student Forum on Global Learning.

Sumeeta Kumar went to Ghana on a mission. She was there as part of a First-Year Project team helping global e-literacy nonprofit Worldreader launch a new mobile app to reach more than a million readers. In a country where many schools can only afford one textbook per classroom, the opportunity to give Ghanaians access to thousands of books via mobile phones could change lives.

What Kumar and her teammates found through interviews and research, however, was that illiteracy wasn’t the problem. The Ghanaians they encountered loved to read, just not another well-intentioned copy of “Harry Potter.” What they really wanted—and were patient enough to painstakingly read on tiny phone screens—were their own stories, everything from African-centric self-help to romance novels with Ghanaian heroines.

“It’s such an exciting time to be alive: What else can we solve with mobile technology? The possibilities are endless,” Kumar told attendees at the fifth-annual Student Forum on Global Learning Jan. 20, part of Dartmouth’s celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. “The bottom line is that people don’t want handouts. They want to learn sustainable ways to improve their lives. If you truly want to reach people, you must understand and mirror them.”

Understanding what people need to become empowered, engaged citizens is simple, according to Elliot Gillerman T’15, who also presented at the forum: education. Drawing on his work at the Pentagon, he argued that the more competitive America’s schools, people, and companies are, the more they enhance the country’s economic strength, which in turn drives national security.

The problem, says Gillerman, is that there are performance disparities along racial, income, regional, and international lines that reflect the challenges faced by certain groups. While progress has been made in closing the racial achievement gap, the income achievement gap has expanded. Gillerman says that American students frequently rank well below their counterparts in such countries as South Korea, Canada, Russia, Vietnam, and Switzerland. Rather than looking at eliminating these achievement gaps as complex but less-than-pressing problems, Gillerman described how finding immediate solutions will benefit every single American.

“The most staggering statistic is that, if we had closed the international achievement gap between 1983 and 1998, by 2008 we would have seen between $1.3 and $2.3 trillion added to the annual GDP, essentially zeroing out the effects from the 2008 recession,” Gillerman said. Among his proposed solutions to do just that are emphasizing early childhood education, improving the K-12 system, and breaking the higher education cost curve.

Ensuring that education—and not factors like race or income—is the great equalizer is more than a smart economic argument, he added. It’s a moral argument in line with the dream of Dr. King.

“It’s fitting as we think about being here on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we celebrate and commemorate a man who said he wanted to live in a world where his children weren’t judged by the color of their skin but were judged by the content of their character,” Gillerman said. “If we can address these problems and redouble our efforts, we’re going to come closer to fulfilling the promise of America as the land of opportunity that Dr. King wanted.”