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Neil Butcher's blog

25 April 2024

The Ghost Town of San Jose

The Ghost Town of San Jose
This town is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs have been closed down
This place is coming like a ghost town
Bands won't play no more

The lyrics of the Specials reverberated through my mind as I went for my first exploratory run around San Jose, and not just because the hotel where I am staying feels like an extra from Ghostbusters. Described on its website as the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose is also one of the most expensive metro areas in the USA. But, having travelled extensively, I feel I can pick up the ‘energy’ of places quite quickly and what struck me forcefully since my arrival yesterday morning is the absence of humanity: shops in downtown San Jose boarded up; my hotel unable to find a vendor to restart its restaurant after the COVID-19 lockdowns; and a city showing physical signs of neglect everywhere. I have also seen how homelessness has become a reality for so many people in the richest country in the world.

I mean no disrespect to the people of San Jose. My interactions with people have been friendly. Two people I met who I told I came from South Africa were both kind and engaging, one telling me how much he liked Johnny Clegg and the other that we had beautiful coins (referring to our Krugerrands). I am referring to my sense of the place itself, which feels like it has lost connection with the human soul. How can a place of such wealth allow such neglect to flourish?

The ghostliness of San Jose felt symbolic to me of the tech industry. The industry has generated so much wealth for its creators and funders, but its headquarters shows little evidence of this combining with a humanizing agenda. I know that, technically, it is not the responsibility of large companies to fix social problems, but surely the tech industry would want its ‘heart’ to reflect the social values it claims to espouse in its products? The place reveals a disconnect between the architects of that wealth and the society of which they are part. This seems symbolic of a scarcity mindset; a need to keep amassing wealth as a limited commodity rather than letting the energy of that money flow through society to create true abundance.

These are just initial impressions. But they reinforced my view that, at the very least, we should treat with skepticism marketing messages from tech companies that claim their first interest in education is to empower learners or strengthen learning systems. In 30 years of working in education, this has not been my experience. The disconnect that I felt here is something I have witnessed over and over in the failed rollout of expensive EdTech initiatives driven by misleading marketing. In my view, educational leaders would do well to stop giving free rein and credence to those marketing messages in their quest to fix systemic problems. The real solutions are so much simpler – and they don’t require billions of dollars of new spending, just a commitment to humanizing our systems of learning.

For more reflections on what I think is needed to humanize our systems of learning, please read my book, Encounters with Life and Death, and please feel free to share the download link if you find it interesting.

Neil Butcher

Neil Butcher

Neil was born and grew up in Johannesburg in South Africa during the final years of apartheid. He began a career in education after university studies and was privileged to work in an education NGO during South Africa’s transition to democracy and beyond. During this time, he founded Neil Butcher & Associates, where he still works today. He is privileged to have been able to travel extensively throughout the world during his career, an opportunity that has provided him unique opportunities to engage with many cultures and appreciate the extraordinary diversity of the world in which we live. 

Neil is passionate about helping governments, development partners, and educational institutions to reform education systems to enable people and societies to achieve their full human potential. Having worked in education in developing countries across the globe for over 30 years, Neil recognizes that there are no simple formulae for educational reform; each context is unique, as are the people who inhabit it. Thus, providing service to initiatives focused on education reform requires willingness to listen and understand what is most important, combined with a patient conviction that transformation, no matter how difficult it may seem, is possible.