The Dangerous Mr. Khan

David Clemens

Bill Gates likes Salman Khan a lot, so much so that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is streaming cash to his Khan Academy, an internet silo of over 2,100 free, downloadable video tutorials on Calculus, Physics, Organic Chemistry, et al. Mr. Khan’s Academy only has a “faculty of one,” but my own students enjoy Mr. Khan’s glib teaching style, and they consult his clips on quadratic equations, conic sections, and those hated word problems involving railroad trains. So is the Khan video approach a “disruptive technology” which undermines the existing deathbed educational model by doing it faster, better, and cheaper? Mr. Gates thinks so. “It’s a revolution,” he enthuses. “Everyone should check it out.” ( Wearing his education reformer hat, Mr. Gates declares himself “superhappy.” 

Mr. Khan, then, by all reports, is an entertaining, trustworthy, and helpful tutor of math and science. However, when he essays history, it’s a different story and one that exposes something disquieting about a hidden potential of Internet learning, especially if, as some predict, The Khan Academy is the future of education.

Curious about Mr. Khan’s take on something non-science, I pulled up his video “U.S. History Overview 3—World War II to Vietnam

The screen looks like a squashed, two-dimensional schoolroom; you see a combined blackboard and bulletin board with colorful squiggly dates on a scroll down timeline, random photos (Hitler, Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, mushroom cloud), and tiny maps. Mr. Khan remains offscreen but writes or circles things onscreen with his pointer and provides his signature breathless voiceover. 

“Overview” is perhaps an understatement as the WWII to `Nam video runs less than 15 minutes. Historical velocity is achieved through words and phrases such as “essentially,” “fast forward,” and “as you can imagine.” Unfortunately, Mr. Khan’s “as you can imagines” usually precede something that the ordinary student would never possibly have imagined, not having any basis for doing so. For example, Mr. Khan says that the United States embargoed oil shipments to Japan because, “as you can imagine, Japan did not produce a lot of its own oil and oil is superimportant when you’re trying to run a war machine.” But why would any modern student ever have imagined that 1930s Japan didn’t produce “a lot” of oil?  

Similarly, Mr. Khan kicks off the video by saying, “I want to back up because I forgot to mention a really important fact,” that “the Russian Empire was overthrown by the Bolsheviks.” Unfortunately, he does not explain what a Bolshevik is nor how or why the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian empire, nor why it matters but no dilly-dallying, just fast forward and bingo, “Hitler invades Poland.” Mr. Khan observes that “from FDR’s point of view, Hitler definitely was in the wrong here.” This observation is so odd, that I have to hit the pause button and take a moment to think about it. In Mr. Khan’s History, whether Hitler should have invaded Poland or not is just a matter of viewpoint, wrong in FDR’s (and probably Poland’s) but okey-dokey in Hitler’s. Everything is a matter of viewpoint, perspective, and cultural positioning, therefore nothing is essentially right or wrong, to be applauded or condemned. Here Mr. Khan stands exposed as possessing a historical perspective steeped in academia’s standard issue, postmodern, left-leaning narrative of cultural relativism, multiculturalism, and moral equivalence. 

But hang on, resume play and Japan attacks Pearl Harbor (presumably, from FDR’s point of view, oil-embargoed Japan would still definitely be in the wrong here). Just as quickly, Mr. Khan “fast forwards” to D-Day, suggesting that “if you’ve ever seen Saving Private Ryan it starts with this and it’s probably, you know, I’ve never been in, never been on . . . never stormed a beach, but I can imagine it is probably the most realistic re-enactment of what it was like to storm the beach at Normandy.” Why? Maybe playing Medal of Honor: Allied Assault is more realistic. Or maybe neither imagined theatrical entertainment product is remotely like storming a beach, and pop culture is not the best way to learn history. But we live in a time when Schindler’s List is used to teach about Auschwitz, and Mr. Khan is a child of his times. 

He continues, “Eventually . . . the allied forces are able to, I guess, win the European front of World War Two” and then they bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I could not help being reminded how in Brave New World, the World Controller Mustapha Mond explains that society has dispensed with bothersome literature and history, saying “. . . you all remember, I suppose, that beautiful and inspired saying of Our [Henry] Ford’s: ‘History is bunk.’ History, he repeated, is bunk.

"He waved his hand; and it was as though, with an invisible feather whisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was Harappa, was Ur of the Chaldees; some spider-webs, and they were Thebes and Babylon and Cnossos and Mycenae. Whisk. Whisk–and where was Odysseus, where was Job, where were Jupiter and Gotama and Jesus? Whisk–and those specks of antique dirt called Athens and Rome, Jerusalem and the Middle Kingdom–all were gone. Whisk–the place where Italy had been was empty. Whisk, the cathedrals; whisk, whisk, King Lear and the Thoughts of Pascal. Whisk, Passion; whisk, Requiem; whisk, Symphony; whisk ….”

Mr. Khan is not a World Controller [yet] but he combines the ambition of Mond with the blasé indifference of Ford. In Mr. Khan’s World War Two, whisk and there is no Rape of Nanking, whisk, no Pacific Theatre, whisk Churchill, whisk Leningrad, whisk, whisk Doolittle and Eisenhower, whisk Rommel, whisk Battle of the Bulge, whisk Holocaust . . . .  No time for that! Maybe they’ll be in another video. But two bombs, World War Two has ended, and it’s fast forward to the space race! I quote verbatim from Mr. Khan’s machine-gun delivery:

In 1957, the Soviets are able, are able to launch the first artificial satellite around the earth. This is Sputnik 1 over here [his light pen circles a picture of the pintsize satellite]. Sputnik 1. Some people think that the first Sputnik is the one that had the dog in it. No. That came a few months later. That was Sputnik 2 actually. I had the picture of the dog here [there is no picture]. . . but the dog eventually dies but it was alive for a little bit in orbit so that gets everyone freaked out. The U.S. responds. Then in 1961 you have Yuri Gagarin, the first person, first human in space. He returns safely. We eventually get up there, or the United States eventually gets up there. And then you fast forward to 1969 and the U.S. is the first to be on the moon.

Twelve years in 38 seconds and no pinup of poor, doomed Laika. Perhaps if the cinephile Mr. Khan had watched My Life as a Dog he would have remembered her name.

Enough of this incoherent torrent of factoids. Why do I call Mr. Khan dangerous? The answer involves Eli Pariser, B. F. Skinner, and George Orwell.

We’ve all received Amazon recommendations, the result of algorithms which examine what we have ordered before and what people like us have ordered before. These database analytics allow ads and recommendations to be tailored to our profile maximizing our likelihood to buy again. What Pariser realized is that such tailoring happens not only in retail but also on Facebook and Google. In The Filter Bubble, Pariser writes, "Personalization isn't just shaping what we buy. Thirty-six percent of Americans under thirty get their news through social networking sites."  A liberal, Pariser still liked reading what conservatives think, but suddenly he realized that he had stopped receiving his conservative feeds. Facebook’s algorithms had interpreted his lack of dialogue with conservatives as indifference and “helpfully” edited them from his input, leaving him in a liberal bubble.

What Mr. Pariser discovered is that the Internet (and Internet-based education) has the potential to create an electronic Skinner Box. Inside a Skinner Box, or “operant conditioning chamber,” behavior theoretically can be determined and predicted by controlling the occupant’s every input and reward. In a sense, that’s what Internet personalization filters are already doing, creating an echo chamber where we only hear what we already believe. We can’t think about what we’ve never heard of. In The Wall Street Journal,

Again, the ambition is global, as the Big History website ( declares, “Started by Bill Gates and David Christian our goal is to get big history taught to as many students around the world as possible.” Big History’s method is also technological, to “Deliver on the promise of online learning by delivering better student outcomes at scale. Will big history’s interdisciplinary nature and evocative subject matter, coupled with a cutting-edge software design, set a new benchmark for how technology can be applied to real learning?” And ultimately, Big History is ideological, since “At its core big history addresses the issue of sustainability. . . .” <Uh oh.

As George Orwell wrote, in Oceania, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Lord help us if Mr. Gates’s and Mr. Khan’s History ever becomes the universal template that controls students’ knowledge of the past—thereby affecting the choices they make in the future.       

Image: "The Future of Education" by Steve Jurvetson // CC BY-SA

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