Sal Khan on Reimagining Education in America

Sal Khan on Reimagining Education in America

By Sean Braswell


Because Sal Khan believes in free education for all.

By Sean Braswell

Educationalist and founder of Khan Academy Sal Khan sat down with OZY’s co-founder and CEO on The Carlos Watson Show to talk about his thoughts on race in America and the future of public education. Here are some of the best bites from their hourlong conversation, which can be found on the show’s podcast feed.

Founding Khan Academy

Carlos Watson: How did you go from being an MIT-trained, Harvard MBA, successful hedge fund analyst to saying “I’m going to do something in free education”?

Sal Khan: It all started back in 2004. … My 12-year-old cousin Nadia was having trouble with math — unit conversion in particular. When I found that out, I said, “Hey, Nadia, when you go back to New Orleans, how about I tutor you?” And she agreed. And I started working with her every day after the markets closed, and she slowly got unit conversion. She got caught up with her class and got a little ahead of her class. … Word spreads in my family that free tutoring is going on. And before I know it, 10, 15 cousins, family, friends every day after work. And I saw patterns of the reason why they were having difficulty was they had gaps in their knowledge. In the traditional system, there’s not easy ways to fill in those gaps. So I started writing software for them that could give them practice to fill in those gaps. One of my friends said, “Well, why don’t you record lessons on YouTube for your family?” And my initial reaction was horrible idea. YouTube is for cats playing piano, not for serious mathematics. … But I gave that a shot. And you fast-forward to 2009 and there was about 50 or a 100,000 folks were using all of these resources on a regular basis. 

Race and America

CW: Sal, talk to me a little bit about race. You, again, I feel like have had a really interesting journey, coming from an Indian family placed in the south.

SK: It’s an interesting thing because when you’re growing up in Louisiana, people didn’t know what to make of me. It’s almost like you can almost play it both ways or all three ways, depending on, I think most people thought that I was Latino, frankly, until the first Gulf War happened and then they realized there were people called Muslims and, for the most part, it wasn’t a popular category to be in the ’90s, and frankly into the 2000s. I mean, the U.S. has a lot of issues around race and there’s some very clear historical issues that the U.S. is still coping with, but I tend to be very optimistic. … In most of the rest of the world, people are far more race-conscious than I think most of my kids realize. I mean, in India, people will look at your last name and they will try to think about if you’re Hindu, what caste you are, or with Muslim, what region you’re. … There’s a lot of tribalism going on there, one layer under, that I think is going to take a long time to resolve. … So my view on race is, we have a lot to sort through, but I think the U.S., as tough as it feels right now, it feels like we take two steps forward, one step back. I still think the U.S. is one of the most open-minded places that’s really, truly struggling with the issue to get to a better place.

Reimagining Education

CW: What if the Biden administration came to you and said, “Sal, we love what you’re doing, would love for you to be secretary of education, would love for you to help us reimagine how we approach education.” What would you say?

SK: Well, really, the work of Khan Academy, free world-class education for anyone, anywhere, it really could be the work of government. The argument of why it needs to exist in the not-for-profit sector is you can innovate a little bit faster, a little bit nimbly through philanthropists, but government is where the potential to really scale and really resource it is. …I’m working on this project,, so that everyone can have access to free small group tutoring. … If you take an assessment on Khan Academy and you’re validated, you submit it, you get credit. You get college algebra credit, even if you’re in ninth grade, and it’s recognized throughout the country. That’s where government could help, because there’s a lot of, I would say, backward-looking systems for how credit and things like that are done that I think we could make a lot of difference in.