Friday, February 22, 2008

The World is Flat

        Several years ago, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote a bestseller called, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.  In The World is Flat, Friedman chronicles the changes brought about by globalization and the implications for the United States.  He argues that this ‘flattening of the world’ began at the start of the 21st century and was brought about by a series of events and the increases in technology and communication.  He discusses the implications of China and India, for example, becoming emerging powers in the global supply chain and the emerging consequences for the United States of such competition.   He also cites some of the factors that are leading the U.S. into a less desirable position and what the United States needs to do to essentially wake up from its complacency. 
            He cites cultural issues as the source of our challenges and chronicles, often anecdotally, the affect of the American worker (and student).  In one section he interviews a highly successful IT system designer about his observations.  The designer states, “I taught at a local university.  It was disheartening to see the poor work ethic of many of my students.  Of the students I taught over the six semesters I’d only consider hiring two of them.  The rest lacked the creativity, problem solving abilities and passion for learning.”  After a breakfast with P.V. Kannan, the CEO of 24/7 Customer, he cites him as saying, “Is America prepared (for the flat world)? It is not…You’ve gotten a little contented and a little slow, and the people who came into the field with (the triple convergence) are really hungry.  Immigrants are always hungry-and they don’t have a backup plan.”
            Friedman argues that the “ideal country in a flat world is one with no natural resources, because countries with no natural resources tend to dig inside themselves.  They try to tap the energy, entrepreneurship, creativity, and intelligence of their own people-men and women-rather than drill an oil well.” 
            Many adults would argue that the cultural values that we often see portrayed by young people can leave something to be desired.  Many of us would argue that the peer culture, media and current role modeling may have something to do with that.  In discussing the inherent cultural values in different countries in the ‘flat world’ Friedman makes the observation that, “In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears.  In America today Britney Spears is Britney Spears-and that is our problem.” 
            Where, then, does all of this leave us and what are the steps that the U.S, should undertake in order to be competitive?  Friedman defines five action steps: leadership, muscle building, cushioning, social activism, and parenting
In terms of leadership we need to be sure that people are aware of the world in which they live, and what they need to do in order to be successful.  We also need, he argues, “politicians who are willing to both explain and inspire.” Leadership also has to do with empowering individuality and the ability to be extraordinary.  The muscle building that he describes has more to do with workers needing portable benefits and opportunities for lifelong learning in order to enable them, and the American workforce, to be both flexible and mobile.  Cushioning is a compassionate approach to security for workers in the form of programs such as social security and affordable health insurance.  Social conscience has more to do with the moral conscience of corporations and the need to be aware of more progressive steps that allow companies to be “more profitable and the flat earth more livable.”  It also has to do with the decisions that all of us make as consumers and the values that those decisions suggest. 
Much of what Friedman discusses regarding parenting also has ramifications for educators as well.  He warns that young people need to be made aware of the world in which they are living and that they benefit by challenging situations as much as they may suffer from entitlement and overprotection.  Friedman writes “There comes a time when you’ve got to put away the Game Boys, turn off the television set, put away the iPod, and get your kids down to work.”  He further writes “Education, whether it comes from parents or schools, has to be about more than just cognitive skills.  It also has to include character building.  The fact is, parents and schools and cultures can and do shape people.”
Friedman cites several aspects of reform needed to allow the U.S. to survive in a flat world.  Key to this is the notion that in order to be successful we have to have the greatest number of people with the best legal and institutional framework within which to innovate, start companies and become attractive international business partners.  One of the keys to success is less about natural resources and geography and more to do with cultural attributes such as hard work, thrift, honesty, patience and tenacity.  Openness is also critical in order for one to learn from other people with varying points of view.
What ramifications might his views about parenting and education have on the way we teach our children?  Certainly we want a rigorous curriculum and demanding academics, but it’s clear that a culture that will have students out of their comfort zone and thinking creatively and openly also holds a significant place in our school.  The ability to have contact with other cultures, as is the case with the international exchanges, also speaks to Friedman’s point of experiencing a less-insular world.  The necessity for an old-fashioned work ethic and an emphasis on community service also serves our students well.  Slightly counter cultural ideas such as banning electronics on school trips in the interest of having students interact with one another, also support this philosophy.
In the end Friedman raises the point, and we would probably agree, that it’s raising students who have a solid academic foundation, a work ethic, are of solid character and are able to think creatively and openly that will enable them to be successful in school, and beyond.