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Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Miseducation of Laura and Bill (2.8.09)

Finally, I recently got around to reading Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat" (updated expanded version), which offers a pretty insightful look at globalization, technology innovation, digitization and their force in shaping a "flat" world in which nearly everyone is connected; not only can we (and businesses) communicate seamlessly with someone from Bangalore, Beijing, but someone's actions, opportunities, and strife in Lagos has a larger impact on our own lives than we might superficially think. I actually cannot stand the expression "It's a small world," (I disagree, a door-to-door trip from New York to Connecticut still takes two and a half hours using the subway and Metro North and a flight from L.A. to Boston pretty much eats up my entire day!), Friedman storyboards Globalization 1, from 1492 to 1800, shaped by Columbus's exploration and steam power, Globalization 2, from 1800 to 2000, driven by the Industrial Revolution, the telephone, computers/software, and the internet, and Globalization 3, 2000 to ?, in which there has been a light speed take-off of the digital revolution (the printing press took over a century to really have a broad impact) that has empowered many with instant information and enabled us all communicate, express, and collaborate in continually new ways.

While the book set off with a good start, much of it was parched and monotonous, rife with computer/IT jargon and unexpected rambling of the history of the modern World Wide Web and software architecture that was not my cup of tea; however, education, the discussion in one section (263-400), really hit home for me. The themes and ideas below are basically a distillation of this small section of the book. While for some of us the ideas of a versatile liberal arts education are played and cliche, they are all too relevant and magnified, and deserve an exclamation point now, as we scale up an increasingly rocky vale, a hand up to block the sun, this is what we glimpse.

We have seen the Industrial Age, an Agricultural Revolution, and are in the midst of an Information Age that has well toned wings and is set for the stratosphere. But, we are also brimming on, what Friedman coined, a "Talent Age," or what can be empirically known as an "Education Age." To clarify, we need to understand the type of minds that will thrive in this new world and the current state of the American education system in the context of its global classmates. From World War II to the late 1980s, the U.S. essentially faced no legitimate competitors and over that time adopted a sense of entitlement and complacency; the environment and the stakes have certainly changed over the past twenty years. Friedman draws an interesting, and somewhat unrelated, parallel with the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team; certain it would always win gold, in the 1970s, it sent NCAA players to compete, then when competition became sharper, it sent NBA players. Much to the astonishment of the world, the U.S. team, with its unmatched athleticism, lost to Puerto Rico, Lithuania, and Argentina, stumbling to the bronze medal podium. While U.S. basketball players slept, other countries learned from the coaching techniques and fundamentals shared around the world and outwitted us. Did our star power get to our heads, or did we just not care?

In a way, this is what has happened to the world's industries and America's relative talent. China, India, Korea took advantage of the running bull while America rested on its laurels, fragile as they were; the new globalized, connected world just provided more grist to the mill for these sharp, curious, and innovative international minds, all on a mission upward. Much of the lower-end technology work we were doing was outsourced to India or automated; idea hotbeds like Beijing's Microsoft center began churning out world-encompassing innovations. Consequently, we live in a world where we cannot just be left-brained, analytical, systematic, logical, and mathematical to lead innovation. Our generation and our next generation, not just to compete, but to survive, must use their right brains for "context, emotional expression, and synthesis." "We need to focus education on constantly developing our students' right-brain skills-- such as forging relationships rather than executing transactions, tackling novel challenges instead of solving routine problems, and synthesizing the big picture rather than analyzing a single component" (Daniel Pink). Staying ahead of the curve in five years requires that we all need think more horizontally, and, as Friedman highlights, be good explainers, collaborators, and synthesizers, as well as personalize our work to the world. Successful institutions will be those that hire software and economic policy architects who are also songwriters and cellists, researches who paint and photograph, and doctors who are also poets and can draw bridges between literature and modern epidemics. As Friedman points out, a great calculus student may be able to solve the problems, but a real right-brainer will know how to identify the innovations and challenges that create the calculus.

In this respect, I commend the U.S. university system, which I believe is unmatched in its liberal arts strength. In fact, I was surprised to observe that in India, mostly in the rural setting, communities still possessed a tunnel vision mindset, continuing to idealize the professions of doctor and engineer as the end all, unaware of the hundreds of exciting new and changing medical- and engineering-related opportunities that have emerged, waiting at their front doors. However, the U.S. cannot sit pat, as countries like China and India fully understand the changing needs as well and are quickly closing the gap to captain the driving innovations, rather than just house back-end offices. The real evolution of our education system must begin at the kindergarten, elementary school, and high school level; in this arena, we are falling apart. To draw an analogy to this "quiet crisis," Friedman describes someone sleeping on an air mattress with a hole in it, slowly deflating; while one cannot feel oneself sinking in any given moment, eventually his or her back (or side) will feel the cold floor.

Most apparent, the system is dated, founded on an early 19th century structure of local townships taking charge of their designated schools, funding them through property taxes. However, this has led to a very fractious arrangement in which wealthy communities congeal, setting low taxes, but still providing comparatively high and disparate school funding. Overall, in short, the American public school system is more than unbalanced and outmoded, it is a complete disaster and if you do not think so, you are very disillusioned and misinformed. You need only learn about the dilapidated conditions in many under-funded schools in the Chicago area, or in under-served communities in Mississippi and Louisiana, states that receive about $6,000 per pupil annually, compared to New York, which receives more than $12,000 per pupil yearly. Not helping matters recently was former president Bush's ill-fated No Child Left Behind policy, which squarely centered funding and support based on standardized test scores. Just because something is measurable, does not make it correct. In fact, the plan completely overlooked the plight of impoverished families and the need for a multi-disciplined education that emphasized music, art, literature, history, along with math and science.

Everything is off kilter. Why is it that when a baseball player tests positive for steroids, televised congressional hearings consume the news for three weeks, yet not a single, wholehearted, well thought step has been taken to address the issue of inspiring children to excel in math and science and bring out the creativity that is so inherent in these subjects? This is most definitely a crisis stage, not to be considered some sort of scare tactic; this is a common sense, forward thinking tactic. We have been much too shortsighted and uncreative for our children and now there is no room for ambivalence. With these demands, we need something completely novel-- an Education Revolution, a Learning Revolution. We need to forego the highly localized oversight of public schools and make states set progressive, forward looking standards and draw proportionately from their budgets. They need to set the bar higher and make sure that the opportunities exist for everyone to reach the bar, e.g., not monopolizing the most talented teachers and the best resources in the highest income bubbles. Educators and policy makers need to collaborate with business leaders and engineers regularly. Every child should have high speed internet access. And, please no more platitudes, we need to put our money where our mouth is. Since we need to provide incentive for and improve the sciences while also strengthening arts programs, a significant investment boost is demanded. We need a new way that is more innovative, flexible, cross-disciplined, and builds an underlying core value system. In sum, we must recast our approach and mode of thinking to something far more current, enduring, and inspiring.

While this is a collective aim, I can't help but reflect it back internally. Perhaps, now is the time to set forward something new, something bigger, within ourselves, too.