Lessons You Can't Learn in a Book

Lessons You Can't Learn in a Book

Boeing makes my favorite educational technology.

I continue to meet colleagues who apologize for not having found time to read Thomas Friedman's book The World Is Flat. They long to read what they've been led to believe is the instruction manual for 21st-century living. I await the book's children's edition and the Saturday morning cartoon in which a ragtag bunch of American AP students are outsourced to India and are forced to use Microsoft Vista.

Perhaps the greatest lesson from what historians may soon call "the Tom Friedman Decade" is that you can earn a much better living scaring Americans into believing that their programming jobs will disappear overseas than learning to program in the first place. Over the past six years, fear has been our major growth industry.

I have not moderated my 2005 appraisal that The World Is Flat is chock-full of sloppy facts, simplistic reasoning and dopey rhymes. My greatest concern is that school leaders are much more apt to quote from books written by men who have never run a business than from those written by educational innovators. An administrator's quest for a quick fix and misplaced faith in the advice of charlatans is much more alarming than Mr. Friedman's ignorance of technology, education or policy. He just wrote a book. We bought it.

Facts

The August 20, 2006, global edition of Newsweek includes a very interesting article, "The Mythical Million." The subtitle states, "Pundits warn that huge numbers of Chinese and Indian engineers could threaten the U.S. Don't believe it."

Newsweek counters the demagogic argument that simply counting the populations of China and India, or the tall buildings in Shanghai, leads to the conclusion that America is imperiled. The article writes of colleges with no teachers, underresourced schools and "slipping standards" in China and India. It quotes Kiran Karnik, head of the National Association of Software and Services Company: "Out of the huge number of engineering and science graduates that India produces, only 25 to 30 percent can be regarded as suitable."

Over the past six years, fear has been our major growth industry.

The article continues: "To sustain their breakneck growth, the countries will need lots of high-quality engineers and scientists. Yet neither have enough reliable universities to produce them. ... The lack of highly trained people at the Ph.D. level in both sciences and engineering will be a serious setback to India becoming a knowledge economy.

"Despite the large number of graduates India rolls out each year, it only produces about 50 Ph.D.s in computer science, about the same number as an average public university in the United States."

How did I know the fear of globalization was simplistic propaganda? The answer is simple-because I have a passport. Most Americans do not.

I've worked in Mumbai, where it can take half a day to cross town for a meeting and where I contracted dysentery despite staying in a five-star hotel. I've been to China, where the air is grey and a simple retail purchase requires a half-dozen employees and gobs of forms filled out in triplicate. I have observed Japanese women whose job it is to stand quietly in front of elevators and gesture towards the open door while I think to myself, "I bet she didn't do so well in AP calculus."

Common Ground

While we vacillate between conflicting feelings of superiority and inferiority, Newsweek reminds us that we have much in common with the developing world. Infrastructure is crumbling in Mumbai and Minneapolis. School facilities are poorly maintained and overcrowded here and abroad. Too few students are taught computer science and, as an Indian professor recounts, "It seemed as if the dress code was more important than rigors of study." Many of our urban schools like to put kids in polyester and proclaim success.

"Chinese schools emphasize rote memorization, which often detracts from the quality of education," says a Chinese academic. "China's system fails to instill creativity."

That was once the hallmark of our education system, but it is now a fleeting memory for too many children who are being drilled for state tests to compete with nations sorely in need of creativity.

Our schools can and should do better because it is the right thing to do, not because we fear foreigners. If we offer students rich, creative and fulfilling experiences, our nation will benefit.

Gary S. Stager, gary@stager.org, is senior editor of DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION and editor of The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate (www.districtadministration.com/pulse).


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