Reading Fads

Reading Fads

Why Tom Friedman does not compute

I'm always on the lookout for educational trends. Over the past couple of months the usual suspects who speak at education conferences have been toting around copies of Thomas Friedman's new book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. These knuckleheads and the administrators who love them can't resist the temptation to quote Friedman in reverential terms. One popular speaker uses Friedman to support his new mantra, "American students need to develop a global work ethic." What the heck does that mean? Should U.S. high school students produce SpongeBob shirts for Wal-Mart?

I admired Tom Friedman. I found his insights into Middle Eastern politics interesting. I paid $65 to see him speak, but he read from the aforementioned book, virtually page-by-page. The naive yarn he spun stunned me.

For those of you who have not surrendered $27.50 to Mr. Friedman, allow me summarize The World is Flat. The Indians are going to eat your children. If any remain, the Chinese will kill the rest a few years later.

This book is a hysterical screed about how the Internet has made it possible for developing countries to threaten the American Way. Of course, our schools are maligned with test scores and insults about our lazy students.

No matter how complex the issue--education, economics, international affairs or technology--an expert is anyone willing to speak with Friedman. An e-mail from a gentleman Friedman met while waiting in an airport is included as a prescription for improving our schools and global competitiveness. The history of personal computing, as told by the Microsoft Corp., is littered with misinformation, glaring omissions and Ron Popeil-like amazement. Imagine if your grandmother explained Internet protocols and you begin to get the idea. Southwest lets you print your own boarding passes. Copying machines can fax... yada yada yada.

The book is littered with self-evident news of the information age. Think of it as The Weekly Reader Guide to Globalization or Current Events for Dummies. If you have not used the Web, read a newspaper, watched TV or left the house since 1980, this book is for you.

It should be illegal
for educators to read
Friedman before Littky,
Meier or Sizer.

Wisdom is not always found in sound bites or factoids. Comparisons regarding the number of engineering graduates in China, India and the U.S. are meaningless. The only way we can "catch-up" is if Mr. and Mrs. Friedman do their part and birth a billion American children.

Friedman breathlessly tells the tale of Rajesh, an Indian programmer who owns a computer gaming company. Rajesh's employees are, of course, smarter and much harder working than Americans and the 'Net allows them to compete in the global marketplace. The most shocking revelation is that Rajesh's company recently bought the rights to use Charlie Chaplin's image for computer games. "That's right--a start-up Indian game company owns the Chaplin image for use in mobile computer games."

Say it ain't so!

How many 14- to 25-year-old boys want to play a Charlie Chaplin computer game? There is a reason why American companies don't invest millions in Charlie Chaplin-themed games. Nobody will buy them. If this is the best evidence Friedman can offer of global high-tech entrepreneurial threats, our test scores can safely slide for a few more decades.

Even if you are fascinated by what Friedman reports, his writing gave me a toothache. Every idea is named, 1.0, 2.0, etc... to demonstrate Tom's high-tech hipness. Cutesiness abounds. In discussing the end of Communism, Friedman writes, "Someone else was raising a glass--not of champagne but of thick Turkish coffee. His name was Osama Bin Laden and he had a different narrative." The book is peppered with spew-inducing passages like, "When the Berlin Wall becomes the Berlin Mall..." I suspect Nipsey Russell was the ghostwriter.

Maybe I'm wrong and the book is fabulous. It's still alarming that so many school leaders feel compelled to seek advice from people who know nothing about education. Such pop business books create great PowerPoint bullets, but do little to transform classroom practice. You may curry favor with the Business Roundtable, but will do little to benefit children. Seeking wisdom from a variety of sources is laudable, but books sold in airport gift shops should not set education policy.

Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.


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