A flat, smart world

After a rambling start about learning to love learning, Thomas Friedman’s New York Times’ column gets serious about the consequences of not getting serious about high-quality education.

I just interviewed Craig Barrett, the chief executive of Intel, which has invested millions of dollars in trying to improve the way science is taught in U.S. schools. (The Wall Street Journal noted yesterday that China is graduating four times the number of engineers as the U.S.; Japan, with less than half our population, graduates double the number.)

In today’s flat world, Mr. Barrett said, Intel can be a totally successful company without ever hiring another American. That is not its desire or intention, he said, but the fact is that it can now hire the best brain talent “wherever it resides.”

If you look at where Intel is making its new engineering investments today, he said, it is in China, India, Russia, Poland and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia and Israel. While cutting-edge talent is still being grown in America, he added, it’s not enough for Intel’s needs, and not enough is being done in U.S. public schools – not just to leave no child behind, but to make sure that the best students and teachers are nurtured and rewarded.

Friedman says he can’t remember what he learned from his favorite teachers, but it’s enough that he loved learning it. He’s not serious. I’ve never encountered anyone who (a) knew how to learn and (b) knew nothing.

About Joanne


  1. one ninth grader in St. Paul asked me, then “what courses should I take?” How do you learn how to learn? Hmm. Maybe, I said, the best way to learn how to learn is to go ask your friends: “Who are the best teachers?” Then – no matter the subject – take their courses.

    Yeah, because ninth graders are such good judges of what a good teacher is, as distinguished from those who are ‘fun’, ‘interesting’, ‘easy’, ‘caring’, etc.

  2. Friedman’s advice works for college students, who actually have choices in what they take and when they take it. High school students can’t pick a particular teacher.

  3. I wish Friedman hadn’t couched the education issue in terms of national competitiveness. That “we better get better or else” scaremongering isn’t helpful when the central problem is understanding that the public education is socialist in nature and, like all socialist organizations, inherently inefficient, unresponsive and irresponsible.

    What we really have to worry about is the day one of our national competitors realizes that supporting a public education system is a good way to ensure that education is always expensive and generally mediocre.

  4. I wonder about the dedication
    MOST teachers have toward
    developing themselves as

    It’s rare to find a teacher
    who engages their students
    in the practical use of Excel,
    or a minimum knowledge of how
    to use HTML, which would be
    a good primer to develop future

    Instead of hearing teachers
    dedicate part of their Summer
    to mastering ‘new ideas’, I hear
    of their plans to go to Europe
    or Hawaii.

  5. Chris C. says:

    “the central problem is understanding that the public education is socialist in nature and, like all socialist organizations, inherently inefficient, unresponsive and irresponsible.”

    Funny, there’s less school choice in China and Japan than in the U.S. and yet those schools are producing many more enginers than the U.S. sytstem is.

  6. Don’t be so coy. What you’re suggesting is that there are socialist K-12 systems that produce fine results and offering China and Japan as examples. So first,…

    A) China has a population +1,300,000,000 against the U.S.’s 295,000,000. They could graduate engineers at a much lower per capita rate then the U.S. and still exceed our graduation numbers.

    B) Japan has a population of 126,000,000 meaning that they’d have to be graduating engineers at better then twice the rate of the U.S. just to equal our graduation numbers.

    Which means you have some source for that particular assertion, right?

    Second, higher education in the U.S., overall, is a much more market-driven environment then K-12 and engineers graduate out of colleges not high schools. That means that whatever value the K-12 system brings to the production of engineers, the prospective engineers have to spend several years attending an education system based on inter-organizational competition. So, which part of the education system is likely to have a greater impact on the graduation rate of engineers, the system they left behind years ago or the one they just finished attending?

    Finally, I didn’t write that the system is uniformly lousy. There are bright spots but the overall direction of the system, exemplified by the fierce resistance to any attempts at measurement and accountability, is always downhill. Keeping a good high school good is a continuous battle against the slide toward mediocrity built into the public education system. That battle has to be fought because of the socialist nature of K-12 education.

    Here’s a little test for you on the value that the public education system places on excellence:

    Who are Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi?

  7. Bluemount says:

    I’m reading Friedman’s Book, “The World is Flat” and dissapointed with the flip connections he makes with globalization and the growth of technology. There is almost nothing written about the flaws of this effort or manipulation of public opinion by corporate leaders promoting cheap answers. (Do they really know or are they just in control right now? I hear a good deal of sketicism.)

    If you follow the growth of technology the vast majority right now evolves around improving social controls, reproducable skills, processes and reducing cost. In the long term factory work never pans out to human empowerment because the required skill set is too narrow and the marketing window for a buggy whip is too small. (What Bill Gates is really whining about is the death spiral of his corporation when the Windows operating system is replaced by Linux.) I hope what global leaders in corporations and countries accomplish is avoiding the gray cloud of Chinese industry spreading to Indonesia and achieving sustainable ‘human’ life. I thought ‘Collapse’ was a more significant book.

    Industry doesn’t mention the lifetime of a technology or computer language is very short and the skills are not viewed as transferable. IMO the reason tech slaries were high was to motivate bright, low-cost, Asian workers to the US to finish college and work in American companies (or at least mine, based on stories my Indian friends told me who immigrated in the 70’s). We know how many times we have tried and failed to transfer products to other countries, but I doubt Friedman does. We know how often they come back to this country and when sucessful products die on the vine because they were promising and should have transfered easily. Some Asian workers I’ve met tell me they plan to make their fortune in 5 years and get out because the work is so grueling and the hours are so long. I’m waiting for the chapter on the lines of American engineers that could not get low-pay jobs after being laid off because they were overly qualified not long ago. BTW, learning how to make a spreadsheet or write in HTML is not science, it’s language.

    Just like the auto industry was changed by foreign competition that improved quality, this is starter capital that does not mean success; until these countries are inventing their own marketplace, it will not be a Hollywood movie the public will pay to see. It will more likely be an effort in globalized social management. We have done our best to train foreigners to take our jobs for many years; as much as we hate it, we hope for the best. A friend asked someone they were training in China last week about the riots against Japan going on outside their building and they messaged back, “That didn’t happen.” It’s hard not to want them to suceed; their English is far better than most Americans. But the depth of technical effort is very shallow. After a few weeks of training they are promoted and most are interested in management, not technology. IMO the biggest flaw is we can only transfer things that are stabilized.

    Europe actually has a much smaller academic technical community than the US. They are the bleeding edge of globalization’s modern society meeting diverse culture. Gunter Grass’s, NY Times editorial “The Gravest Generation” does not have Friedman’s view of the Berlin wall and speaks to the I hope Americans are asking ourselves. Have we earned freedom? Are we still willing to protect that freedom? I suspect the next step in globalization will be online education taught from China, or maybe not.


    We can only hope we will be able to cope with today’s risk of a new totalitarianism, backed as it is by the world’s last remaining ideology. As conscious democrats, we should freely resist the power of capital, which sees mankind as nothing more than something which consumes and produces. Those who treat their donated freedom as a stock market profit have failed to understand what May 8 teaches us every year.

  8. I don’t understand what
    Bluemount is getting at,
    other than harvesting

    You would benefit from
    being brief and not meander
    about with giant paragraphs
    that strain one’s B.S. filter.

  9. BadaBing says:

    “I wonder about the dedication MOST teachers have toward developing themselves as educators.”

    Please don’t call me an “educator.” I’m a teacher and that’s that. “Educator” smacks of hyperbole, elitism, and self-importance. I’ll take Germanic words over Latin ones any day of the week. Educators, indeed.

  10. Paulr wrote:

    I wonder about the dedication MOST teachers have toward developing themselves as educators.

    Why? While teachers don’t seem to have any obvious superiority to the general run of humanity, neither do they seem to have any peculiar deficiencies. If that’s true then teachers would, given an opportunity, rather do a good job then a bad job.

    Since the public education system puts no premium on superior performance by teachers or students, mediocrity, by default, becomes the performance norm.

  11. Yawn..


    Big deal (I don’t like the
    term ‘Pedogogy’ myself,
    for some reason I like

    There are lots of stupid
    little things I read in
    these posts that people
    have got to get over with
    and get to the substance
    of their issue.