Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The World is Flat...Oh Shit

Though perhaps one of the most important books of our time, The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman is also one of the singularly most depressing. If you have not read this book, please, go out and buy it. It will make you one the most hopeful people ever...until you get to the chapters on how America has to adapt to the flattening (globalization) of the world. You might say: "Should we really be worried? We've survived depressions, world wars, and myriad scandal, is this really any different? Is this really that big a deal?" Indeed it is. No matter what anyone tells you, we are still far ahead of the Indians and Chinese (not to mention the Brazilians, Kenyans, Poles, Russians, etc.) because of one crucial part of the research and development chain - Imagination. Imagination? What are you talking about? What I mean is that programmers in India can build and program a computer just as fast as Americans can, and they can take ideas from others and build on them, just like Americans can and do. What they don't have is the initial spark, the initial moment of genius that propels technology a decade into the future (maybe that's too dramatic). At the very least, American scientists and engineers of all sorts are significantly better at dreaming up and beginning the implementation of those strokes of genius. But why is that? Why are Americans blessed with the gift of daydreaming? The answer may be deceptively simple. Indian education doesn't place much emphasis at all on college education outside of science/technology and business/accounting. According to Friedman, at the time of publication of the book's third edition, there would be more Americans earning Ph.D's in Sanskrit and related subjects that there would be Indians earning Ph.D's in Sanskrit, despite them having four times the population (If you don't know, Sanskrit is the language of the Upanishads and other Hindu holy books). However in America, college grads are forced to take classes in non-technical fields and foster right-brain, left-brain pathways that allow them to better implement hard technical knowledge in an imaginative and innovative way. For that fact we are safe - for now. 

But in the next ten, twenty, thirty years, eventually they will all catch up, and we are going to get left behind at a rate unbelievable at this time. But why aren't the politicians screaming for education reform when we have to start now? It takes decades to fully train an engineer or scientist from elementary school to graduate school. So why are they cutting funding instead for all classes? In all grades? And giving out ridiculous state exams? Shouldn't that be a bigger issue than R&D for laser-guided grenade launchers, TSA full-body scanners, and congressional hearings for steroid usage in professional sports? Apparently not, leaving us to watch Latin America and the East charge ahead into a bright new future while we limp along, half-heartedly telling ourselves that we are still the strongest and best nation in the world. Just think about it. Au revoir.

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