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Online Study Guide: The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman

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America and the Flat World: Chapters 5 - 9



In this section Friedman explains why it is essential that people develop the right side of their brains. Traditionally SATs have measured left-brain skills (linear, logical, analytical skills). The right side of the brain is responsible for artistry, empathy, and seeing the big picture. Although Friedman notes this is an overly-simplistic representation of the very complex human brain, his contention is that the jobs that are leaving the United States (or becoming automated) are “left-brain” tasks that can be reduced to rules, routines, and instructions. People can nurture the right hemispheres of their brains by doing what they love. This is not sappy advice, argues Friedman, it is a survival strategy. In pursuing passion, we cultivate the intangible--that cannot be outsourced.

After exploring the new middlers’ jobs and necessary skill sets, Friedman asks what this means, specifically, for the way we educate American students. He offers Georgia Institute of Technology as an example of how colleges might thoughtfully approach this issue. Friedman spends some time with G. Wayne Clough, the president of Georgia Tech. When Clough became president of the college the graduation rate was only 65% and the atmosphere was dull. By altering the admission process to favor students who played a musical instrument or who had played on a sports team, Clough transformed the mood of the college. Students are more creative and have a higher rate of graduation. Moreover, Clough saw that the curriculum at Georgia Tech was altered. Previously, students learned a narrow range of skills; now they are taught to think horizontally and can approach a broad set of tasks creatively.

Friedman believes that the United States is uniquely suited to enter the age of the flat world because it has a “mix of institutions, laws, and cultural norms that produce a level of trust, innovation, and collaboration that has enabled us to constantly renew our economy and raise our standard of living.” The problem, it seems, is that Americans are not taking advantage of their nation’s potential. In chapter eight, “The Quiet Crisis,” Friedman unveils six dirty little secrets, which help explain why Americans are not taking advantage of these resources and what will happen if they do not change course.

The first dirty little secret is “The Numbers Gap.” The numbers gap refers to the declining number of American students completing degrees in science and math fields. This is particularly troublesome considering the increasing numbers of students around the world who are receiving these degrees, and the speed at which jobs are being created requiring these degrees in the increasingly flat world. For example, in 2003 2.8 million science and engineering degrees (equivalent to an American bachelor’s degree) were issued worldwide: 1.2 million in Asia, 830,000 in Europe, and 400,000 in the United States. Meanwhile, in the U.S. the number of jobs that require these degrees is growing at about 5% a year, while the rest of the labor force is growing at about 1%. Friedman notes that many of the students receiving engineering degrees in American universities are probably not Americans and will take the knowledge they gain back to their own countries. Moreover, even if Chinese or Indian universities are not as good as American universities there are many, many more people in these countries dedicated to learning math and science than there are in the United States.

The second dirty little secret is “The Education Gap at the Top.” Friedman explains the numbers gap via the education gap: that is, we are not interesting enough American students in advanced math, science, and engineering. Friedman explores a variety of reasons for the decline of students seeking these advanced degrees, including the lack of interest in the basic math and science courses as well as a general decline in work ethic. Friedman observes that students’ proficiency has fallen in reading and writing as well as in math and science, which could be connected to the rising number of young Americans watching television and surfing the Internet.

The third dirty little secret is “The Ambition Gap.” Friedman says that CEOs would only share this secret with him in a whisper: when low-prestige, low-paying jobs are sent abroad they become high-paying (though still cheaper than the American rates) and high-prestige jobs. As a result, the company pays 75% less in salaries and receives 100% more in productivity.

The fourth dirty little secret is “The Education Gap at the Bottom.” This gap refers to the inequality of American public schools. Friedman notes how the American public school system, as we know it today, was organized in the first third of the last century. Unlike other nations, which organize their public schools at the national or state level, American public schools are organized by local school boards. This means that wealthy people could organize into self-taxing districts and tax themselves a small portion of their salaries and still produce a high per capita, per student school budget. The opposite was true for poorer districts. Thus the wealthy districts attract the best teachers, principals, and curriculum planners, while the poorer districts must settle for what is left over.

This situation was exacerbated following World War II when the government began subsidizing home mortgages and highway development--aiding white families in fleeing the city and abetting de facto segregation. In the flat world this situation is more dismal. Previously, Americans, particularly in the cities, did not have much difficulty finding jobs that required little knowledge. Now, as manufacturing jobs are shipped overseas, students that have been pushed through the public education system have less of a chance for success.

The fifth dirty little secret is “The Funding Gap.” Simply put, the funding gap refers to the decreasing amount of funding Congress provides for research in the physical and mathematical sciences as well as engineering. Funding, as a share of the GDP, declined by 37% between 1970 and 2004.

The sixth dirty little secret is “The Infrastructure Gap.” The infrastructure gap refers to Americans’ access to broadband, which lags significantly behind the rest of the industrialized world. Since George W. Bush became President, the United States has fallen from 4th to 16th in the global rankings of broadband Internet usage. Friedman argues that this ranking is a problem because broadband and information technologies are critical to advancing productivity and innovation in every sector of the economy.

In chapter 9, “This is not a Test,” Friedman outlines the five action areas of compassionate flatism, which is what he believes it means to be progressive in a flat world. The goal of compassionate flatism is to reconfigure the old welfare state to give Americans the outlook, education, skills, and safety nets they will need to compete against other individuals in the flat world.

The first action area is leadership. Friedman believes American politicians must get serious about the flattening of the world. He argues that politicians must be able and willing to inspire and explain, not to actively encourage stupidity among their constituents. He concludes this section by asserting that George W. Bush could secure his legacy if he made energy independence a serious goal.

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