FRIEDMAN: Education is the path out of stagnation

Thomas L. FriedmanFor me, the most frightening news is not about North Korea’s stepping up its nuclear program, but a recent New York Times article about how U.S. kids are stepping up their use of digital devices: “Allison Miller, 14, sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month, her fingers clicking at a blistering pace as she carries on as many as seven text conversations at a time. She texts between classes, at the moment soccer practice ends, while being driven to and from school and, often, while studying.

“But this proficiency comes at a cost: She blames multitasking for the three B’s on her recent progress report. ‘I’ll be reading a book for homework and I’ll get a text message and pause my reading and put down the book, pick up the phone to reply to the text message, and then 20 minutes later realize, ‘Oh, I forgot to do my homework.”’

I don’t want to pick on Miller. I highlight her words only because they’re integral to a much larger point: Our unemployment today is not only because of the financial crisis. There are some deeper problems. If we’re going to get more Americans back to work, we will need more stimulus from the U.S. government—from the top down. But we will also need more stimulus from the Parent Teacher Associations—from the bottom up.

The deeper problems fostering unemployment in America today can be summarized in three points:

Global competition is stiffer. When Harvard and Yale were all-male, applicants had to compete only against a pool of white males to get in. But when Harvard and Yale admitted women and more minorities, white males had to step up their game.

When the Cold War ended, globalization took hold. As Harvard and Yale started to admit more Chinese, Indians, Singaporeans, Poles and Vietnamese, both American men and women had to step up their games to get in. And as the education systems of China, India, Singapore, Poland and Vietnam continue to improve, and more of their cream rises to the top and more of their young people apply to Ivy League schools, it is only going to get more competitive for American men and women at every school.

Then, just as the world was getting flattened by globalization, technology went on a rampage—destroying more low-end jobs and creating more high-end jobs faster than ever.

Finally, just when globalization and technology were making the value of higher education greater than ever, and the price for lacking it more punishing than ever, America started slipping behind its peers in high school graduation rates, college graduation and global test scores in math and critical thinking.

Beyond the recession, this triple whammy is one of the main reasons middle-class wages have been stagnating. To overcome that, we need to enlist both the USG and the PTA.

We need teachers and principals who are paid better for better performance, but also valued for their long hours and dedication to students and learning. We need parents to hold their kids to higher standards of academic achievement. We need students who come to school ready to learn, not to text. And to support all of this, we need an all-society effort—from the White House to the classroom to the living room—to nurture a culture of achievement and excellence.

If you want to know who’s doing the parenting part right, start with immigrants, who know that learning is the way up. Last month, the 32 winners of Rhodes Scholarships for 2011 were announced—America’s top college grads. Here are half the names on that list: Mark Jia, Aakash Shah, Zujaja Tauqeer, Tracy Yang, William Zeng, Daniel Lage, Ye Jin Kang, Baltazar Zavala, Esther Uduehi, Prerna Nadathur, Priya Sury, Anna Alekeyeva, Fatima Sabar, Renugan Raidoo, Jennifer Lai, Varun Sivaram.

Do you see a pattern?•

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Friedman has received two Pulitzer prizes for international reporting. His book “From Beirut to Jerusalem” won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 1989, and his latest book, “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” has been published in 20 languages. Born in Minneapolis, Friedman graduated from Brandeis University and received a master’s degree in Modern Middle East studies from Oxford.•
 

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