Previously, I have commented on Michael Barone’s book, Hard America, Soft America, which portrays the two different worlds occupied by those in our country who are products of the demands of competition (hard) versus those who have avoided or have not been subjected to such rigors in education, employment, and other walks of life (soft). Now comes Tom Friedman with his new book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, which vividly outlines the new realities of what he calls Globalization 3.0, a phenomenon which has, in a very brief period, not only shrunk the world from “a size small to a size tiny”, but has flattened the playing field at the same time. By flattening, he means that this latest phase of globalization is not being driven by the West, nor by governments, but by non-Western, non-white individuals, led by the mass of entrepreneurs and empowered individuals in China and India. For whether intended or not, and most of it wasn’t, the “dot com” boom and bust of the late 1990’s wired the world with the technologies and infrastructure that has empowered and enabled many millions, if not billions, of these folks to be fully competitive with the West at all levels of the production and value-added chain. We’re not talking low-wage, labor intensive outsourcing here, we’re talking high value-added from very high speed knowledge-based industries conducted by very competitive and capable people and, as Friedman notes, “the Indians and Chinese are not racing us to the bottom, they are racing us to the top”. In addition, one of the most important factors to note is that, unlike America and Europe, they are not burdened by the sunken costs of old delivery systems; they can leap immediately into the new systems enabled by the new technologies.
It should be pretty obvious how this scenario relates to the notion of “soft America”. We are decades behind in restructuring our education system, both at the secondary and higher education levels. But more importantly, we are nowhere near the mindset and the sense of urgency necessary to make such a commitment. Even the use of the word “competition” is shunned by most of our education establishment. The current mindset of “leave no child behind” is noble, but not good enough. Access should be a high priority, but should not be accomplished at the expense of proficiency and excellence. A recent letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal said it well: (In considering the trade-offs),…….”the interests of this country will be determined by whether we can meet the challenges of China, India and other nations by producing large numbers of graduates who exceed our expectations as engineers, scientists, and scholars, and who can meet competition for world leadership and hegemony with innovation in science and commerce”. In the new “flat earth” environment, this objective will not be accomplished by a soft America.