Adjusting to Globalization: Why is the US Falling Behind?

In the New York Times article, “It’s a Flat World, After All,” Thomas L. Friedman writes:

“These are some of the reasons that Bill Gates, the Microsoft chairman, warned the governors’ conference in a Feb. 26 speech that American high-school education is “obsolete.” As Gates put it: “When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow. In math and science, our fourth graders are among the top students in the world. By eighth grade, they’re in the middle of the pack. By 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring near the bottom of all industrialized nations. . . . The percentage of a population with a college degree is important, but so are sheer numbers. In 2001, India graduated almost a million more students from college than the United States did. China graduates twice as many students with bachelor’s degrees as the U.S., and they have six times as many graduates majoring in engineering. In the international competition to have the biggest and best supply of knowledge workers, America is falling behind.

“We need to get going immediately. It takes 15 years to train a good engineer, because, ladies and gentlemen, this really is rocket science. So parents, throw away the Game Boy, turn off the television and get your kids to work. There is no sugar-coating this: in a flat world, every individual is going to have to run a little faster if he or she wants to advance his or her standard of living.”  

While I agree with Friedman about the world’s flatness and the danger of America becoming mediocre, I disagree with his message that we must work harder. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not afraid of hard work. My objection lies in the fact that Mr. Friedman’s recommendation reflects our society’s short-term mentality that working “harder” (by studying for more hours, sleeping less, etc.) will get us ahead; what he critically neglects to discuss is the consequences of “working harder”: the increased stress and drastic decrease of quality of life that is becoming a reality for today’s students.Instead of changing how hard we work, we must totally overhaul our education system so that it encourages interdisciplinary approaches to solving problems, as well as creative thought and reasoning. Right now, Bill Gates is right — science and math education is obsolete in this country. These subjects need to be taught in a more practical manner if this country wants to increase production of scientists and engineers! The main problem with science education today is that it leaves kids wondering, “so what? why should I care?” (I certainly felt this way throughout much of the coursework for my chemistry degree at Boston University.) It’s pedantic to the point of disgust. School should be just as fun as picking up the Game Boy, so fixing the education system will automatically draw kids away from playing games excessively.

Science in high schools and undergraduate universities is no longer empirical. It is textbook-based. Even in the laboratory for science classes, there is little room for tinkering and scientific adventure because everything is dictated by a stifling lab manual procedure that doesn’t communicate the importance of the particular experiment being conducted. The exception is independent research projects, which only a fraction of science students actually pursue; and that too, you usually start it late in your undergraduate career. Before many science students even reach that point, they leave because they were not given any opportunity to apply what they learned in class to a real scientific problem.

Additionally, the humanities cannot be forgotten — as the world becomes flat, appreciation for humankind is vaporizing. It’s okay that we need to work harder to produce more scientists and engineers to compete in the world, but not at the cost of our human element. Scientists and engineers are notorious for their apathy towards language, literature, and the rest of that “fluff.” What they miss is the fact that the humanities help you learn how to interact and communicate with your society — a skill that is important regardless of your career path. Not only that, but you develop an appreciation for people as individuals (in practical terms, your reasoning and ability to analyze a person’s character are strengthened). We have to get away from our divisions of study into individual subjects, and present an interdisciplinary approach to learning science — perhaps pairing biology with poetry, or engineering with music. These approaches will not only increase the retention rate of science and engineering majors, and allow students to enjoy science more, but will also allow them to appreciate science within the broader human context from which it originated. THAT will help interest more into science and engineering; not throwing away the game boy, or “working harder.” If science students are going to be spending so much time to learn all that is necessary to become scientists, their educators need to make it worth their efforts and sacrifices.

Adapting to a flattened, globalized world is a bigger problem that transcends the lack of parental guidance: the root lies in a flawed and impractical education system.