It’s funny what you can learn from your kids. My latest lessons have to do with the gnashing of teeth over America ’s threatened future and the flattening of the world that is destroying our competitive advantage. In a funny way, recent events involving our youngest and oldest child might point to a way out of the crisis.
With America’s trade deficit ballooning, immigration and border controls a hot topic, and explosive economies in both India and China making it patently clear that the nexus of worldwide commercial activity has moved to Asia, We have a myopia regarding other countries and cultures around the world that is rooted in arrogance, and power, and isolation. the Grumpy Gus’s of the status quo are feeling particularly curmudgeonly these days. Not only are these upstart nations sending us cheap goods and manning thousands of call centers the doomsayers wail, but they are minting five times as many engineers each year. This is the end of civilization as we know it.
The problem so far is that while lots of smart folks can see the looming storm, precious few have any prescriptions for dealing with it. The latest example was a recent op-ed by Michael Schrage in the Financial Times . The author does us all a service by pointing out the obvious: Trying to somehow shore up America science education is like having the Little Dutch Boy stick his finger in the dyke. In the face of a giant wage differential (we live in splendor, the rest of the world somewhat less comfortably), and a tiny educational differential (trained engineers are good at math no matter where they live), this trend isn’t going to stop anytime soon. Bemoaning it does no good whatsoever. Schrage has some fuzzy ideas about how to use the talent in elite western universities to equip grads with some kind of weapons to succeed, but it makes little sense to me, or the incisive Nicholas Carr on his blog where he decries the lack of proffered solutions.
Luckily there is an answer. There is something that we can export to the rest of the world in vast quantities to redress the balance of trade. The answer is ourselves and our entrepreneurial spirit. Some people say there is no place left to explore on this earth. I say what about every underdeveloped village in the world? Exporting our can-do and get it done version of grassroots capitalism all over the world is a uniquely American opportunity. However, it is an opportunity that will mean our entrepreneurial kids need to learn about the rest of the world and leave the cozy suburbs for a while. Can we change enough to stop being Ugly Americans and become World Citizens and in the process unleash another gigantic wave of capitalist frenzy?
The seeds of America ’s bewilderment at the rise of India and China as intellectual equals, not just sources of cheap manufacturing labor, start in grade school. While our educational system may not be as rigorous as some, our college kids and grads seem to do just fine in every area save one. Throughout the world every nation teaches their children at least one additional language—usually English—from a very young age. The clear message: Understanding America is critical to your future.
Studying foreign languages isn’t just about ordering dim sum in Beijing . We have a myopia in this country regarding other countries and cultures around the world that is rooted in arrogance, and power, and isolation. It makes us the Ugly Americans in a flattening world, and fuels a coruscating xenophobia that makes many of our otherwise intelligent citizens want to pull up the drawbridges in the face of a rapidly developing third world.
I have a son in 3rd grade, and two daughters in college—one a linguist with a year in Cairo studying Arabic under her belt . For the last year I’ve been ranting at the principal at our son’s school about foreign languages. From my perspective, living in California , he should have been studying Spanish as a core subject from kindergarten. My linguist daughter tells me that children have an easy time learning another language up to puberty…when it becomes much harder. So shouldn’t we be teaching secondary languages in primary school? My complaints have fallen on deaf ears so far because there is no requirement for foreign language instruction in California ’s educational curriculum.
But this fundamental problem of American self-absorption isn’t only the province of our public schools. A few weeks ago I came upon a competition in the New York Times for college students. The columnist Nicholas Kristof was offering to take a collegian with him for a ten day visit to the third world . I forwarded it to my daughter in Cairo and suggested she might want to apply.
I should have known better. When next we spoke via Skype, she blasted the idea as “bogus” and told me that it was exactly what was wrong with American thinking about the under developed world. In ten days, she explained from her perspective of having spent the year in Cairo , you would find out exactly nothing of value about the village or country you visited. Worse, she continued, you would think you had some kind of understanding and would return to your campus and your iPod and think that you had the right to make some kind of judgements about the place. In her view this kind of arrogant simplicity of perspective, brought about by using an American view point as the lens through which to see another culture, was why we kept getting things so very wrong in places like Iraq.
I stood corrected. When she started talking about grassroots capitalism as the only way to share the American Dream with the rest of the world, I started listening.
Fortress America may be under assault, but if the next generation sees themselves as world citizens, decides to export entrepreneurship all over the globe, and rejects simplistic solutions that are imposed from outside, there’s hope for us all.
Maybe even for their 50-something father whose only additional language is high school French.