Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A book that makes sense of the new world

The World is Flat
Originally uploaded by Brite Lights photos.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat ranks right there with The Population Bomb (Paul Ehrlich), The Search for Excellence (Tom Peters) and maybe The Reckoning (David Halberstam) as books that have, for me, hit the proverbial nail on the head. (Please excuse the cliche, but it fits...)

And it's not because I agree with the politics - it's the sharp analysis. The World is Flat makes sense of a world that is so different from say, 20 years ago, maybe even 10 years ago.

When you call up an airline to make a reservation (provided you don't go online to make your own reservations) the person you are likely talking with is in Bangalore, India, or maybe Panama. When you give your income tax to your local accountant, he or she, in turn, isn't spending weekends laboring over your Schedule B deductions - someone on the other side of globe is, your income tax data having been digitized and zapped through cyberspace. And don't even think about those people answering phones in the Ukraine with your queries about the problems with your credit card.

Oh my God, Americans are losing jobs?

Well, that's the thing about this book. While some jobs are being lost, others are being gained in a shift that is fairly quickly making the nation-state as we know it irrelevant.

Friedman traces in one chapter how his Dell Computer was manufactured - where the parts came from, who assembled it, how more computers come on line.

Would you be surprised to know that Dell Computers - a player in the computer industry but not the biggest - sells 150,000 computers a day? A day! And the system of sales and manufacturing is so sophisticated that if you call this moment and order a unit, all over the world adjustments are made to ensure that when the person calls after you, all the compenents are available for their computer - and the next 149,998 people, too.

In education, we face the biggest challenges because as education leaders have warned for years, much of the rest of the world is way ahead of us in providing solid education - from kindergarten through PhDs.

Perhaps the most telling quote is an African proverb, translated into Mandarin, posted on the factory floor of an American auto parts manufacturer - at its factory in China.

I've read it to my students and asked them to think about it, hard.

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up.
It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.
Every morning a lion wakes up.
It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.
It doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle.
When the sun comes up, you better start running.


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