Thought Tree

Gates Speech on American Education

I’ve long been a fan of Thomas Friedman‘s work. He’s a columnist for the NY Times, and recently published a book called The World Is Flat, in which he argues, among other good points, that due to technological advancements and the ability of 21st century people to communicate and collaborate as never before, nations such as India and China are able to cultivate a talent pool of young, educated techno-elite which will soon challenge other “advanced” nations’ ability to effectively compete in the global marketplace.

Today, Friedman’s column in the Columbus Dispatch, “High Schools Need Top-to-Bottom Revision”, had a number of quotes from Bill Gates which I found thought provoking. Gates was speaking at a late February meeting of the nation’s governors on education issues; a meeting which received scant attention by the US media, which, as always, is focused on moronic fluff like the runaway bride story of this past week.

Gates said:

“Training the work force of tomorrow with the high-school students of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year old mainframe. Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting — even ruining — the lives of millions of Americans every year.”

This got me thinking about what kind of education Gates would wish for our high-school graduates to learn if they are to become the sort of talent which his company would hire? Is it truly the topics of education taught in American high-schools which pollute the talent pool in this country? Or is it the pervasive attitude of indifference demonstrated by American youth towards political, economic, and social issues which hinders us?

If you take an average American high-school student, I’d guess that they are more concerned with who is on top of the Source hip-hop charts than who is currently undergoing a Senate hearing for a position heading the US delagation to the UN. They’s be less concerned about the fact that GM’s health care costs now comprise a greater portion of a single car’s production cost than the steel consituting the car, than they would be interested in who got Punk’d this week by Ashton Kutcher. It doesn’t seem to matter to American youth what is going on in other parts of the world because they are so insulated from the relative chaos surrounding this nation. The media plays a huge role in this mess by putting less and less real news on the air, and more entertainment, red-carpet junk with glitter-glamour pundits talking about the latest celebrity breakups.

I’d guess that even if the educational system in America underwent the kind of systematic course redefinition that Gates seems to be espousing, we’d still be in the same boat. The difference in my mind is the contrast in levels of ambition and determination demonstrated by youth in India, China, and Bangalore compared to high-school students in America. American youth culture in general has become spoiled by years of relative peace and economic prosperity. The sacrifices of the generation which built these “50 year old education systems” are lost on today’s youth because they have no real cause celebre to gather behind.

My guess is that it will take a major disaster or national event to motivate American youth to pull their weight for the future of the nation.