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‘The World is Flat’ Book Report

If Friedman’s book and the concepts he introduces taken as an axiom, it seems like global vocational competition is going to be getting tougher and tougher with every subsequent graduation. Friedman uses the economic argument that business production is going where wages and resources are cheaper. (Friedman, 2006) However, this is dependent on skill levels (education) and transportation (getting goods, once produced, to markets). He presents history as if it began in his lifetime and the presentation is in an ethnocentric manner as if all things western are universal.

He allocates much less space to the digital divide or the uneven spread of globalization, even within countries. Friedman writes of globalization 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 in software shorthand to educate his audience on the different eras of globalization. Here he positions Globalization 1.0 being the launch of exploration for the new worlds; Globalization 2.0 being the expansion of the multinational enterprise; and finally, today is the era of Globalization 3.0. (Friedman, 2006) But does this analysis trace the beginnings of globalization?

One could even go back to the first millennium B.C.E. with the rise of the Phoenicians and their shipping as the very first era of globalization. There is evidence of their voyages and trading to England, Africa, and the Americas (Phoenician pottery has been found in Peru and remains of ships in Brazil). In some support of Friedman, the rediscovery of the Americas by the Europeans possibly can be called the first era of capitalistic globalization.

Much more critical of what Friedman writes is his unbalanced examination of the other side of globalization, i.e., the downsizing, loss of pension funds with the squeezing of workers share of profits. He views globalization as important for the people (customers) but plays down the fact that it is at the expense of the people (workers). (Friedman, 2006) Recently, there is the violation of contracts regarding pension funds. A contract should be sacrosanct for business to function, and these are not simply the contracts between buyer and seller, but contingent contracts.

Laws that govern the acquisition of companies in a way that break pension contracts are morally wrong. Perhaps all employee pensions should be turned into cash and given to employees before any acquisition to be legal. In the current system, those who are the elite and preferred are served at the expense of the ordinary customer. An example is the call-service centers that Freidman lauds as a great innovation while ignored is that they are the same centers that perform telemarketing, great annoying masses of the population in the U.S. (Friedman, 2006)

A significant majority of The World is Flat is a prelude to the last 20 percent of the book which lays out Friedman’s take on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism leading up to the 9/11 event. In the last one hundred pages of the book, Friedman characterizes the less developed parts of the world as “too sick, too un-empowered, and too humiliated,” referring particularly to Africa and the Middle Eastern countries. (Friedman, 2006)

In short, it is this humiliation that has led the fundamentalist Muslim world to the use of suicide bombers. Friedman’s hypothesis would be better presented without the condescending references to his numerous Muslim friends (who he takes pains to highlight that are his personal friends) as this name dropping pattern is repeated annoyingly through the book. This, along with the section where he writes in the third person makes an otherwise exciting reading somewhat tiring.

In my view, Friedman tries to cover too much territory as he tries to provide answers to U.S. unemployment, third world development, and the world’s problem. He makes too many generalized statements such as “the fewer natural resources, the better off the country.” (Friedman, 2006) While Friedman is thinking of Singapore and Hong Kong, we still have Andorra of Europe and Djibouti of Africa, which are just as small with few natural resources but are not noted for their economic growth. Or, he ignores the whole era of colonialism with statements like, “companies have never had more freedom and less friction” in their operations. (Friedman, 2006)

Given these drawbacks, Friedman should be complimented in his boldness in attempting to address the great issues of the day and his development of a new vocabulary for further discussion. He attempts to bring to his audience important developments in technology and innovation in a comprehensive framework while pointing out, among other things, the looming energy crisis and the dangers of the close relationship between the political establishment and large corporations. (Friedman, 2006) Friedman is a great advocate of the power of innovation and positive-sum economics as universal solutions to humankind’s complex crises.

Globalization’s dominant intellectual foundation is based on Adam Smith and David Richardo’s theories of absolute advantage and competitive advantage which articulate that free trade’s implications (outcomes) are positive-sum. This is placed in contrast to regulated trade which is characterized as having zero-sum implications. In game theory, zero-sum implies that for one party to gain the other party must lose (a fixed pie). Positive-sum implies that the pie, itself has increased in size so that all parties can share the gains.

Adam Smith insisted that all parties gain from specialization coupled with free trade. Through specialization, world productivity and output is increased relative to any nation’s attempt to be self-sufficient and not engage in business. This increased production allows all parties to gain from trade.

Given recent political events (the war in Iraq) and natural disasters (hurricanes striking in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast), Friedman’s call to action for the American public and government should be well received. The international debate over globalization is well underway. Whereas its proponents proclaim the immense benefits of a market-driven world, critics ranging from financier George Soros and James Goldsmith to Zapatista guerrillas in the jungles of Chiapas blame globalization for almost all of the ills of the society. Despite its limitations, The World is Flat is a valuable addition to this debate that will help to dispel the dubious criticism that, for better or for worse, states and their citizens have become helpless pawns in a tightly integrated global economy over which the human race has lost control.

Globalization, as described above, is in part the result of larger companies like Wal-Mart displacing traditional mom-and-pop stores due to their ability to offer lower prices through economies of scale and scope bringing about efficiencies. In this sense, individuals had lost some conventional control over economic self-destiny, as they did when agribusiness replaced family farms. We need to figure out how individuals fit in this brave new world, as it is not just Islamic fundamentalists and American Union workers who fear this change. (Friedman, 2006)

But globalization should not be reduced to global competition in the economy and work; it is also about demographics and cultural transformations. Because of globalization, nearly all regions of the world are deeply involved in growing migratory flows, as countries send emigrants to new destinations, as nations receive large numbers of immigrants, or as countries serve as way stations for these transfers.

With global migrations come new demographic realities and cultural formations. The children of immigrants are now the fastest-growing sector of the population of young people in many advanced postindustrial nations such as Canada, the United States, Sweden, Germany, and France. But other regions of the world are also experiencing massive population movements because of globalization. The insertion of China into the global economy has led to one of the most massive migrations in human history: over 150 million human souls are now migrants from the rural hinterlands of the country into its great coastal cities. ((Friedman, 2006))

The work of education will henceforth be tending to the cognitive skills, interpersonal sensibilities, and cultural sophistication of young people whose lives will be engaged in local contexts yet suffused with larger transnational realities. An education that is neither anachronistic nor irrelevant to the new world will need to focus on the two domains that define the global era: difference and complexity.

There are few models of what schooling might look like if it is to be in synch with the new global dynamics. The school had been struggling with declining enrollments (Sweden is an all-voucher system), an epidemic of student boredom, and a dropout problem. An ambitious new program, modeled on the Ross School in East Hampton, New York, was put in place two years before my visit. The Ross School approach is based on the idea of lifelong engagement in learning and well-being. Its integrated cultural history curriculum facilitates in-depth mastery of disciplinary subjects as well as interdisciplinary habits of mind.

The Tensta administrators introduced some curricular, pedagogical, and architectural innovations designed to enhance student engagement. These included a series of new, integrated units, a new cafeteria serving balanced meals, and a shift to team-teaching. Intensive teacher training was provided, and the teachers became part of newly formed interdisciplinary teams assigned to teach groups of students jointly.

The teacher encouraged the students to work in teams and creatively scaffolded their knowledge to achieve a higher-order understanding of the problem at hand. She also encouraged the students to reflect on their own learning by subtly suggesting how they could apply what they had learned in other units to the new problem, thus nurturing their metacognitive abilities. Classrooms such as those at Tensta will become increasingly common in the world’s global cities. (Friedman, 2006) The dynamics at work there encompass the main forces that define globalization in education today: increasing diversity, increasing complexity, the premium on collaboration, the need to take multiple perspectives on problems, and the premium on moving across language and cultural boundaries.

Globalization is changing the ways we experience national identity and cultural belonging. Identity and belonging are now complicated by the increasingly fluid political and cultural borders that once separated nation-states and the people within them. Managing difference–and the friction it creates–is becoming one of the central functions of the modern nation-state. From England to Sweden, Brazil to Bolivia, Indonesia to Malaysia, Iraq to Turkey, working with different calls forth a new educational agenda. (Friedman, 2006)

Children growing up today are more likely than in any previous generation to face a life of working, networking, loving, and living with others from different national, linguistic, religious, and racial backgrounds. The Tensta classroom is a microcosm of the classroom of tomorrow. Students are challenged to engage and work through competing and contrasting cultural models and social practices, adjusting to and accommodating differences in such areas as kinship, gender, language, and the complicated interrelationships of race, ethnicity, and inequality. Transcultural communication, understanding, empathy, and collaboration are no longer abstract ideas. It is not as simple as the one-way assimilation and accommodation of ethnic, racial, linguistic, and religious minorities learning the codes of the majority society to get along and get ahead. Much more is needed: majority children too will benefit by mastering the sensibilities and codes of other cultures. (Friedman, 2006)

The friction that meaningful cultural contact and incommensurable difference generate can be a threat if mismanaged–as intergroup violence and anomie in multicultural cities suggest. But friction can also generate constructive energy. When contrasting cultural models and social practices come together in multicultural schools, they can be put to good use to nourish the cognitive and metacognitive skills required to examine and work through problems from multiple perspectives.

When intercultural difference interrupts “thinking as usual”–the taken-for-granted understandings and worldviews that shape cognitive and metacognitive styles and practices–it can do the most for youths growing up today. Freely, thoroughly, and respectfully arguing within a framework of difference is proper preparation for dealing with the complexities of the future.

Globalization engenders complexity. It is generating more complex demographics, economics, politics, environmental choices, scientific realities, technology and media, cultural facts and artifacts, and identities. Entire continents are undergoing intense cultural transformations. Economies likewise must adapt to the new, sophisticated forces brought about by global capital. Local politics, too, will be stretched in new ways, as “absentee citizens” in the diaspora exercise political power in the communities they leave behind. (Friedman, 2006)

An intellectually curious, cognitively autonomous, socially responsible, democratically engaged, productive, and globally conscious member of the human family in the 21st century cannot be educated in the 20th-century factory model of education. The regimented mastery, internalization, and mechanical regurgitation of compartmentalized facts and rules that served the Industrial Age are anachronisms.

The pandemic of boredom among children and youths in European and U.S. schools stems from the redundancy in much of today’s schooling–surely the elephant in the classroom in the rich societies of the North. Even more alarming than boredom is the widely acknowledged failure in these communities to engage, educate, and integrate large properly and growing numbers of racial and ethnic minorities, including immigrant and refugee-origin youths. “Homegrown” terrorist attacks, as the subway bombings in London in July 2005 appear to be, represent a failure to educate and engage large and growing populations of racial and ethnic minorities. (Friedman, 2006)

An education for the global era is an education for lifelong cognitive, behavioral, and relational engagement with the world. The skills and competencies needed for identifying, analyzing, and mobilizing to solve problems from multiple perspectives will require individuals who are intellectually curious and cognitively flexible, tolerant of ambiguity, able to synthesize knowledge within and across disciplines, culturally sophisticated, and ready to work collaboratively in groups made up of individuals from diverse backgrounds.

An education for the global era must engender lifelong habits of body, mind, and heart. It must tend to the social and emotional sensibilities needed for cross-cultural work: empathy and learning with and from others who happen to differ in the race; religion; national, linguistic, or social origin; values; and worldview. They are all our brothers and sisters in the ever more diverse, interconnected, and global human family.

Friedman (2006), The World is Flat, Updated and Expanded Release 2.0. New York: Farrar, Straw & Giroux.