Wednesday, February 1, 2012

BOOK REPORT -- Should be required reading for ALL Americans

I'm about halfway through what I believe is one of the most important books in the last several years: That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Created and How We Can Come Back, by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum.

When I saw a review of this work in an issue of the New Yorker magazine late last year, I immediately put it on my library hold queue. Even though I had to wait nearly three months to finally secure a copy, I can now see why it was so long in coming to me. And it's worth the wait.

This book is both alarming and encouraging at the same time. It goes beyond dry recital of data, hand-wringing, or blame. Friedman and Mandelbaum, do, however, call for us, individually and collectively, to take responsibility for our parts in the current debacle. "Our problem," they say, "isn't China; it is us."

My last blog was about themes of complacency and entitlement. The authors of That Used to be Us echo these issues. They site complacency as one of the main reasons we Americans are not galvanized for change. Based on our comfortable history, many believe "average" and "good enough" standards are still going to sustain us in an increasingly competitive world, "flattened" by the "hyper-connectivity" of the internet.

Friedman and Mandelbaum bring up many good points about how to resuscitate our gasping economy. It really comes down to a harnessing of digital technology, reordering of our budget, wise environmental stewardship, responsible political initiatives, and a restoration of old-fashioned educational rigor.

Drawing upon the roles in my life as student, parent, and educator, I'm especially interested in the latter. Like the "It takes a village to raise a child" sentiment, the authors maintain that several sectors should have a stake in the rebuilding of American education. It's been a typical tendency to point solely to the parents, or the teachers, for the responsibility, when also involving political leaders, business owners, and local communities gives more strength to the effort.

Creativity is a major route to economic revitalization, per the authors. They break creativity (the ability to innovate) into three major components -- critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. The authors explore these in great detail, especially their influence when combined in the classroom with the traditional "3 R's." The chapters on education also discuss the role of hiring, retaining, and rewarding teachers and principals who truly inspire creativity. Part of the students' experience should be not just encouraging successful project outcomes, but also the building of confidence through failed attempts, as well. Future workers who have been able to learn that "failure" is not an end, but a step in the overall creative process, will have courage to persevere in complex problem-solving.

What could this mean for us "older folks?" Friedman and Mandelbaum spend a lot of the book discussing the importance of our nation sharpening its skills in math and science. For one thing, those of us who are waiting for a cure, or at least effective treatment, of Alzheimer's, could hope that a near-future generation of researchers in one of our American hospitals would find it. We seniors will also continue to need adequate housing, transportation, and also all manner of social and political initiatives that will not just extend the length of our lives, but enhance its quality, as well. Remember, it's not everyone's dream to sit in a lounge chair, but that many want to continue to live, love, and work--going full speed ahead, continuing to make our own contributions to society. It's up to a new generation--and ours, too--to have the resources of brilliance to solve these problems. Let's all come together in one strong, well-orchestrated chorus.

So, again, I encourage everyone to give That Used to be Us a look. Perhaps our presidential candidates, from whatever parties, also need their own copies.

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