That Used to be Us (Friedman and Mandelbaum)

The title of this book comes from an Obama speech. On November 3, 2010, he said, “It makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us, and Singapore having better airports than us. And we just learned that China now has the fastest supercomputer on Earth – that used to be us.”

This led the co-authors to their subtitle, “How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.” And this is the story they relate, and the arguments they offer (insofar as I could understand them, particularly the ones about banking) make sense. Their mix of practical and idealistic suggestions seems more implausible than they seem to think. They have more confidence in the prospect of, for example, collective action than I am. Still, I hope they’re right. The argument for a viable 3rd party candidate is persuasive.

I read this mostly for its educational angle, and I kept waiting for them to address a question that kept nagging at me as I read. They cite gobs of statistics (both test results and employment records) to argue that schools today are not preparing students for the workforce. Nowhere, however, do they even ask the question about whether that’s what schools are for. Nowhere do they examine the implications (much less suggest any checks and balances) about how such intense vocational preparation would avoid exacerbating the already problematic chasm between social classes and, I would add, races. For example, they cite this job preparation mantra as a mandate for the public schools. And there’s nary a word about independent or religious schools. There’s also an overwhelming focus on the need for greater scientific and technological training. There’s one, one throwaway line in 377 pages about how it’s good for students to study literature and all of that other stuff.

It’s an engaging, frustrating, and important book. You will feel the need to pick up your pen and argue with the authors in the margins. Read it; it will help start an important conversation.

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