Let Them Eat Hot Fudge and Whipped Cream

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3570090206_146894586f.jpgIn Wednesday's New York Times, Tom Friedman posited (yet again) that Americans are losing ground because we are lazy, passive, and/or just plan ignorant.  As is his custom he begins with an anecdote, a supposedly chance encounter with a one time PepsiCo and Kraft Europe executive now laboring in the stony fields of international investment. We learn nothing of this man's personal educational background or his credentials, but we do hear him warn that " education failure is the largest contributing factor to the decline of the American worker's global competitiveness, particularly at the middle and bottom ranges." 

Say what?  There's a growing body of evidence to show that extremely well educated Americans are scrambling for work--some with advanced degrees in science and engineering from the country's most demanding institutions of higher learning.  But wait, education is not enough -- we must hustle, too. Friedman quotes another unnamed "friend" a lawyer whose firm has gone through a series of lay-offs. This friend shares the "interesting" observation that "lawyers who were used to just showing up and having work handed to them were the first to go because with the bursting of the credit bubble, that flow of work just isn't there. But those who have the ability to imagine new services, new opportunities and new ways to recruit work were being retained. They are the new untouchables." 

Who are these untouchables?  Well, certainly not the "average" among us, that great majority of ordinary humans who simply know how to do a job and do it well. "It's all about what chocolate sauce, whipped cream and cherry you can put on top," Friedman concludes. "So our schools have a doubly hard task now -- not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity."

Last time I looked, schools were having a hard enough time teaching kids the basics--now they are expected to "teach" creativity and entrepreneurship? One wonders how Mr. Friedman would have managed as an independent entrepreneur without the power of the Times to back him. But one wonders even more about the reasoning of a commenter who argues that the average American doesn't have a chance in this new global economy, and that only the extraordinary deserve a place in his brave new world.      

(Photo: Flickr/GIHE)

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Ellen Ruppel Shell is a professor and science journalist who teaches at Boston University. She is the author most recently of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. More

Atlantic contributing editor Ellen Ruppel Shell teaches at Boston University, where she co-directs the Graduate Program in Science Journalism. She writes on science, medicine, the media, economics, and sometimes even sports and the arts, and tends to focus on the underlying cultural and societal implications. She is the author most recently of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.
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