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Fu ba guo san dai is Chinese for “wealth doesn’t make it past three generations.” According to Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, it’s currently what the Chinese are saying about the United States. Just as distressing, many Chinese believe America is in decline. I talked a little about this book last month, and there’s a little more I’d like to explore.

Whether you buy into Friedman’s book or not, there’s a quiet crisis going on in America today. We’re decidedly past the industrial age and now have entered the information age. The unique skills of the workforce that made America strong have been commoditized. Today, you might interpret the Chinese saying to mean the skills and knowledge needed to maintain wealth don’t make it past three generations…maybe not even one or two.

We saw this commoditization occur within our own college. Back in the days of the spread of computer technology, ICC’s computer programming and networking classes had waiting lists almost as long as those for our registered nursing programs. Today students are reluctant to take these courses because so much of the work is outsourced to India or even China. The elite computer skills of the ’90s have become the basic skills of the new millennium.

What can we do to support the students who are growing up in America now? Friedman believes we need to get back to fundamentals. Children need to read, write, and spend more time on math, science, and engineering. He suggests our children spend too much time engaged in new media—video games, television, mp3 players, computers—and too little on the activities that develop critical thinking. But even that’s not enough.

To survive in the future, our children will need to be well educated, adaptable, and able to learn new skills and concepts throughout their lifetimes. It’s not enough today to know something—students of the future will have to know how they came to know it. They’ll need to learn how to learn. That means changing the way we look at education. Friedman suggests we need to teach our children how to “slog through all the fundamentals” as well as “stick with an experiment even when it fails the first 20 times.” Students will need incredible work ethics to keep up with others within the developing world.

Of particular interest to us at ICC is Friedman’s appraisal of the next step in public education. While the industrial age was fueled by America’s insistence that all children receive a high school education, Friedman believes that the information age will be fueled by those who have at least a two-year college education. He urges America to focus on greater subsidies and support for education from early childhood throughout at least the first two years of college. And once these students are well educated, they need to develop their right brains or the ability to think creatively. This approach, according to Friedman, won’t guarantee American superiority, but it will help it stay even with the developing countries.

Right now the education of future Americans receives little attention in the political arena. At the same time countries like Russia, India, and China are clearly articulating their desire to unseat the U.S. as the leader in education. It’s time we stop worrying about leaving no child behind and start worrying about how we’ll help our children get ahead in a frenetically competitive global economy. IBI

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