A Summary on an Evening with Thomas Friedman

 I went to an event on Wednesday, May 30, 2012 hosted by Advance Illinois, the Gorter Family Foundation and the North Chicago Community Partners in collaboration with Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science and my school, Trinity International University, which featured a lecture from New York Times Foreign Affairs Columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman. The event was to discuss education in America. This is a summary of the night with some of my thoughts about the event.

I have been reading articles from Thomas Friedman for years. I’ve always appreciated his perspective, clarity of thought, and prophetic voice. When I received the invite to go to an event to hear him talk about education in America, I knew that it would be a date night for my wife and me. She, like myself, has been a Friedman devotee for quite some time.

The event was hosted at Rosalind Franklin University. I knew about Rosalind Franklin University because a friend from college is a Medical student there. It’s a school of about 1,800 students. The University is located in North Chicago. I thought it was interesting that Thomas Friedman would be talking about education in the city of North Chicago. First of all, North Chicago’s name is somewhat of a misnomer. It is located north of Chicago by about 40 miles. The demographics of the city are not the typical Midwestern city, either. The racial makeup of the city is 36.3% white, 29.1% African American, 27.2% Hispanic or Latino, 2.9% of two or more races, 2.9% Asian, and 2.6% other races. That is not your typical city. Nor is the fact that 60.5% of the city is made up of males, the median residential age is 22.8 (Illinois average is 42.2), and the per capita income is $16,946. The unemployment rate as of March 2012 was 15.9%. That’s saying something when a good percentage of the city is made up of military families located at the naval facility within the city.

This is a city that is located right next to Lake Forest, Illinois. Lake Forest is nothing like North Chicago. Some of the Midwest’s wealthiest people live there. The racial makeup of Lake Forest is 90.2% white, 4.6% Asian, 2.8% Hispanic or Latino, 1.2% two or more races, 1.0% African American, and .3% other races. Their per capita income is $90, 875. Quite a bit different than North Chicago. And these two cities are literally next to each other. There is quite a bit of history behind both of these cities, even within the context of education. I’m sure it would not take long to find some of the history online.

What perhaps is most relevant, however, is the education systems in these cities. The graduation rate in North Chicago in 2011 was 50.2%. In Lake Forest, it was 94.2%. The education system in the community of North Chicago is worth looking at. That is why I found it very interesting that Thomas Friedman would be speaking about education in America while standing within the city limits of North Chicago. I know that the education system in North Chicago is struggling. My first year here at Trinity I volunteered as a tutor at Neal Math and Science Academy. I’ve talked with these students. I’ve spent time with these students. In fact, it was one of the first times that I realized first hand that not everyone has the same opportunities. Life is not equal for all people. Everyone does not have the same access to good education, jobs, or health care.

I was told in an email before coming that we needed to come early because they were expecting 800-1000 people at the event. I had no idea that so many people would be interested in this topic or seeing Thomas Friedman. It is usually only my deeply devoted New York Times reading friends that even know who Thomas Friedman is. The best thing I can usually get from someone is that they’ve heard of one of his books. So I figured the lecture hall would be filled with about 800 young, diverse intellectuals, interested in learning about how to change and impact our education systems in America. When my wife and I got there I was surprised at what I saw: 800 middle aged to elderly husbands and wives. And they were all white. Well, nearly all of them. Probably at least 90.2% white.

As we walked in we were given notecards to write questions on that Mr. Friedman could potentially answer during the Q&A session at the end of the evening. After greeting a couple of faculty members and the president of my university, we found our seats toward the front of the lecture hall. The man sitting next to Sarah leaned over before the start of the event,

“Have you ever heard him talk before?”

“No, we haven’t,” my wife replied, “but we’re looking forward to it.”

“Oh, he’s great! I don’t always agree with everything he says, but he’s great!”

Personally, I was still a bit surprised by the demographics of those in attendance. Surely the average age was in the 60’s.  Nevertheless, I was excited to hear what Thomas Friedman had to say.

My wife asked, “Do you think he ever gets nervous before speaking?”

“At an event like this? Probably not. There’s nothing special about any of us here. This is probably easy for him.”

At the beginning of his talk he mentioned that he used to get nervous before speaking at events like this, but after being on Jeopardy, a place where nearly any mistake could turn into a “YouTube moment” he feels that he can do anything now.

Most of his discussion came from his most recent book That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back that he co-authored with Michael Mandelbaum, the American Foreign Policy professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. He said that he often starts the day with a phone call with Michael Mandelbaum. He starts the day talking about the world and ends it by talking about America. Perhaps the biggest world issue is America.

Mr. Friedman wanted to make sure at the start that people realized that he does not believe that our future is all used up. He described himself as a “paranoid optimist.” The future has not been all used up, but we cannot just assume that the American Dream will be passed on.

He gave the story of a trip to China in which he met in a convention center that had not existed only a few years before. A city that used to take hours to get to by bus and other means, but now only takes a few minutes by high-speed train. The building he met in had been built in merely a few months. He contrasted this to the escalators that had been “under repair” for nearly the same amount of time in his hometown of Bethesda, Maryland. Taking a quotation from a newspaper about the slow-paced repairs Mr. Friedman mentioned what underlies the problem, “People have sort of gotten used to it.”

What World Are We Living In?

It seems clear that Thomas Friedman wants us to wake up to the reality of the world around us. That seemed to be his main thrust throughout the night. The most important question we should start every day with is “What world are we living in?” The problem is that no one seems to be asking that question. Instead, when we turn on the news we have to hear about people claiming that Barack Obama is not an American. Really? How is that helpful? Where is that taking us?


He talked about how before writing That Used to Be Us, he decided to take his book on globalization, The World is Flat, written in 2004, off the shelf. When he turned to the index to look up Facebook there was nothing there. Facebook wasn’t even a part of the discussion. Neither was Twitter or YouTube. None of these were. And that book was a book talking about how we’re all connected. But so much has changed since 2004. Friedman does not say we are simply connected. We are now “hyper-connected.” All the information that we have on what is going on in Syria is not from professional news organizations. It is from YouTube. That is where we are now getting our information.

Average is Over.

Friedman claimed that the age of average is over. If you are average, you will not receive an average wage. You must be unique in some kind of way. You must stand out from others. People these days are only hiring if they absolutely have to, so we have to show that we are absolutely necessary. He claimed that Woody Allen’s adage of “90 percent of life is just showing up” does not work anymore. To just show up is not good enough.

He mentioned Grinnell college, a small college in Grinnell, Iowa in which 90% of the applications are from China, and 43% of those applicants have scored a perfect 800 on their math portion of the SAT. This is in Grinnell, Iowa. His point is that we are not just competing with our neighbor down the street for a spot in college, we are competing with students all the way across the world. Friedman stresses statistics like this because we must realize that if something does not change China will “eat our lunch.”

We Have to Be Creative.

If anyone has read anything by Thomas Friedman probably not much of this is new. But just because we have heard it before does not make it not true. I think one of his most important soapboxes he has is about being creative. We have to think about how we are nurturing creativity. He probably could have talked about what this looks like specifically in our schools, but throughout the entire evening Mr. Friedman was very broad in his discussion. The challenge is to for us to be creative. We need to be not only good critical thinkers, but inventive and reinventive on the job. We need employees that are present all the time, looking for news ways to innovate their own job.

What Do We Tell Our Kids?

He said that a common question he gets is, “What do we tell our kids?” We want them to be creative. We want them to be successful in this changing world. What do we tell them? He suggests we tell our kids four things:

1)    Think like an immigrant.

An immigrant realizes that everything could be taken from them at any time unless they stand out. They are the true paranoid optimists. They moved here because they believe that whatever is here is better. They are hard workers.

2)    Think like an artisan

Artisan’s took such pride in their work that they carved their initials into their products. We should live each day and take such pride in our work that we would “carve our initials into it.”

3)    Think like a starter-upper

We must always be innovative. Reengineering. We can never think of ourselves as finished. We must be creative.

4)    Think like a restaurant waitress

He gave the example of eating breakfast with a friend at his favorite diner in Minnesota. When the waitress came and delivered their food she said, “I gave you extra fruit.” She was thinking entrepreneurly in her own little world. We must be thinking that way in whatever area of influence we have.

With that, he ended the main discussion. It was clear during the Q&A session that the moderator wanting him to give more specifics as to how it related to education in America. But it was clear that he had not really come to give specifics about how this could actually be played out in North Chicago, or even Lake Forest for that matter. He simply said that the below average needs to be brought up to average and the average need to rise to above average. That takes innovation. That takes creativity.

He mentioned about how technology is changing the classroom. People can get a certificate from Stanford, learning from the world’s top professors, for only $50 these days. All they have to do is stream the lectures on their computer.

To me it is clear that he still believes firmly in the American Dream. If you work hard enough, good things will happen. Of course there is some truth to that. He also believes that if you just pump enough money into the education system, things will change.

Granted, he did talk about how the problem of education in America is a collective problem. He said we need better students, parents, teachers, and neighbors. All of us are at fault. Perhaps parents more than most, though. He said that it is not all the teachers’ fault in America.

But the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality is the mirage of success for many in this type of community. It sounds good, but is it really true if not everyone has the same access to a decent education system?

I did agree with his brief statement about the upcoming election. Both Obama and Romney are not really exhibiting a vision for America. They are not talking about how the United States fits in in this global age – in this age of hyper-connectivity. They are not asking the question “What world are we living in?”

The category of politics in America is being killed by our own politicians. He said that all congress is anymore is a whoremonger dealing with legal bribes. We have killed the category of politics in America, and in our two-party system we have turned politics into entertainment, into a sport.

As people raised their 3×5 notecards with their questions on them, I think it dawned on my wife and I at the same time about how ironic it was. Here we were sitting in a lecture about how if we are going to progress and move ahead in this country we have to be creative, innovative, reengineering and we were using 3×5 cards to ask questions. It was inefficient and ineffective.

I eventually thought of a question and held it up, waiving it around until someone came down the isle to take it from me. What did I ask?

“What do you think about using notecards to ask questions instead of Twitter?”

I would have loved to hear his response, but I’m not sure the card even made it to the podium in time.

Published by Andrew

a ragamuffin dad planting some sequoias

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