Friday, June 1, 2007

Musings on the state of education in America…

as told from the perspective of a "twenty-something"

I repeatedly find myself coming back to the words of Thomas L. Friedman’s masterful work The World is Flat. In one particular chapter, The Quiet Crisis, he discusses visiting one of his daughters at Yale and chatting with some of her university friends. I found the words of one of these friends, Eric Stern, a student in his early twenties who was working on his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, with an expertise in nanotechnology, most insightful.

For starters, he said, “look around at this table,” motioning to the five Yale undergraduate women. “I am sitting at a table eating pizza with all these smart women, and it never occurred to them to do science.” They were all in the humanities. Why? I asked Stern. There were a variety of reasons, and they applied to both young women and men in America today, he said. To begin with, “People want to do stuff that is fun. But there is no fun in algebra or memorizing the multiplication tables. But [those fundamentals] eventually become freshman chemistry. And that’s boring too. You can’t say anything good about it. So it’s not until you get to the senior level of advanced classes that you can start to have fun. But you need to have acquired all these fundamentals beforehand… and getting those fundamentals is not fun… The culture now is geared toward having fun.”


Stern said he believed that American culture is still producing some of the most creative scientists and engineers, though other societies are closing the gap due to their dedication to teaching fundamentals and their newfound interest in instilling more creative approaches to education in their systems.


“Are we going to be trading our stuff, or China’s stuff?” he asked. “I want to make sure we are trading our stuff.” But that gets back to the need for our people to have sound fundamentals. So much of science and engineering is about work ethic—the willingness not only to slog through all the fundamentals but also to stick with an experiment even when it fails the first twenty times, said Stern.

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of The Twenty First Century (Release 2.0), Thomas L. Friedman, 2006, (pp 337-339)

At the time that Friedman spoke to Stern, he “was speeding his way through graduate school, working on a government-funded project using nanotechnology to detect various toxins in the air, which could have wide application in the war on terrorism.” It’s no wonder Friedman said “Eric is precisely the sort of young person we want the American education system to keep churning out.”

This is just one concept in this phenomenal book that I have shared with my own children. Doing so generally leads to truly engaging dialogue... "discovery" thinking of the very best variety. I want them to understand why sometimes, work is not about having fun; it’s about doing what you need to do now so that you are able do something you really enjoy later. We talk about how maybe, not only will this something that they choose to do, have significant value to them personally but how it may enable them to achieve something even bigger than they are. In the case of Eric Stern, this something greater could be the war on terrorism, for example.

As young as my children are, they really do get it. They have to pay their dues. Work ethic matters. Delayed gratification has value. They can master the fundamentals without giving up what inspires them or allows them to be creative. So, in this blogger's house, you won't hear "finish your vegetables, there are children in this world who are starving" but more often "finish your homework, because there are children in this world who are starving for your job."

This is "enabling" of the most productive kind. And by enabling I refer to "providing the means or opportunity that makes something desireable possible". This is exactly the kind of "enabling" I want for my children. Yes, as strange as it may sound, I want to be an "enabler".

Editor’s Note: Dr. Erin Stern received his Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Yale University in 2007. You can read more about him here:
If you have not already had the pleasure of reading The World Is Flat, you can read book reviews at and

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