The world is getting flatter, The sky is falling all around (Strange Weather)

by Yule Heibel on October 11, 2005

Thanks to Julie Leung I finally saw a wonderful article that Doc Searls had published in Linux Journal six months ago: Getting Flat, Part 2. Note that this is Part 2; there is a Part 1, subtitled Our Senior Editor digs into Tom Friedman’s new bestseller, from a Linux/open source angle, which is also very good, but from my perspective, Part 2 is a must-read.

Since I typically don’t keep up with techie stuff, I’m not a regular reader of either the Linux Journal or of Doc’s weblog (mea culpa, but there are only so many hours in a day…), which is why it took me six months to find this. But I do wish that there had been enough overlap between people who read me but who also read technology-focussed materials that someone had yanked my ADSL cable and said, “hey!, you gotta read this!” For example, it’s reasonably clear from what I’ve written in the past that I’m intensely interested in matters pertaining to education; that I homeschool (and use public school e-learning, i.e., one of BC’s 9 public distance education schools) to educate my kids; that I’ve written several paeans to John Taylor Gatto (see my numerous references to Gatto on my blog here). It’s also the case that I haven’t been able to suppress a couple of attacks on Thomas Friedman on my blog. Since the American invasion of Iraq in particular, Friedman has evolved into a mouthpiece for the administration’s “make tough” policies, which in turn makes me mistrust everything he has to say in any matter. …In fact, I wonder what’s up with Friedman and “toughness,” given that he enjoins American parents to dispense “tough love” if they want their little tots to stay competitive.

Ok, admittedly I have a jaundiced view of Friedman, and here it is (transparency, full disclosure): Friedman strikes me as someone who doesn’t want to see past his boxed-in nose. The world he describes is a box, he is in a box; ok, so the box is made of flat cardboard, but it’s still folded up over his ears… In Friedman’s universe, standardised tests and metrics and rubrics and competition and team-work and soldiering on are what count. For Friedman, the world might be flat(ter), but that merely means that it is more like it should be: regimented by a competitive globalisation I find regrettable, to say the least. It’s a world where people aren’t confused, where it makes sense that the strong know what to do (and make sure everyone else does it), where leaders are revered if they’re successful, and where success means …more of the same: endless exploitation of resources, steady and relentless accumulation of wealth according to the old models, and vague certainties that the “third world,” if it plays its cards right, will eventually be alright because …hey, it’ll be just like us! Change, in this strange, socially darwinian world, is only good if it results in more of the same. Institutions can’t really be knocked sideways, unless that’s the way to revitalise them. A mentality that never questions society’s corporate and institutional underpinnings is what I detect in Friedman’s lovesong to sexed up, technologically whiz- and gang-banged globalisation. Institutions, meanwhile, can continue to provide the human fodder for this insatiable monstrosity.

Hence, when Friedman gets around to critiquing US schools for not keeping up, for being too soft on those lazy kids, he is reverting to his usual “toughness” fetish to whip some sense into all those saggy bottoms. He wants the schools (the institution of school) and the parents to get “tough,” he wants them to swing the whip and make the naughty children buckle down. C’mon, everyone knows that if you just whack people’s backsides often enough, they’ll eventually get it right, eh? Good god, “the Asians” with their “traditional” reverence for authority and their “unquestioning” work ethic yoked to striverdom are doing it — therefore, ipso facto, we have to as well.

Oh, do we really?

The notion that the institution of school itself might be responsible for the problems we face in education seems to slip off Friedman’s radar screen. Which is where John Taylor Gatto, with his diametrically opposed p.o.v., comes in. Gatto writes at length about the economic function(s) of institutional schooling, but not because he wants us to make those functions more efficient. What Gatto is really concerned about is that by adopting a Prussian militarist model of compulsory public schooling in the 19th century, a model that emphasised obeying orders and fitting in (primarily by succeeding in pre-fab curricula, scoring well on tests, and knocking your seatmate off balance so that you would come out ahead), America began a long slide away from the active literacy of the early republic and the ideals of the Founders. Before compulsory schooling was introduced, America enjoyed a tremendously high literacy rate, a succinct separation of mythology (church) and state, and a climate that encouraged public speaking and debate.

All this has changed very much. And apropos of the climate of public discourse, read the transcript of Al Gore’s recent speech, Gore on the Threat to American Democracy. Read it. (It also meshes nicely with Rob Wipond’s article, Are we becoming easier to dupe?, which I cited yesterday.) One could almost argue that if Gore sees television as a vehicle for democracy’s degradation and the “refeudalisation” of public space, Gatto would probably say that schools prepared us for television in the first place. In schools, children don’t learn the active literacy that 18th century republicans assumed as the basis of democracy. Putting together speeches or dissecting ethics or taking a public role in any weighty sense: there’s no time for that now — the teachers have to make sure the kids are up to speed on the next standardised test instead. Gatto points out that the kids in elite prep schools still learn active literacy, and that this is what gives them an edge in public life. Gatto, in other words, asks after the political meanings of education; Friedman seems to circumscribe them strictly in economic terms (“they’re beating us, quick, work harder!”)

Some might say I’m too hard on Friedman. Well, it’s true: I do dislike his slant. And, ok, this entry wasn’t supposed to be about me or what I think of Mr. Friedman. I wanted to write about how simply yet beautifully Doc Searls manages to write a piece that speaks volumes about Tom Friedman’s understanding (or lack thereof) of out-of-the-box thinking, a piece that tells readers a story about Doc’s own personal educational experiences. Those experiences in turn comment lucidly on the picture Gatto paints of institutional schooling, and unlike the corporate globalised foot soldier of Friedman’s imagination, the protagonist ends up in the creative tinkerer’s IT Garage. Let’s start with the notion of IQ, Doc suggests:

…both Tom [Friedman] and Microsoft continue to believe IQ tests are important ways to measure citizens in a flat world. Because if there’s one thing the world is flattening fast, it’s the old caste system we call The Bell Curve.

Not surprisingly, no company on earth is more vested in the bell curve than Microsoft.

A friend who worked at Microsoft once told me he could describe his employer in two words: more school. He explained that the company is built by and for academic achievers like the two guys who founded the company. (…)

I can save Microsoft a pile of time and money by reporting a fact no school wants to admit, one that will flatten the world far more than any other factor: pretty much everybody is smart. What’s more, they’re all smart in their own ways. [More…]

This bit is really very important, for it points us to an important linkage. In competitive and corporate style globalisation, hierarchies are incredibly important. There’s still “us” and “them,” there’s definitely still a “have” and “have not.” The “haves” armour themselves with credentials and certification; they join the club of “us” where how well you did in school really really matters. We’re back to Gatto again, insofar as Gatto emphasises that schools are training grounds for our inner soldier: shut up and obey orders; don’t think, just obey. As Doc writes, If we want to break free of big company silos and big company thinking, we need to break free of our equally industrial notions about schooling, which are based on the belief that talent and intelligence are rare.” He goes on to cite Gatto, and then asks:

Stop and think for a second here. How much of the world’s best open-source code is being created by people who were trained to write that code in school? How much of it is the product of mentoring and self-education instead? How much of the intelligence behind it is as different as fingerprints?

What if the old industrial schooling system is as threatened by open source as the old proprietary software system? [More…]

In other words, what if open source [non-corporate, non-silo mentality] tinkering, self-teaching, mentoring, and really learning something because one loves to learn it, were to form the basis for a democratic renewal, the way late 18th literacy (active literacy especially) put democratic power within the reach of (white) men in the early years of the Republic? (And eventually women, and African Americans — although it did take an awfully long time…)

Doc tells the reader his own “checkered” school history — an unhappy tale of having to suck it up, except when he could work on things he loved:

At home, I devoured books. I just hated school, hated homework, hated the whole system. Athletics, too, because it was another caste system with a bell curve.


By junior high I was already a ham radio operator and a committed geek. And, like geeks and misfits everywhere, I worked constantly to increase the delta between my soul and the bell curve. In other words, I educated myself, just like Franklin, Edison and the rest of history’s productive misfits. [More…]

He then goes on to chide Friedman — although he also gives him a lot of credit for getting some insights about “flatworld” right (more than I can stand to give — even if objectively, Doc is right and I’m out in left field). He agrees with Friedman that we are living in an increasingly flat world, and that the affordances of information transfer and knowledge sharing hold tremendous potential for “flattening” the world in a truly egalitarian sense. And it’s true that if you’re privileged enough to have a computer and internet access, you have fewer and fewer excuses for being uninformed or unconnected, and since this is a medium that allows multiple channel exchange, you can even learn to speak out more. Not that you can necessarily buy your groceries with this, or single-handedly erase political oppression, but that’s perhaps not the point. Key to Doc’s point is that “… the ability to self-educate is essential in the flat new world,” and therein lies the beauty and simplicity of what I still can’t help but read as a refutation of Friedman’s hugely corporate competitiveness. To the latter’s notion of scarcity based on fear, Doc describes an abundance that comes from people released from fear. I know it pans out in shades of gray (or rainbow colours) vs. black or white, but I’ll take that idealism any day over having my ass whupped by Friedman’s “tough love.”

It’s funny — I kept hearing Marianne Faithful singing Strange Weather every time Friedman’s version of the world getting flatter came up. Hers is a pessimistic take, And he’s the rain that they predicted, / Its the forecast every time. / The rose has died because you picked it / And I believe that brandy’s mine. Yes, all that fear and competition, too: it can drive a person to drink! Oh well, thank god there’s still some lively fun in the garage….

{ 1 comment }

Vince Williams October 22, 2005 at 10:38 pm

I agree wholeheartedly with your point about the degradation of public discourse and the slide into illiteracy by the common people of the U.S. since de Tocqueville’s day.

I was especially struck by your comments about children in the public schools not learning active literacy anymore. I’m sure there are some exceptions, but I think, in general, what you said is very true.

When I read your words, I wondered what you might think of the belief of my neighbor, a Montessori teacher, that black children should be taught to read in “Ebonics”.

I think your commentary deserves a wide hearing. Your expression is forceful and direct, your ideas are well-developed.

Have you considered presenting them in a shorter, more aphoristic style, perhaps in a different venue?

I think the broad Canadian (and the U.S. even more so) public needs to hear your voice, but how many will hear it here?

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