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The Greatest Generation

By Debra Dobbins

Tom Friedman is a disciplined writer, so I found it interesting that he did not explain in his column today that The Greatest Generation was a book written by Tom Brokaw.

Brokaw is a retired NBC News reporter and anchor. Published in 1998, his book lauds (praises) men and women born roughly between 1920 and 1935 who fought valiantly in World War II and then used the same courage and resolve at home to build prosperous lives for themselves and their families.

Friedman is a New York Times columnist who reported on the Middle East for many years and wrote five books. He is well known for The World is Flat, a book he alludes (refers) to in the final paragraph of today’s column. I highly recommend this book for students who need to understand the international competition they will face in a computer-driven world.

Perhaps Friedman decided that the phrase has now taken its place in the vernacular (common speech) of educated people. So, when he did not attribute, he might just have been complimenting a fellow reporter.

Friedman’s column and a corresponding political cartoon appear below.

U.S. needs values of Greatest Generation if we are to succeed

I want to share a couple of articles I recently came across that, I believe, speak to the core of what ails America today.

The first was in Newsweek under the ironic headline “We’re No. 11!” Michael Hirsh wrote: “Has the United States lost its oomph as a superpower?” It noted that the U.S.A. ranks 11th in Newsweek’s list of the 100 best countries in the world.

The second piece, which could have been called “Why We’re No. 11,” was by the Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson. Why, he asked, have we spent so much money on school reform in America and have so little to show for it in terms of scalable solutions that produce better student test scores? Maybe, he answered, it is not just because of bad teachers, weak principals or selfish unions.

“The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation,” wrote Samuelson. “Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. ... The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.” Wrong, he said. “Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well.”

Samuelson has a point — and it is a microcosm of a larger problem we have not faced honestly as we dig out of this recession: We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.

Ask yourself: What made our Greatest Generation great? First, the problems they faced were huge and inescapable: the Depression, Nazism and Soviet Communism. Second, the Greatest Generation’s leaders were never afraid to ask Americans to sacrifice. Third, that generation was ready to sacrifice, and pull together, for the good of the country. And fourth, because they were ready to do hard things, they earned global leadership the only way you can, by saying: “Follow me.”

Contrast that with the Baby Boomer Generation. Our big problems are unfolding incrementally — the decline in U.S. education, competitiveness and infrastructure, as well as oil addiction and climate change. Our generation’s leaders never dare utter the word “sacrifice.” Solutions must be painless. Which would you like? A stimulus from Democrats or a tax cut from Republicans?

For a decade we sent our best minds not to make computer chips in Silicon Valley but to make poker chips on Wall Street, while telling ourselves we could have the American dream — a home — without saving and investing, for nothing down. Our message to the world (except for our brave soldiers): “After you.”

So much of today’s debate between the two parties, notes David Rothkopf, a Carnegie Endowment visiting scholar, “is about assigning blame rather than assuming responsibility.”

Rothkopf and I agreed we would get excited about U.S. politics when our debate is between Democrats and Republicans who acknowledge we can’t cut deficits without both tax increases and spending cuts — and then debate which ones and when. Politicians who acknowledge that we can’t compete unless we demand more of our students — and then debate longer school days versus school years. Leaders who acknowledge that bad parents who don’t read to their kids and do indulge them with video games are as responsible for poor test scores as bad teachers — and debate what to do about that.

China and India have been catching up to us, not only because they now have free markets like we do, education like we do, access to capital and technology like we do, but, most importantly, values like our Greatest Generation had.

In a flat world where everyone has access to everything, values matter more than ever. Right now the Hindus and Confucians have more Protestant ethics than we do, and as long as that is the case we’ll be No. 11!

The New York Times




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