“This is a book of exceptional importance, written on a sweeping scale with remarkable clarity by two of our most gifted thinkers. . . . It should be read by policymakers and every American concerned about our country’s future.” Library Journal
When I first saw That Used to be Us, I didn’t want to pick it up because I have approximately 70 books (but who’s counting? 🙂 ) at home on my shelves, on my Kindle, or on my iPad that I haven’t gotten to. In addition, I’ve already read Friedman’s other two books on the subject—The World is Flat and Hot, Flat and Crowded. (Click here for review.) But I started finding the kind of recommendation quoted above. And then our principal recommended it so, I figured I’d go ahead.
That Used to be Us is a very worthwhile read. I want to try a bit of an unusual review of it here for two reasons. First, some teachers are looking for serious non-fiction for students and have mentioned The World is Flat. However, that book is seven years old, and already a bit dated. (No, the US intervention in the Middle East didn’t pan out the way Friedman predicted.) If teachers are going to recommend this type of non-fiction outside reading as students all enroll in ERWC courses, it would be better to start with the newest version.
Second, I know that all the teachers don’t have the time to read the book, but it would be nice to at least have an overview of it. So—this is a detailed review with links to other documents related to topics within That Used to be Us that might interest you.
First, if you happened to have read The World is Flat, and you want to cherry pick sections of this book that weren’t covered there, Read Sections II (The Educational Challenge) and III (The War on Math and Physics). If you read Hot, Flat and Crowded, you could skip Section III, as it is the ‘hot’ (global climate change) part; however, That Used to Be Us is up-to-date and more scary.
Four copies of That Used to Be Us are available at the Ontario City Library, so it can easily be picked up at COHS.
OK—here’s a look at Part I:
Part I: The Diagnosis:
While we are sleepwalking, China is using ideas we came up with to overtake our place as a world leader. We’ve gotten used to living in an entirely dysfunctional state while China gets things done. Many anecdotal examples of this are given, including incidents from one of the author’s visit to China. The authors quote plenty of folks to drive home the frustration. (“We are nearly complete in our evolution from Lewis and Clark into Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam.”) A big part of the problem is that Americans don’t understand how urgent the situation is (and other sections of the book detail proofs that it is urgent), so that urgency must be created before it’s too late. Americans used the next generation’s money to fight terrorism while “indulging ourselves with tax cuts and cheap credit.”
The solution is not to become more like China, but to “become more like ourselves.” By this, the authors mean that unlike China, which lacks freedom, has widespread corruption, horrible pollution and an educational system that inhibits creativity, we need to make our democratic system work with “focus, moral authority, seriousness, collective action, and stick-to-itiveness.”
A second problem, ironically, is that the U.S. no longer has the Soviet Union as a Cold War enemy. The death of communism in many countries has enabled a much greater percentage of the world’s population to reach for the American dream—and so, all these people are new competitors in a global market. We all compete with them for jobs. Our children need to be educated to compete with them for jobs.
There are four core challenges to America in the post-Cold War era: adapt to globalization, adjust to the technology revolution, cope with soaring budget deficits (growing demands on government), and manage rising energy consumption and climate threats. If we can’t do this, it will not only affect Americans but could be disastrous for the whole world as there is no country capable of stepping in as the world’s leader. This is the crux of the book. If the authors can make you understand this, you will pay attention to their solutions.
The solution depends on five pillars that are a partnership between the public and private sectors and will promote economic growth: provide public education for more Americans; build and modernize infrastructure; keep doors open to immigration; provide government support for basic research and development; and regulate private economic activity.
The authors detail successful public-private partnerships over the history of the United States. Examples are given from both ends of the political spectrum. They assert that the two camps no longer pay attention to our history, and this may be the death of our future. “Liberals blame all of America’s problems on Wall Street and big business while advocating a more equal distribution of an ever shrinking economic pie. Conservatives assert that the key to our economic future is simple: close our eyes, click our heels three times, and say ‘tax cuts,’ and the pie will miraculously grow.” Yes, there’s something here to offend everyone—which is good, because it challenges the status quo, as it hopes to.
Next up: Part II—the section on education—the largest and, according to the authors, the most important section of the book.