time to increasingly realistic but generally educationally hollow video games). Over 40% of America’s 4- to 6-year-olds have their own television sets in their bedrooms. In the case of their older brothers and sisters, the fraction approaches 70%.
When MIT made the materials it uses in its courses available free of charge on the Internet, well over half the users were outside the United States. Roy Singham, CEO of ThoughtWorks, which has operations around the world, observes, “When you’re in college drinking beer and watching the Super Bowl, your counterpart in China is on his fourth book.”
Could it be that most of America’s parents and students “just don’t get it”? That question, as far as students are concerned, was actually addressed in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 1998/99. When it comes to self-perception, American youth truly excel. In fact, it was no contest. US high-school seniors ranked number 1 among the 20 participating nations in agreeing that they were doing well in mathematics and number 3 in agreeing that they were doing well in science. The problem is that the same group of students finished 18th in the mathematics examination and 17th in the science examination. As my young son once announced on the opening day of yet another soccer season, “This year we’re really gonna’ get ‘em; last year we were too overconfident!” Indeed, it seems that at least when it comes to science and mathematics, America’s youth rank considerably higher in confidence than in competence.
Tom Friedman, writing in The Earth Is Flat, takes a somewhat more critical perspective. “Mathematics and science,” he says, “are the keys to innovation and power in today’s world.” He goes on to say that “American parents had better understand that the people who are eating their kids’ lunch in mathematics are not resting on their laurels.” He describes a conversation with his own daughters that began, “Girls, when I was growing up, my parents used to say to me, ‘Tom, finish your dinner. People in China and India are starving!’ My advice to you is: ‘Girls, finish your homework. People in China and India are starving … for your jobs.’”
There is yet another critical ingredient of workforce quality: motivation—the drive to apply one’s talents. This is seldom mentioned in most competitiveness debates; generalizations tend to be unfair to that not insignificant segment of the workforce that is highly motivated and possessed of a strong work ethic. But, as IBM’s Nicholas Donofrio, puts it, “The attitude I see in Estonia, Mexico, Brazil, China, Latvia—they’re hungrier than we are.” Employers in many of those countries take the “default” position vividly expressed by former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi: “If you are not fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.” My own experiences in visiting over 100 countries