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Education and the Global Contest for Brains

May 11, 2010

Education and The Global Contest for Brains

May 10, 2010

By Joe Rothstein

Cisco, the digital networking company, is currently running a TV ad that shows elementary school kids in the U.S. and those in China sharing an educational moment via widescreen telecasting.

That’s so last century.

There’s so much more happening in education these days than dedicated private TV networks.

Anyone who read the April 28 edition of the New York Times received a whole news section under the heading “Free and easy Downloadable Education.” And it wasn’t about no-name educational interlopers. No, the section pointed us toward uncounted thousands of Internet courses from MIT, the University of California, Yale, and others.

It’s all there for the taking. The classes that come with $25,000 and up tuition price tags if you attend them on campus can be downloaded free. That’s F-R-E-E.

But isn’t everyone too busy twittering to bother with all of this stuffy stuff? Apparently not. The Times describes a University of California class (Biology 131) that’s been viewed nearly 1.5 million times on YouTube. In December, ITunes U surpassed the 100 million download mark with courses it hosts.

Here’s another surprising piece of information from the Times article: 69% of those downloading Yale courses are independent learners, not associated with any school or program—-just people interested in learning the subject matter. This seems to be the pattern for all school programs. Only a small percentage of users are other professors, trying to check out the competition or pick up new ideas.

(check below for a few free courseware sites)

You seldom see or hear about it in the news, but we’re in the midst of a worldwide educational revolution. And it undoubtedly will have more impact on the decades just ahead than any of the other “revolutions” we’re experiencing today.

Try this for a frame of reference.

Estimates are that in the 1800s hardly 1% of the world’s population could read. That was the century in which the U.S. led the world toward a system of compulsory education for children.

Today the UN estimates that only one out of five adults worldwide is illiterate. Stated another way, fewer adults are illiterate today than there were when UN tracking began back in 1957—even though world population has doubled since then. Think of it. During the past 50 years more than 3 billion people have become literate. And the trend is accelerating.

China, which had little that could pass for a modern educational system 50 years ago, will graduate 600,000 engineers this year from its own universities. The University of Hawaii’s East West Center is training 10,000 Chinese to become school principals. And Chinese education has become so attractive that for the first time this year more foreign students are studying in China than the Chinese are sending abroad.

China recognizes what’s at stake in a knowledge-rich world. It’s making huge investments in building what it hopes will be world-class universities. A lot of other countries are also aspiring to be in the big leagues of education. Here’s the vision statement of Singapore’s National University:

“NUS will be a globally-oriented university, in the distinguished league of the world’s leading universities. A key node in global knowledge networks, NUS will have distinctive expertise and insights relating to Asia.”

Ben Wildavsky, a journalist and scholar at Brookings, has compiled some serious research about all this and published it in a new book, The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World.

Nations we’ve never considered to be fountainheads of learning are running hard to catch up. And in doing it, they’re following the model of the multi-national corporations, importing brains, talent and know-how from those who have it. There’s hardly a major U.S. or British university that doesn’t have something going, somewhere on a foreign campus.

One example: Northwestern University and Carnegie Mellon both have branches at Qatar’s shiny new university, which also happens to the region’s first co-educational university. Another example: Saudi Arabia’s new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology’s campus is being shared by Cornell, Stanford, Texas A&M and Oxford.

U.S. universities lead everyone’s rankings as the best in the world and house 70% of the Nobel Prize winners for advanced research. U.S. schools continue to be magnets for top students from all continents. But it’s clear from Wildavsky’s study that the competition is getting more aggressive.

You can look at this positively, for how it should raise aspirations and living standards around the world and contribute to the pool of human knowledge. And you also can look at this with concern. As Wildavsky points out, in the late 19th century Americans flocked to Germany which had he first modern research universities. Now, little more than 100 years later, the quality of Germany’s universities has plummeted – and its schools are copying the U.S. model.

The X factor is how technology is changing knowledge and education, making it accessible even to those who attend no university. When today’s grade schoolers reach university age, will bricks and mortar institutions be as important as they are today? Will the new kids on the block even been training for jobs we can barely envision? Who would have thought 15 years ago that a person could make a living in an area such as search technology?

In all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear. If the U.S. is going to keep up in the knowledge race it has to continue supporting the system that took us to the top. Not just so we can keep chanting, “we’re number one!” but so that we can continue to thrive in this world economic environment and the ones a few years down the road that no one can foresee.

**A few web sites where you can download educational courses: , connexions , Opencourseware Consorium , ITunes U and

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at


A Few Thoughts About Aliens From Space, Aliens on Earth, and A Cookbook About Eating People

May 3, 2010

The late Carl Sagan, with his academic work, his popular books and his TV series, was an influential force in astrophysics promoting the hunt for extraterrestrial life. A friend of mine, also a noted scientist, once chided Sagan about this. “Carl,” he warned in a letter, “don’t you realize that when beings from a superior culture encounter those of an inferior one they often eat them?”

My friend could have been thinking of a 1962 episode of Rod Serling’s TV series The Twilight Zone where aliens land on earth with outward appearances of coming in peace and friendship. They even have a book, written in their own alien language, entitled “To Serve Man.” Humans are thrilled with all of this until they discover that “To Serve Man” actually is a cook book.

I was reminded of these things the other day by two current news items.

Stephen Hawking, like my friend years earlier, is now warning against intensifying the search for life beyond the stars. “If aliens visit us,” he says on a new Discovery Channel documentary, “the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

The other current news story is Arizona’s enactment of a law that makes everyone who looks Hispanic guilty of something until proven innocent.

For most of my life the word “alien” has described creatures much like the cute little guy in “ET,” or the transfigurative beings that live where Star Trek’s “Enterprise” dares to venture. In other words, “alien” has related to the extraterrestrial. But now, with common current usage, “alien” has come to describe some of those who actually walk among us.

This hasn’t always been our history.

When the largely Anglo and western European culture of the U.S. made room for refugees from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe and Asia the newcomers were not exactly greeted with open arms, contrary to our misremembered romantic visions of those days. The emigrees were called a lot of names and suffered a lot of indignities because of their differentness for a generation or two. But I don’t recall anyone grouping the Irish or the Italians under the name “aliens.”

The Hispanic migration is different for a number of reasons. First and foremost is that there are potentially so many of them, and they are within walking distance. Many worry that the wholesale transfer of Hispanic culture to the U.S. could markedly alter the very character of the nation.

Stephan Hawking is right when he warns that cultural encounters often work out badly for the natives. Look at all of the examples we already have on our own planet. The American Indians lost their land, their lives, their livelihood, their freedom and their culture. So did the peoples who once ruled Central and South America. Contact with the “old world” wiped out the Incas, the Mayas and other strong and rich cultures that had endured for centuries. You can certainly make the same case for the dozens of tribal cultures of Africa and Central Asia.

Even China, the longest continuous civilization on earth, has needed 200 years to get its mojo back after the more advanced West decided to camp on Chinese territory.

But here’s the difference with the Hispanic “threat” now circling U.S. borders. Those from Mexico, and Central and South America are not arriving as conquerors. For the most part these are hungry people. They hunger for a chance to get ahead in life. They hunger for education, for basic freedoms…for the same type of lives most Americans enjoy.

And this migration isn’t just today’s news. For a century or more wealthy U.S. agriculture interests have been trading on Hispanic hunger to exploit those who would work their farms and orchards for pennies a day. Over the years Hispanic immigrants have become what yesterday’s European immigrants once were: our day laborers, our housekeepers, our non-union factory workers—-our servant class.

Just as other immigrant waves before them evolved into dedicated U.S. patriots, immigrant Hispanics are following the same pattern. They, like their predecessors, appreciate what freedom and opportunity are all about—-more so than those who have never known life without them.

It’s never been easy for immigrants, whatever their background, to integrate into the mainstream U.S. workforce and culture. But the U.S. is one of the only countries on earth that has given them the opportunity to try. And this openness unquestionably has made the U.S. a far richer country. Most of the great business, labor, cultural, philanthropic , military and other leaders the U.S. venerates today trace their roots to immigrant boats that arrived here not so long ago.

But the Hispanics don’t come in boats. That’s one strike against them.

Another is that their time in our history also happens to coincide with a time when we’re engaged in a stupid border drug war, a war that can easily be ended with enactment of sane drug control policies. But our politicians are too gutless to do that, just as they are too gutless to enact reasonable immigration policies. So instead of having a rational system to control immigration we have a bizarre situation where every would-be day laborer and housekeeper is suspected of being a narco killer.

For all kinds of reasons, many of those getting elected to influential government positions these days have gone kind of nuts about governing. This infection will undoubtedly run its course over time, but for now “immigrants” have become “aliens.” And aliens, as we all know from “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” can be dangerous—causing otherwise reasonable people to arm themselves with guns and baseball bats.

These newcomers from across the border will ultimately prevail, of course, despite current highwire emotions. They will prevail by casting ballots in free elections. That prospect doesn’t alarm me as a threat to the U.S. or its history of taking in all those who believe in hard work and freedom.

Hispanic “aliens” don’t worry me. But I will be concerned if I ever encounter anyone with funny ears carrying a book entitled, “To Serve Man.”

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Goldman and the Sacking of Capitalism

April 29, 2010

They called themselves Masters of the Universe. What we’re learning is that they didn’t live in the same universe as the rest of us.

Not only were they in a place alien to those without a Wall Street address, they didn’t, and still don’t, speak the same language.

I just sat through an eternity of grilling of Goldman Sachs’ executives who couldn’t understand simple questions of ethics, morality, or duty to trusting clients. The senators who questioned them were exasperated, accusing them of what on the surface seemed like stonewalling. After a while you realized it wasn’t so much stonewalling as a failure to communicate.

The Goldman people just couldn’t see anything wrong with hyping mortgage related products to their clients as good investments and then betting that those same products would fail.

Daniel Sparks, the former head of Goldman’s mortgage department, was asked that specific question: shouldn’t you have disclosed that Goldman believed the market was about to tank and was betting against it? After a number of attempts at trying to understand the question he said “no.”

When asked whether he thought this type of trading should be regulated, Joshua Birnbaum, who managed the trading process for Goldman during the go-go years prior to the crash, responded only that it was an “interesting” idea.

Twelve times Committee Chairman Senator Carl Levin referred to an internal Goldman memo calling one its mortgage packages a “shitty deal,” and tried in vain to get any of the witnesses to admit that pushing the Goldman sales force to sell it might have been unethical.

A couple of weeks ago I sat through a similar performance by no less than Alan Greenspan, former Treasury Secretary and Citibank Chairman Robert Rubin, and key Citigroup executives. Far from apologizing for anything they might have done to contribute to the meltdown they professed little understanding of why they might even have been considered suspects.

At the Goldman hearing Missouri Senator Clair McCaskill kept referring to the markets made by Goldman as “gambling casinos” and the people who managed them as “bookies.” A day earlier, Banking Chairman Chris Dodd gave an impassioned floor speech equating the situation as a robbery during which people coming back from a trip found they had lost everything.

But I think the alternative universe analogy is much closer to what we’re really up against.

This alternative universe is far larger and more dangerous than a few clueless investment bankers. It really involves much of present day capitalism itself, along with academic, government and media enablers.

For many years MBA schools have been pumping out the best and brightest with singular ambitions to go to Wall Street and make fast fortunes. The idea was to use modern tools to create “instruments” that would accelerate profits.

One of those “instruments”—-in fact, the most widely used of those instruments prior to the market collapse—was euphemistically called a “synthetic” credit default swap. In plain English, this was a bet on whether the market would go up or down. It provided no capital for mortgages, no financing for business, no useful purpose of any kind. It was, pure and simple, a bet.

At the time of the market collapse the amount of money bet in the “synthetic” market was ten times or more the amount backing mortgages themselves. And it got worse. Bettors took out “insurance” that their bets would win. Who insured those bets? Most notably companies like AIG. Who was placing the bets? Banks. Pension funds. Cities and states and whole countries looking to pick up more return on their loose cash than they could get from traditional investments.

All of this created an alternative universe, where greed replaced good sense and wealth that might have gone to any number of useful purposes was diverted into streams that lacked even elementary transparency.

And that warped the outlook of so many of those playing at those tables. Otherwise rational people who worked for Lehman Brothers moved money off their books at the end of the financial reporting quarter and put it back a few days later so the company’s losses wouldn’t show. People who ran venerable institutions like the Royal Bank of Scotland decided to gamble with others’ money attracted by the lure of bigger profits. And so on.

What can you say about an investment bank, Goldman, that sells bundles of mortgages, most of which were issued to people who only “stated” their incomes, with no verification. What can you say about the fools who buy them? Billions of dollars of them.

Go backward in time, and not too far. It wasn’t long ago that Enron was being exalted in business schools as the ideal company, even as it was twisting itself in knots with unfathomable off book subsidiaries to keep what amounted to a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme going.

Or go to 1999, when a Democratic president and more than 90 U.S. senators convinced themselves that unregulated markets could be trusted not to succumb to an orgy of greed. That, despite the $200 billion+ taxpayer bailout triggered by the savings and loan crisis just a few years earlier.

All along most of the business press and popular publications cheered on the excesses and overlooked the dangers.

Capitalism is markets and competition. Finance is an efficient way to pool money for useful private and public purposes. But in recent years the normal blood cells of those systems have mutated into a cancerous body that has become a mortal risk to itself.

The people from Goldman Sachs have been living in that diseased world so long they think it’s normal. No one is going to change their minds, or the minds or behavior of those still managing Wall Street.

It’s going to take some powerful outside medicine to do that.

Probably a heavier dose than the prescription that Congress is even now trying to administer.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Worry More About Gannett and Comcast Than Limbaugh and Beck

April 23, 2010

April 22, 2010

By Joe Rothstein

I’m not worried about Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh or their legion of over-the-top imitators. To keep their disciples happy Beck and Limbaugh need to constantly throw out bigger chunks of red meat. Ultimately it’s totally so raw that it becomes irrelevant.

For all the buzz about them, the commentators of the hysterical Right have smaller and less committed audiences than the notorious Father Coughlin had back during the Great Depression. Radio was then the political media weapon of choice. With a U.S. population half its current size Father Coughlin regularly had 40 million listeners. His rants began as attacks on capitalism, but as he became more and more virulent he wound up a full throated supporter of Hitler.

He even created a political party and promised he would quit broadcasting if his chosen presidential candidate pulled in fewer than a million votes. The candidate didn’t, but Coughlin stayed on the air anyway. (Remind you of Limbaugh and his unredeemed promise to move to Costa Rica if health reform was enacted)?

No, these people don’t scare me. What does scare me is what’s happened to the rest of the media.

In poll after poll we see that the American public is awash in misinformation. A third of the public believes the nonsense about “death panels.” There’s dangerous erosion in public belief about the science of climate change. A very shaky grip on reality runs through many vital public issues.

The genius behind America’s success, and its example which so many other nations have followed, is that government rests on the consent of the governed. From the nation’s earliest days, the Founding Fathers had no doubt that the free flow of information and competing ideas were inseparable from a government representative of majority interests. Even during those times, when there was hardly any public money to be had, much of it was spent to support printers, newspapers, and distribution through the Post Office.

Public support for journalism is as old as the nation itself. Even today it’s estimated that newspapers and magazines are subsidized to the tune of nearly a billion dollars through Post Office delivery.

But the unfortunate, and potentially deadly truth today is that most of our information comes through very narrow funnels. Where 100 years ago a city like Washington, D.C. or New York would have a dozen newspapers representing a multitude of voices and viewpoints, today we have newspaper monopolies. Radio offered the promise of diversity but has evolved into a few large chains with robotic operations. TV was born as the ultimate small funnel, with just 3 national networks. Cable might have fixed that, but, like newspapers and radio, cable now is the domain of Comcast, Time Warner and just a few others.

Now we have the Internet. But a federal court ruled the other day that the FCC has no power to keep cyberspace open to all. You already can see the squeeze—-the big guys buying up the popular sites, and the consolidation of internet service providers who manage the gateways.

There’s a struggle going on now that’s often labeled a struggle over the future of journalism. It’s really a struggle over the future of democracy. If journalism is considered merely a “profit center,” as it has been by the goliaths that own newspaper chains and TV and cable networks, what happens to the public’s vital interest in news that impacts their lives? Where’s the solid ground of information and viewpoint from which the governed can exercise its consent?

The Internet has been disruptive to the entire communications industry. But it’s an industry that’s been badly in need of disruption. Monopolies, the tyranny of Wall Street’s quarterly earnings demands, the subtle influence of the advertising model on writers and editors—-this hasn’t been the most fertile environment for serious journalism. Things needed changing even before the Internet and the compounded devastation wrought by the current recession.

A few months ago, Len Downie, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a widely respected Columbia University journalism professor, published an influential paper about all of this.

“It may not be essential to save or promote any particular news medium, including print newspapers,” they say in their analysis. “What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is profitable, and regardless of the medium in which it appears.”

To do that they suggest a long menu of possibilities, some of which already are happening. Including, among others, development of independent news operations focused on investigative reporting, including serious local coverage; more support from universities and non-profits, a national fund for local news, managed by the FCC, an expansion of PBS into more community-based coverage, changes in tax laws to encourage new for profit and non-profit independent news entities, and more open government records.

The important thing here is to develop scale. Monopoly corporate media, for sometimes good and often bad, has had deep reach into the nation’s information channels. Once things get said on four broadcast network news channels, cable channels, the AP radio wire and the community’s only newspaper (if it still has one) information and perspective take common root.

And because mainstream media and its corporate owners and sponsors are so sensitive about “bias,” the mainstream report invariably is he-said, she-said—–even when all the facts are on one side of that see-saw.

A multitude of voices can give truth a better chance of finding a path out of this constrained box—-if those voices can be heard.

The problem with journalism today isn’t so much with the demagogues who are heard too much but with the truth that’s heard too little.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

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April 23, 2010

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