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Living on the Edge

Living on the Edge
April 14, 2005

Normally I would be averse to going public with the internal affairs of the Flat Earth Society. But this is not the time for silence or misguided diplomacy. The failure of our leadership to throw the Society's full support behind the Academic Bill of Rights is little short of scandalous.

It is time to put an end to the constant stream of indoctrination in America's college classrooms on the part of "scholars" only too willing to serve the interests of the globe-manufacturing lobby. Students should be given a chance to use their own rationality and powers of observation. Remember, the so-called "theory" of spherical-earthism is just that -- a theory. (I mean, come on! It's just a matter of common sense. The world can't be round. The people in Australia would fall off.)

At the same time, the Society has nearly liquidated its treasury in placing a bulk order for a new book by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times foreign affairs columnist, called The World is Flat. The cover is, to be sure, very impressive. It portrays two ships and a small boat sailing dangerously close to the edge of the earth. However, I am now reading the book, and am sorry to report it is not nearly as good as we all had hoped.

Friedman argues that the rapid spread of high-speed digital communication has created conditions in which skilled labor in now-impoverished countries can be integrated into a new economic order that will end extreme disparities in wealth and development. The world will be less uneven, and in that sense more "flat."

It's a book about globalization, in other words. Which makes the title (not to mention the artwork, which has given me nightmares) very sneaky indeed.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure that the Flat Earth Society is still active. (It has a Web page,  though that doesn't mean much.) But a recent reading of Martin Gardner's classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science is a reminder that it was in 1905 that the Rev. Wilbur Glenn Voliva became General Overseer of Zion, Illinois -- a town in which church and state were, at the time, pretty much identical. Voliva ministered to the Christ Community Church and enforced strict blue laws, while also carrying on the scientific research necessary to prove that (as Gardner puts it) "the earth is shaped like a flapjack, with the North Pole at the center and the South Pole distributed around the circumference."

He offered a reward of $5,000 to anyone who could prove otherwise, and never had to part with what any of his money. It is good to know that, 100 years later, Voliva's scholarly efforts  may yet win a hearing in the American academic life -- thanks to the tireless efforts of David Horowitz.

As for Thomas Friedman .... well, his version of flat-earth doctrine is bound to have an impact on academe, even if no professor ever opens his latest volume. The people flying in business class read Friedman's books -- and that includes plenty of university administrators, those acting CEOs of the knowledge economy.

Nor will it hurt that The World is Flat is, in effect, one long plea to corporations, government officials, and any other policy-makers who might be reading to invest in higher education as the nation's top priority for the future. In a world where more and more jobs can be done more cheaply, in new places, people need constantly to update, refine, or change entirely their toolkit of knowledge and skills.  

Friedman has a knack for harvesting the information, opinions, and gut instincts of some of the most powerful people in the world. He boils it all down into some catchy slogans, and voila! You've got a bouillon cube of the conventional wisdom for the next two or three years.
 
He is bullish on the long-term benefits of the global market -- with that congenital optimism tempered (occasionally, and just a little) by the experience of having served as a Middle East correspondent. And he shows a faith in the power of corporations to become good global citizens that is either inspiring or willfully obtuse -- depending on whether or not you are annoyed by the fact that The World is Flat contains exactly zero interviews with labor leaders.

It is his instinct towards globalization boosterism that gives the edge, so to speak, to Friedman's thesis on what he calls "flatism." In short, his argument is that the technological infrastructure now exists to make it economically rational for more and more kinds of business to be conducted in a way that is dispersed over networks that span the entire world. Outsourcing no longer means shifting manufacturing offshore -- or even having the less-skilled kinds of service-sector jobs (data keypunching, for example) done in another country.

Work requiring more sophisticated cognitive skills -- bookkeeping, computer programming, or the analysis of medical test results, for example -- can be done in India or China at much less expense. Jobs thus become more mobile than the people who do them.

Friedman's main point is that this is not a trend that will take shape at some point in the future. It is happening right now; the trend will not reverse. And the American political parties and the cable news programs are not telling the public what is happening. They are, as Friedman puts it, "actively working to make people stupid."

Instead, "companies should be encouraged, with government subsidies or tax incentives, to offer as wide an array as possible of in-house learning opportunities," thereby "widening the skill base of their own workforce and fulfilling a moral obligation to workers whose jobs are outsourced to see to it that they leave more employable than they came."

Friedman also favors "an immigration policy that gives a five-year work visa to any foreign student who completes a Ph.D. at an accredited American university in any subject. I don't care if it's Greek mythology or mathematics. If we cream off the first-round intellectual draft choices from around the world, it will always end up a net plus for America."

I n a way, Friedman has come to his own version of some of the ideas that Manuel Castells developed some years ago in the three large volumes of The Information Age. There, the sociologist worked out an account of how the "space of flows" between parts of a dispersed economic network would transform the "space of places" (that is, the real-world geography) in which people dwell.

As with Friedman's notion of "flatism," the increased productivity and ceaseless disruption of network society were basic to the picture that Castells drew. But he also stressed something that Friedman -- with his abiding cheerfulness -- tends to downplay: Skills, knowledge, and wealth accumulate at the dispersed nodes of an economic network, but some parts of the world fall outside the network more or less entirely.

Most of Africa, for example. Last year, a study found that 96 percent of the continent's population had no access to telecommunications of any kind. Given the unavailability of drinking water and medical supplies, that is probably the least of anyone's worries. But even with the recent increase in wireless access in Africa -- thereby potentially getting around the scarcity and unreliability of more traditional landline telecommunication -- it is unlikely that part of the world will be "flattening" anytime soon. (Some might see the glass as 96 percent empty, but I suppose someone encouraged by Friedman's book would consider it 4 percent full.)

Meanwhile, it is difficult to feel much optimism about Friedman's proposal for beefing up the resources for increasing the educational opportunities of the American workforce. At least for now, the public discourse on higher education is caught in a particularly narrow and regressive set of undercurrents.

It's possible to joke about how the Rev. Voliva's scholarship in flat-earth studies might finally start getting their due. But matters are serious when scientists are forced to resort to references to Lysenkoism to describe the government's science policy. And higher education itself is the focus of a barrage of ideologues who seem to have confused The Authoritarian Personality with a manual for self-improvement.

It would be good to think that the national agenda could change -- that the notion of "flatism," whatever its limitations, might help spur increased public commitment to continuing education. But then, as Friedman also says, certain politicians and media outlets are "actively working to make people stupid." With that part, at least, he's being realistic.  

Bio

Scot McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

 

 

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