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New York TimesThe New York Times Opinion

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Published: May 13, 2005

For so many years, America's economy was so dominant on the world stage, so out front in so many key areas, that we fell into the habit of thinking we were competing largely against ourselves. If we fell behind in one area or another - whether it was math and science skills, broadband capacity or wireless infrastructure - we took the view that: "Oh well, we'll fix that problem when we get to it. After all, we're just competing against ourselves."

In recent years, though, with the flattening of the global playing field, it should be apparent that we are not just competing against ourselves. The opening of China, India and Russia means that young people in these countries can increasingly plug and play - connect, collaborate and compete - more easily and cheaply than ever before. And they are. We, alas, are still coasting along as if we have all the time in the world.

I helped teach a course at Harvard last semester on globalization, and one day a student told me this story: He was part of a student-run collaboration between students in the U.S. and China. The American and Chinese students had recently started working together by using Skype, the popular, freely downloadable, software that enables you to make free phone calls over the Internet to other Skype users. But what was most interesting, the student told me, was that it was the Chinese students who introduced their U.S. counterparts to Skype. And, he noted, these Chinese students were not from major cities, like Beijing, but from smaller towns.

On April 7, CNET News.com reported the following: "The University of Illinois tied for 17th place in the world finals of the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest. ...

"That's the lowest ranking for the top-performing U.S. school in the 29-year history of the competition. Shanghai Jiao Tong University of China took top honors this year, followed by Moscow State University and the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics. Those results continued a gradual ascendance of Asian and East European schools during the past decade or so. A U.S. school hasn't won the world championship since 1997, when students at Harvey Mudd College achieved the honor. 'The U.S. used to dominate these kinds of programming Olympics,' said David Patterson, president of the Association for Computing Machinery and a computer science professor at the University of California at Berkeley. 'Now we're sort of falling behind.' "

Earlier this week, a special report on the Indiana University High School Survey of Student Engagement, which covered 90,000 high school students in 26 states, was published. The study noted that 18 percent of college-track seniors did not take a math course in their last year in high school - and that "more than a fifth (22 percent) of first-year college students require remediation in math." Just 56 percent of the students surveyed said they put a great deal of effort into schoolwork; only 43 percent said they worked harder than they had expected.

Even though 55 percent said they studied no more than three hours a week, 65 percent of those students reported getting mostly A's and B's.

"Students are getting A's and B's, but without studying much," Martha McCarthy, the Indiana University professor who headed the study, told me. "Our fear," she added, "is that when you talk to employers out there, they say they are not getting the skills they need," in part because "the colleges are not getting students with the skills they need." Ms. McCarthy said one of the main reasons Indiana did this study is to better inform high school educators about what is going on in their own schools so they can find remedies. All of these shortcomings developed over time, Ms. McCarthy said, but "we as a nation became complacent about them."

America today reminds me of our last Olympic basketball team - that lackadaisical group that brought home the bronze medal. We think that all we need to do is show up and everyone else will fold - because, after all, we're just competing with ourselves.

And we think we don't need to get focused and play together like a team, with Democrats and Republicans actually working together. Well, on the basketball court - and in a flat world, where everyone now has access to all the same coaching techniques, training methods and scouting reports - a more focused, motivated team always beats a collection of more talented but complacent individuals.