Nancy and I love listening to Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” on Saturday evening, especially the news of Lake Wobegon(e), a fictional Minnesota town where, “the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” If you haven’t heard Keillor weave his tales I recommend you do. Tune in to NPR at 5:00 PM on Saturdays.
This morning I caught the tail end of a CNBC interview with author Thomas Friedman. He was pitching his latest book, “That Used to Be Us – How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How It Can Come Back.” I haven’t read the book, but after hearing the interview I have it on order.
I’ve just finished reading a Christian Science Monitor review of the book, which has really whetted my appetite for more. The review describes the authors, Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University, as “frustrated optimists.” What’s got them frustrated? “America is in denial, unwilling to accept that it’s been living beyond its means and getting, well, a little lazy.”
I wonder if Friedman and Mandelbaum paid a visit to Emporia when they were doing their research. It sure looks like it. If there were a gold standard award for denial in economic development and clever, meaningless jingles I think we’d win hands down.
I’m often taken to task by this town’s important people because I don’t tow the “everything’s fine” party line that dominates our leadership. That’s alright. I realize there’s a price to pay when you rub the powerful the wrong way. But, in their rush to criticize they’ve missed the really important point. I’m right and they’re wrong. We’ve got problems that demand serious reflection and answers. Denial won’t make the problems go away and, worse yet, it keeps us from answering the difficult questions and finding our way out of the mess we’re in.
Time is of the essence. With each passing day Emporia, and America, are falling further and further behind in a world that is increasingly competitive and skills driven.
I’ve seen the competitive international environment first hand. I’ve seen just how good our competitors are. I’ve seen them in Singapore, Israel, and South Korea. I’ve read about the emerging markets and the rise of trade partnerships like the “BRICS,” who are pooling resources to supplant the United States as the world’s dominant economic power. And, here at home, I’ve seen it in my living room and dining room as I sat with international students and discussed their aims and dreams in life.
My wife and I have hosted four international students since 2003, one from the Republic of Moldova, one from South Korea, one from Vietnam, and one from China. While each student came with ethnic and cultural distinctives, they held two important things in common. They understood how fiercely competitive the world economic environment is and they came to compete and win. They understood that “average” is no longer good enough and that the world is now demanding excellence. One of our international students, Corina Nour, was interviewed by the Gazette when she attended Emporia High several years ago. She was asked what she thought of homecoming. She said, “Not much. We don’t have homecoming in Moldova. Students there understand the global marketplace and they gear themselves toward success in that arena.” In a couple of months she’ll graduate with a Masters’ and launch out into the deep. She’ll succeed. As much as we’d like to keep her, we know that won’t happen. She hasn’t spent her time preparing to be mired in a low wage, high poverty environment.
One of the recommendations Friedman and Mandelbaum make is for America to adopt the Lake Wobegon(e) standard. What’s that? It’s the standard that says “average” is no longer acceptable. It’s not acceptable for our students or our teachers. More importantly, it’s no longer acceptable for our leaders. They need to see that the path of disaster is strewn with the casualties of “average is good enough.” We need to be about the business of excellence. The new world of economic opportunity demands it
I hear all the time that I’m too negative. I say that I’m like Friedman and Mandelbaum. I’m a “frustrated optimist.” I know we can do better. In fact, I think we should be. We should be gearing our young people in Emporia toward excellence in achievement. I think they’re capable of it. The same holds true for our workforce. They can rise to the challenge. Our leaders need to rethink the old, costly notion that low wage manufacturing is Emporia’s future in the same way it’s been our past. All it’s done is get us into a low wage, high poverty rut. It’s time to put some 21st century wheels on the wagon.