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A few weeks ago, on a trip back from Washington, D.C., I finally got around to reading The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman. Most of the folks I tell that to, especially other Indians, think it’s pretty funny that I waited until now.

When the book first came out, the notion that globalization would flatten the world’s economy was a new concept to the American public. Now, it is almost passé to talk about the rise of China and India as economic powers in their own right. But for an Indian of my generation, Generation X, the notion of India as an economic power is consistently startling. The India of my youth was an economic backwater of blinding poverty.

Ten years ago, it took me two 1/2 days to travel from Boston to my grandparents’ village in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The last fifteen miles of this trip were on the back of a moped because a general strike had closed down the state and any cars on the road might have been stoned by a communist mob (apparently mopeds were partially exempt). Now people are jetting into my grandparents’ home state for vacations profiled in the travel section of the New York Times. The idea that India could be viewed as a threat to the American economy, that the issue of outsourcing jobs to India could be talked about in the halls of Congress and come up in a Presidential debate and that policymakers could be arguing for a reforming the American education system because of the “Indian and Chinese challenge”…

Wow.

My world hasn’t been flatted. It’s been turned upside down. Even weirder are the business people in San Diego who come up to me to tell me they just returned from a business trip to India. I can still see the very red face of the Midwestern businessman who waited with me for three hours for a bus from the international to the domestic airport in Madras in the early 1990s. He was surrounded by a very persistent mob of begging children (who completely ignored me), and when he realized I was American, he forgot that I was also Indian, and spouted off about how much he hated the place and missed hamburgers.

Now, the place is crawling with people like him and he’d have no trouble finding a McDonalds. The world is flatter and fatter. So…getting to the point of this guest blog, what does all this change mean for our education system in the U.S., California, and San Diego? There is no shortage of opinions. The majority of them, just like most of the policy questions in education, can be neatly categorized into two polarized camps. There’s the “Sky is falling a la’ Sputnik” Camp that promotes huge politically infeasible solutions such as reforming the American education system all at once. These folks tend to be retired politicians and academics.

Then there’s the “If we ignore it, it’ll go away like the U.S.S.R” Camp. These folks promote politically feasible solutions such as leaving everything the same but calling it something different. They tend to be folks in the Washington and Sacramento education establishment and politicians who don’t plan to retire.

There’s a third camp out there that isn’t part of this polarization. This is the one that asks the question, “What the hell is Sputnik and who is the USSR?” and then follows up with “How can we adapt our education system so that our students can compete and succeed in this new world?” They don’t get heard all that much because the other two camps are too busy shouting in general and shouting at each other.

— ARUN RAMANATHAN

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