Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Risk of Mediocrity

I had lunch last week with serial entrepreneur Bob Compton who is the executive producer of the movie 2 Million Minutes. The premise of the movie is this: a high school kid has about 2 million minutes to allocate during his/her high school career. The movie follows 6 students from India, China, and the US to see how they spend their time, what they (and their cultures) value.

I asked to meet with Bob Compton because of the grand sense of urgency his film engenders. His message echoes those of Thomas Friedman, Bill Gates, and (in some ways but there are some points of contention) Daniel Pink. (Read transcript of a discussion, Education in a 'Flat World', between Friedman and Pink.) Interestingly, when talking about the mission of his movie, Bob spoke of the difference in mindset of the three cultures. In the movie, you can clearly see the educational mindset of each culture. This portrayal reminded me of what Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in his New York Times editorial, The Educated Giant. Kristof clearly explains the educational mindset of Chinese culture, "A third reason [China is emerging as an education powerhouse] is that Chinese believe that those who get the best grades are the hardest workers. In contrast, Americans say in polls that the best students are the ones who are innately the smartest. The upshot is that Chinese kids never have an excuse for mediocrity."

I don't see mediocrity as an American national value. I think the risk of less than is the most powerful and disturbing issue Bob Compton's movie raises. Can we, as a nation, afford to be less than in our educational standards, output, and values? The implicit context of the movie 2 Million Minutes is that education is only as important as a culture values it to be. We must recognize our academic and educational pursuits visibly, rhetorically, symbolically as a critical priority of our culture. Our brainiacs should hold better social currency than our sports stars, rock stars, and beauty queens.

While this movie offers no neat, easy solutions, it certainly focuses the education conversation in a powerful and critical way. I think it helps create consensus around a critical goal that we must address to remain relevant in the global environment. Our future cannot be built upon mediocrity.

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