OPINION

Barbarians at the Gates

Imagine a scene from a never-ending story, where stern men in heavy cloaks glide down endless halls and gather in huge dark chambers, where false grins mask unspoken hostilities. The wizard of the century enters, pauses, strikes a pose, and then sharply raises his voice and addresses the chamber:

“Sires, your children are in trouble, failing in education while you are shutting doors on highly skilled magicians from faraway lands. Open the gates and let the talent march in, or this land is in trouble.”

In quick response, the hooded men shout in unison: “Close the doors; they are nothing but barbarians at the gates!”

As the orchestra swells, the scene ends. Popcorn time.

Not an Act

This scene was replayed in reality — and on a much smaller scale — during a U.S. Senate committee hearing led by Sen. Edward Kennedy on “Strengthening American Competitiveness for the 21st Century,” with Bill Gates as the principal witness.

Microsoft Chairman Gates, one of the wealthiest and most admired men of our times, has been candid on this issue, criticizing efforts to impede bright, highly educated foreign students from seeking opportunities in the U.S. after they graduate. Recently implemented immigration policies have barred both domestically educated engineering and science graduates, and foreign professionals.

The main problem lies in the American system of education at the high school level. Since it produces far fewer graduates who excel in math and science compared to other industrialized nations, the likely result is a shortage of domestic human resources in the professional sphere. What should the U.S. do to address and overcome this new challenge?

This is what Bill Gates had to offer:

“When I reflect on the state of American competitiveness, my feeling of pride is mixed with deep anxiety. Too often, it seems we’re content to live off the investments previous generations made, and that we are failing to live up to our obligation to make the investments needed to make sure the U.S. remains competitive in the future.

“The U.S. cannot maintain its economic leadership unless our workforce consists of people who have the knowledge and skills needed to drive innovation.

“The problem starts in our schools, with a great failure taking place in our high schools. Consider the following facts:

“The U.S. has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the industrialized world. Three out of 10 ninth-graders do not graduate on time. Of those who do graduate and continue on to college, nearly half have to take remedial courses on material they should have learned in high school.”

Gates’ description presents a clear picture of the shortcomings of the U.S. educational system, and he acknowledges that the country will ultimately be left behind without the contribution of foreign professionals:

“Our goal should be to double the number of science, technology and mathematics graduates in the United States by 2015. This will require both funding and innovative ideas. We must renew and reinvigorate math and science curricula with engaging, relevant content. For high schools, we should aim to recruit 10,000 new teachers, and strengthen the skills of existing teachers. To expand enrollment in post-secondary math and science programs, each year we should provide 25,000 new undergraduate scholarships and 5,000 new graduate fellowships.

“The question before us today is: ‘Do we have the will to ensure that the generation that follows will also enjoy the benefits that come with economic leadership?'”

Today India Is IT

Now, speaking of engineers and technology, India is on the forefront, with 1 million new highly skilled engineers, and counting, it is charging ahead on all fronts.

“‘IT’ now stands for ‘Indian Talent,'” says Hadi Al Alawi, chairman and CEO of Al-Hayat Group, one of the largest privately held business empires in Bahrain, which invests heavily in major projects in India.

“There is a shift in talent pools, while there is a serious blockade in the U.S. for foreigners. Indians are bringing intellectual and human energy back home,” he notes, adding, “Indian talent is now going to take over the world.”

Most CEOs in Asia would agree with this claim and are making adjustments to their long-term plans accordingly. Supporters of the current U.S. immigration policies, on the other hand, contend that allowing foreign professionals to enter the country will hurt American jobs and threaten national security.

Global image and national identity are also becoming big issues. Today, most media outlets in the U.S. will not hesitate to portray India as a poor nation where peasants ride broken-down bicycles and live in shanties. This characterization ignores the massive, successful developments that have spawned an Indian middle class as large as the entire population of United States.

In India, the TV media are very happy to let shows like Jerry Springer represent the U.S., with guests being provoked into fierce on-stage fistfights while cheering female audience members get free beads for displaying naked breasts. What effect does television have on the way young people view a country’s national image? In a sense, television has created a global-image world war. This is certainly not the best way to brand nations.

India is only one such example of a country that has made a fast economic and cultural turnaround; there are dozens of others in similar situations.

Many academia outside the U.S. say that the American education system is out to destroy a generation — almost like a conspiracy. Having witnessed a better standard of education in their own countries, these people sincerely hope that America addresses the problem.

There is a major crisis looming. It has been clearly — and repeatedly — identified by a slew of American thinkers, leaders and organizations for decades, but somehow the system stays broken.

Today, it would take an iron fist to correct the problem. To fix it properly would require massive funding on all fronts, although it would certainly amount to small change compared to other wild spending adventures.

Young people have always been ready to absorb new knowledge, but the government has ignored this simple fact. Countries with a much smaller gross domestic product are outperforming and producing a so-called world-class education system. What has been stopping the U.S. from addressing a problem so clearly obvious — and left hanging for so long?

America’s future economic strength is at risk. If the educational system is not revamped, its dysfunctions will spread. Then the gates will have to be closed to tame the barbarians within.

The brain-numbing orchestral sound takes over again. Popcorn time.


Naseem Javed is recognized as a world authority on Corporate Image and Global Cyber-Branding. Author of Naming for Power, he introduced The Laws of Corporate Naming in the 80s and also foundedABC Namebank, a consultancy established in New York and Toronto a quarter century ago. Currently, he is on a lecture tour in Asia and can be reached atnj@njabc.com.


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