Benjamin Franklin enjoyed no familial boost of wealth, fame, or education. He was one of 17 kids. His father was a candle-maker. In today’s terms, he started life well within the 99 percent. But through systematic study, practice, thrift, and most of all an optimistic embrace of possibility, he rose to become the famed intellect, scientist, statesman, diplomat, and writer honored on currency, in statues, and by namesake institutes dedicated to higher education.
Everybody should be a Franklin. India needs up to 100 million Franklins.
The world’s most populous democracy has been growing at a healthy clip but a moment of truth is looming. In a mere eight years, 100 million more people – equivalent to the population of Mexico – will enter the Indian workforce. Vanishingly few of them will enjoy a familial boost of wealth, fame, or education.
In the old India, those 100 million would be a nightmare, a tsunami of humanity racing toward an overburdened infrastructure and social system. In the new India, they are possibly something else. It all depends on where they sit on the scale that runs from basic need to productivity to creativity. It all depends on what the magic of education can do for them.
Let me take you on a detour to explain why this is so important. In the late 1980s, I was on a reporting assignment in Japan, which at the time was considered an economic superpower in the way that China is today and India hopes to be. There was no doubt about the productivity of Japanese workers. The watchword at the time was kaizen, meaning “continuous improvement,” and Japanese workers seemed to make everything better – TVs, cars, Walkmans, fax machines.
But Naohiro Amaya, a government adviser on education, was worried. From the mid-19th century until the late 20th century, he said, Japan had succeeded in producing a high number of moderately educated people. That helped raise the overall capabilities of Japan as it transitioned from feudalism to industrialization. “Standardized people of pretty high quality worked pretty well,” he said, “but now they won’t meet the demand of future Japanese society.” It was not enough to be better and better at what already existed. Japan needed Franklins – innovators who would ask basic questions, experiment, see the unseen. Without breakthrough thinkers, the Japanese miracle would stall.
Japan has been stalled for two decades. Now think of the stakes in India: Japan’s population is decreasing; India’s is growing faster than that of any other nation on the planet.
Some nations are blessed with natural resources. Some have a legacy of wealth by virtue of past conquests or economic achievements. But the ones that prosper generation after generation have a culture of Franklins – smart people eager to get smarter. Economist Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, a pioneer in the study of human capital, notes that “large increases in education and training have accompanied major advances in technological knowledge in all countries that have achieved significant economic growth.”
India’s challenge is epic in scale. The Monitor’s Ben Arnoldy, who has just completed a three-year assignment in India, produced a special report in what India faces. Ben notes, “Aside from the eye-popping number of colleges India hopes to build – some 50,000 in a decade – the country faces a challenge of reforming how it teaches to produce knowledge workers. The good news on this front is that many Indians love to debate and argue. The challenge is to get teachers who will allow that energy into the classroom.”
Education of any kind helps. But as Naohiro Amaya knew, the best kind of education doesn’t just produce productive workers. It frees thought. That is what India – and every other nation – needs most.
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. To comment on this column, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
We can laugh about it now, but in 1999 many serious people were concerned about the Y2K computer bug the bringing modern world to its knees. Combined with the millennial turn of the calendar, Y2K prompted all sorts of predictions about what the new year would bring. Some were optimistic. Some were ominous.
Jan. 1, 2000, dawned. Nothing bad happened. Perhaps all the worry caused responsible people to fix their computers. Or maybe it was just hype to begin with. The main point is that no one got the future right.
We seldom do. In his 2011 book, "Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better," Dan Gardner explores famous forecasts and why they failed. There are many reasons we get the future wrong, he says. For one thing, we predict based on the present, so the future is an extrapolation, a pumped-up version of today. That's why in the 1930s prognosticators saw flying cars but not the Internet, enormous battle tanks but not stealth drones.
We also generally stay with conventional wisdom. If everybody in the late 1980s says the Japanese economy is unstoppable, no one breaks from the pack to predict the lost decades of the '90s and '00s. What does that say about China now? "Take a coin from your pocket," Mr. Gardner writes. "Flip it. You'll have a 50 percent chance of being right, which is as good as that of the experts."
That wisdom can be applied to the stock market, to politics, technology, consumer tastes, and most complex events. So why bother predicting? Because we have no choice. We try to make sense of the unfolding future as we travel toward it. Gardner's best advice: Bring a large suitcase of humility on your journey. "Stride confidently forward in the dark and you're likely to feel quite pleased with yourself right up until the moment you walk into a wall."
At the turn of the year, Monitor correspondents took stock of the big stories of 2011: post-occupation Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab uprisings, Europe's financial crisis, affluent China's newfound soul-searching, the economic rise of Latin America, Africa's surprising self-help boom. Each article stretches forward as far as possible. But by mid-January, we admit, the world may look different in ways we can't predict.
We know a few things for sure about 2012: Madonna is set to perform at the halftime of the Super Bowl; the Summer Olympics kick off in London in July; NASA's "Curiosity" rover is due to land on Mars in August; the US presidential election takes place on Nov. 6. Oh, and pencil in the end of the world for December.
Not really. I'm only mentioning the end-of-world because in 2012 you are going to hear a fair amount of buzz about it. Remember how the Gregorian-calendar millennium occasioned all sorts of anxiety? A similar subcultural stir surrounds 2012 and the Mayan calendar.
Now, the Mayans had a fascinating civilization and left behind stunning ruins in the jungles of central America. They were pretty good astronomers. But most civilizations have had pretty good astronomers, the better to predict when to plant and harvest. Even if the Mayan calendar is due to click over in 2012, there's no evidence they saw the world ending, despite what faddists say. And there's no evidence they were any better at predicting the future than we are.
Jan 1, 2013, will dawn. Life will go on.
Why be so confident? Because a strong argument for life going on can be found in the lives and aspirations of people who are building the future. See, for instance, this report (click here and here and here) profiling 30 remarkable people under 30 years old. Each in her or his own way is casting a line into the mid-21st century -- in agriculture, social media, green transportation, the arts, human rights, information technology, politics.
If you must extrapolate about the future, you couldn't do much better than to start with the clever, hopeful, humanity-embracing ideas that these 30 under 30 -- and millions like them -- are pursuing.