Thomas Friedman: Fear and Loathing (and Hope) in the Age of Acceleration

Taylor Stockdale
Thomas Friedman’s new work Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations is an un-gentle, mind-bending account of life today—ever-frenzied and ever-accelerating. As an educator of more than 30 years, reading Friedman’s book reinforced my deeply held belief that how we think, interact, learn and teach in the next 100 years will be both fundamentally new and radically old-fashioned.

In Thank You for Being Late, Friedman identifies three major forces accelerating change and impacting individuals, societies and cultures at the most fundamental levels: technology, globalization, and climate change. His analogy of accelerating in a car from 0-60 in five seconds, and how that feels—exhilarating, exciting, terrifying and out of control—is right on point.

Still, after finishing Friedman’s well-reasoned narrative, I was left with these two seminal questions: First, as parents and educators, can we raise our children to possess capabilities we never possessed? And two, in this new age, can we create a stable, settled environment where our children have the time and space to develop their confidence and sense of self so that they can become the successful, fulfilled, independent adults we want them to be?

As hard as it is to be a teenager in any era, I cringe when I think of what it would have been like for me to grow up with social media, with being relentlessly rated, judged, friended or unfriended 24/7. Add to this the macro forces Friedman speaks of (the acceleration of machines, markets and mother nature) and I would need Pepto-Bismol for breakfast.

It’s not surprising then that in this age of hyper-connectivity, I have never seen our youth more disconnected, more anxious and lonely than now. While society is blazing along at a record clip, it is easy to overlook the stresses this places on our youth, kids who are far more perceptive than we generally recognize, and who need now more than ever stable families, homes, and traditions that anchor them and buoy them. The family dinner, the soccer game or dance recital, the daily chores and stories at night have never been more important than now.

As for the evolution of education and schools in this new Age of Acceleration, I harken to the analogy of trying to fix the plane while it is in flight, which is what we are attempting to do in American education today. While there is much to say about what constitutes an optimal education in this new landscape, I will offer the following few observations.

First and foremost, online learning for the pre-teen or teenage student won’t be the panacea once believed. While there are some very rich opportunities for blended learning approaches and online tutorials such as Khan Academy and others, the premier learning condition for the grade-schooler, pre-teen and high school student is and will be face-to-face, eye-to-eye, student-to-teacher. While online learning will indeed continue to challenge the core value proposition in higher education, and some very exciting partnerships are now emerging that will represent profound shifts in how we pursue lifelong learning to keep pace with the accelerations Friedman addresses, the very best of primary and secondary teaching and learning will always involve a very definite human interaction of student and teacher.

Beyond this overall imperative, I believe great schools must be more intentional than ever to balance a future-ready, relevant curriculum with the ageless benefits of reflection, meditation and deep thinking that Friedman highlights so clearly.

By a future-ready curriculum, I mean one which is foundational at the outset, and allows for individual customization at the top end. Students today must not only learn, but they must do. They must not only be given the skills and tools to be a scholar in the 21st Century, and learn how to research without simply using Wikipedia, but they must also be given opportunities to apply their knowledge, to work in small groups to solve real-world problems, to use big data to struggle and find solutions and break-through inventions. Students must think nimbly, and entrepreneurially. Courses and class experiences must be designed with these higher level skills and habits of mind at the forefront.

Of course, to accomplish this, teachers must have the resources and also the autonomy to create truly engaging pathways in their classes. They must have the opportunity to constantly update and improve their craft and model this new imperative of lifelong learning. I believe the construct of education and teaching excellence is the challenge of our time, as most schools are still teaching to a 20th Century workplace.

And by ageless benefits of reflection, meditation and deep thinking, I mean that the best schools create places and opportunities for students and teachers to leave behind the frenetic pace of the day, and to come together as communities for self-reflection, for making connections, for thinking deeply and broadly. This, after all, is the crux of Friedman’s book – the rich benefits of pushing the “pause” button, and thinking broadly about our place in a constantly and rapidly changing world, and how to navigate these tricky waters with a clear mind and our values intact.

Friedman’s ambitious new book reminds us all why we are feeling the way we are. But he also offers some hope that many of these advances are indeed going to make the world a better place. To my mind, this hope is all predicated on one thing—the quality of people we raise to take the mantle in driving our cultures for future generations. Toward the end of his book Friedman finishes, “…the more the world demands that we branch out, the more we need to be anchored in a topsoil of trust that is the foundation of all healthy communities. We must be enriched by that topsoil, and we must enrich it in turn.” I could not agree more.

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