Thomas Friedman is a first-rate writer with a second-rate mind. As far as I can tell, that’s pretty much par for the course of American punditry. Since those that aren’t outright political shills are former journalists, I guess it’s not like most of them had a chance at knowing too much anyway.
I lost complete respect for Friedman when he supported [sic] the Iraq War. So it wasn’t until today when I came across his column on education that I decide to read him again. I wasn’t expecting much–the guy received a Pulitzer Prize for his book on the Middle East, and he still got his math wrong Iraq–he never got a Pulitzer Prize for writing about education.
What interested me about his column, however, was not the hope of actually learning something about education, but learning about how the opinion-making class opinionates. It’s pretty clear, to me, at least, that good writing obfuscates the poverty of Friedman’s knowledge. He writes fluently explaining the perspective of President Obama and Arne Duncan, the scariest Secretary of Education ever. He also does a credible job of describing the rationale for educational standards and testing. He’s only parroting, but as a parrot, he can be credited with his own voice, if not his own thoughts.
What scares me most, however, is that Friedman clearly doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He writes persuasively about something of which he’s desperately ignorant. His column, while appearing on the opinion page, reads like reporting. He cites sources, and aside from a reference to being a cub reporter, he writes his opinion as if it were fact.
Friedman’s ignorance isn’t hard to point out.
1. “If I were a cub reporter today, I’d still want to be covering the epicenter of national security – but that would be the Education Department. President Obama got this one exactly right when he said that whoever “out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow.”
This canard was first used by Senator John F. Kennedy to boost education funding. At the very least, the relationship between education and economic security is not simple. It is complicated by such things as wage differences between countries. Education is important to economic productivity, but China and India will eventually produce enough people with equal intellectual skills and they will work for far less. Education remains important, but how little our foreign competitors will determine where work is done. Why doesn’t Friedman, the expert on globalism, bring up the comparative advantages of lower wages in developing countries? Because he’s spouting conventional wisdom in unconventional prose.