Thomas Friedman on Innovation

Thomas Friedman of the NYT argues that economic growth and long-term employment depend on innovation… that the jobs of the future don’t yet exist, they need to be invented. His big point is that American education needs to be reinvented to focus on the skills of innovation and creativity.

If Friedman’s general point is important and provocative, he is overly optimistic in his analysis and conclusions. Not everyone can invent their own job via innovation. The imperative in his title therefore seems somewhat flippant. He also does not take into account the
social, cultural and structural differences in his comparison of schooling in the US and Finland. Finally, while innovation often occurs at the intersections of disciplines, it is unlikely that students can “think critically” and imagine pathways to innovation if they haven’t first internalized a significant body of knowledge and specific methods of inquiry. Friedman assumes that existing knowledge is available as “facts” via MOOCs or Google; yet what student, without the proper guidance and motivation, is able to make the imaginative leap from facts to invention?

Training in the liberal arts has traditionally served American students well, both as citizens in a free society and as innovators in a free economy. I would argue that innovation depends–paradoxically–not on a break with this educational tradition but on remembering what it is and relearning how to seriously engage its modes of inquiry with the problems and issues of our time.

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