Getting Flat, Part 2

Part 2 of Doc's thinking about Tom Friedman's new bestseller, from a Linux/open source angle.

Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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What I did

hoogte_ziekte's picture

I went through school, obeying all the rules and learned to read and write like everyone else. In eighth grade I was at the top 97 or 99 percentile of my California aptitude tests and getting straight A's. During high school I slacked, had no activities, no friends, say in my room and read Dragon magazine. I'd taken computer classes a few times, but didn't have any idea you could do anything with computers at home other than play games, even after seeing the movie War Games. The last year of high school 1990 I buckled down and studied for the first time ever and got straight A's. Went to junior college for three years to earn a worthless AA degree focusing on psychology and earning b's and c's. I went to state college for a year and passed only one class. I spent my time in the library reading Backpacker magazines and staying home writing in my journal and about D&D adventure ideas even though I had no friends to play with, ever. Now at age 34 after being out of work for 5 years, my only previous jobs being a part time delivery driver and a recycling attendant, I'm thinking of going to college for two years to become an auto mechanic. I'm reading Auto Mechanics For Dummies and the new translation of Don Quixote right now. So tell me, am I a genius or an simpleton?

The pieces fit

Student Management Man's picture

Well then, this explains exactly why although MS is a successful software giant, they have zero history of pioneering creativity and innovation in their products. They just steal ideas they like, ie. the ideas the consumers like. (IQ has nothing to with creativity.)

Very interesting posts. I

Spunky's picture

Very interesting posts. I just finished reading Friedman's post and had the pleasure of hearing Gatto speak about a month ago. Further I am a computer scientiest by training. (Although retired to homeschooling years ago.) The presentation of all my interests in one post was great to read through. Gatto's writings are instrumental in many homeschooling their children. The points that I think Friedman misses are the very ones that Gatto hits on. Why do we educate. Excellent read.

IQs, test-taking and microsoft...oh my

Florkle's picture

It is easy to get upset about IQs given their past history and their use in arguing for such nebulous concepts as "racial superiority/inferiority" and so on. IQ testing, at least in California, is no longer the norm in K-12 schooling. However, other standardized tests, which claim to test skills rather than any innate quality, have risen to take their place.

To equate Microsoft with an obsession on elite prejudices around education is to immediately win the favor of the open-source community to your side in arguing against it. However, this is a clearly loaded way of arguing.

We all benefit tremendously from free public education. That it could be better is an understatement. That we'd be thrown into an abyss of ignorance without it is, I think, probably true. That some idiots use their fancy school and test grades as a basis for prejudice, or hiring, isn't a good reason to argue against fancy schools and tests - it is a proof of the ignorance and prejudice of those doing it. If Bill Gates was a Libra and only hired Libras we could argue against Astrology....or we could argue against ridiculous prejudice!

That some have done exceedingly well without formal education, and will do well clearly despite it, proves very little. The greatest thinkers in history never went to what we call college. However, lest I burst any illusions, college is for the everyman not the Einstein. A "genius" reads and thinks with little help. The everyman (you and me) needs someone to hold our hand, tell us what is important, test us on it to motivate us, and so on. It's an ugly truth, but how many subjects would you have gone through on your own were they not required?

Literacy is something we take for granted, but it still exists in much of the world, and even in the United States. "Functional Illiteracy" also exists. We take it for granted that the poorest among us will be able to spell their own names, even if it is to write their names on a wall with spray paint, or take our order at a fast food restaurant. Eliminate public education and now remedial education is put upon the businesses that must hire the uneducated or else it doesn't happen.

Prisons are full of people who can't read or write or do math.

If this chart is to be believed then prisoners average an 8th grade level of literacy:

To argue against education because it has a failure rate is like arguing against a vaccine that fails in 1% of it's subjects but saves the other 99% because, after all, at least 1% would survive anyway without the vaccine (analogous to your self-educated geniuses) with no concern for the mortality rate.

The extreme minority is not a proof against methods that serve the great majority, and rather well at that.

School has problems, but is not the problem

David Leppik's picture

I went to a private high school in Minneapolis. It had many of the bugaboos you describe: standardized testing (in this case SATs and AP tests), traditional grading, and a fixed (if flexible) curriculum. It also had a 16:1 teacher:student ratio, and (perhaps most important) lots of parental involvement. It also could through out students who were too unruly or had too many F's. In short, it was a lot like a private college.

One thing you fail to mention is discipline. As Thomas Edison said, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. The world is full of topics and skills, such as calculus, that take smart people a long time to master-- often with few rewards for the first few years. And many topics--such as basic biology, chemistry, and economics--are necessary for citizens to be able to make informed decisions about public policy. These aren't neccesarily the topics a "follow your dream" curriculum would teach. And they are at least as important in a flat world as in the old world.

When I was an undergrad, I was coddled by professors who gave programming assignments with fixed deadlines, but lots of leniency when you missed a deadline. I couldn't meet a deadline to save my life. Nor could most of the students. As soon as I got to grad school, the leniency went away. After a few quarters, I developed the discipline. The difference was cold indifference. The professors in grad school simply didn't have time to listen to excuses. Sometimes bureaucracy and harsh one-size-fits-all routines are necessary to teach self-discipline.


Dave's picture

Interesting argument, but I'm not convinced. I respond here.


Anonymous's picture

So, IQ is a bad hiring filter, so use it anyway because you have to filter people somehow?

Why not just hire by height?

1. Proven strong correlation with earnings, indicating height is a good predictor of productivity

2. Less expensive to measure

3. In adults, repeated measurements of the same individual are more consistent

4. Harder to cheat by having someone else take the test and submitting the other person's results

Another good measurement to use would be shoe size.

Tall people cost more?

Chris's picture

Earnings not a measure of productivity (PHB syndrome). Hire short people.

Hiring by height and shoe size

Anonymous's picture

I like this idea, since I'm 6'4" with size 14 feet. It's good for the next generation too, since my son is 6'6" with size 15 feet. Of course it says nothing about our competence for the job, but when I see some of the gaffs commited in government and business today, perhaps it's obvious that they're already using some irrelevant selection criteria to choose who holds what job.

Flat-Headed World

Nick Woebcke's picture

In case Thomas didn't already know, we live in a society where the division between the Haves and the Have-Nots is greater than ever before in this country (yes even the Robber Baron era of the early 1900s).

How can anyone call this a flat society? It is flat to those at the top and inpenetrably walled-in to those at the bottom. If anyone has been out to Colorado they have these mountains that are flat at the top called Mesas. Perhaps a land of a few mile-high mesas would be a good analogy of the social topography of the US.

I heard a statistic that one-third of all the people working in the US make less than $25,000 per year. How many laptops do these people own? People who can't put food on the table would not find a laptop "cheap" or wireless connections "cheap". No health care, no car, eating fast food, and working in hazardous conditions is the current lifestyle of the poor and unknown.

I think we need some giant with a huge scythe to take a few hundred stories off of these mesas that Thomas Friedman deems as being flat.

Flat Brained Focus != wisdom

Bill Anderson's picture

I heard a statistic that one-third of all the people working in the US make less than $25,000 per year.

So what if it is true? You clearly make the assumption that for that "one third" of workers they are the primary or only source of income. This is simply not the case. It has been shown time and again that a significant portion of the workforce are:
* secondary income
* high school kids
* college kids

And further that these groups dominate the "low earnings" category. Finally, the majority of thos ein teh "low earnings" bracket are transitory. This means they are there for a short period of tiem as they enter the workforce without skills, knowledge, and hence value to the business world. As they aquire these, their income rises. Go ahead, google it.

You also assume that 25K/year is the same everywhere, which is clearly not the case. I know of several parts of the country where a single person can get by quite well in 25K a year. Laptop, food, shelter, transportation included. Many places where a family of 2-3 can do the same also exist.

And finally, you misunderstand entirely what is meant by a flat society. You focus solely on the "income gap" as if it is a valid measure. This is not the case.

A much more valid measurement is what the functional difference is. Americas "poor" are better off than most average/middle-class Europeans in terms of health care, living space, amenities, and so on. Today's "poor" have access to things even your beloved "robber barons" failed to dream of.

You might do well to take advantage of the Flat World Resources beign described to educate yourself on the realities of the world Such as the fact that the "poor" in America tend to have 2 or more vehicles, several TVs, an average of over 500 square foot of living space *per person*, medical coverage, and so on.

Our standard of living has risen so much that persons like yourself have less than zero idea what it is like to truly be poor. As a result you/they make many assumptions that are not borne out by reality.

Once you get out of your "poor me I'm not rich" mentality, you will discover there is no impenetrable ceiling and the world is not only much flatter than you have comforted yourself by believing, it is a lot more enjoyable and open than you have dreamed of.

I think we need some giant with a huge scythe to take a few hundred stories off of these mesas that Thomas Friedman deems as being flat.

I much prefer to climb those mesas than have them destroyed. Then again, I beleive it better to get to the top by effort rather than having the top eliminated. Especially since it can not be. "I'm not willing to climb Mount Everest, so I want it cut down to something I can walk over" is a sad life outlook IMO.


Mark Twain was once supposed

Jeremy's picture

Mark Twain was once supposed to have said, "I've never let schooling get in the way of my education."

School versus Education

Don Whitbeck's picture

Most of what I learned during first grade through 12'th, I learned outside the classroom. School was jail, but a library was freedom. I generally got average grades but high achievment scores. Through life, I have had some exceptional teachers who I learned from more as an apprentice than a student. As an adult student, I took some computer science courses at a local college. Interestingly enough, the 2 courses in which I learned the most, were taught outside the department, 1 by a chemistry professor and 1 by a physics professor.
Enough of being taught by boring, certified teachers who really don't want to be there but it pays pretty well (despite all the rhetoric to the contrary.) School should be a place where you can have the freedom to learn rather than being tied to a chair and spoon fed facts that may or may not be true.

good stuff

d thompson's picture

nice integration of the open source trend with educational issues - not that I agree with Rousseau in general but I'm reminded of a passage from Emile: "But what does this rich man do, this father of a family, compelled, so he says, to neglect his children? He pays another man to perform those duties which are his alone. Mercenary man! do you expect to purchase a second father for your child? Do not deceive yourself; it is not even a master you have hired for him, it is a flunkey, who will soon train such another as himself."

Getting Flat, part 2

jeber's picture

Short of killing them outright, we do no greater harm that subject our children to force them into the factory of education. Creative thinking is discouraged. Curiousity is demonized. I couldn’t agree more with Doc.
He and I took slightly different directions in grades, but the same frustration was there, the same feeling that my brain was being squeezed into shape, that I was being “formed

On Bureaucracy

Verifried's picture

"For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: 'Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.'"
--Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904)

"Don't let schooling interfere with your education."
--Mark Twain

"Golf is a good walk ruined."
--Mark Twain

Linux is trees

Jackson Shaw's picture

Yes, formerly of Microsoft and now working for a company that integrates Linux, Unix and Mac systems with Microsoft. Does that mean I am helping Microsoft customers to see the forest through the trees?


RE: Linux is trees

John T.'s picture

Hi Jackson.

I would just say "let the people decide". The best example will be the future of the FireFox browser, because in the moment it gets REALLY popular .... bugs and security-problems will rise like hell 8-)

Lets see how the community is handling this.

Education systems and the flat world.

Niti's picture

"The flat world is different. The flat world really does reward individuality, creativity, freedom, initiative. Tom says that too, but he also seems to think school can solve the problem when, in fact, school may be a big part of the problem. And not only in the US. Other countries may have better educational systems than we have in the US, but those countries also produce plenty of intellects whose self-education is far more helpful than whatever they obtain from school. And the ability to self-educate is essential in the flat new world."

Circumstances allowed for me to be educated in the British system (complete with prefects, headboys and house colours), an American High School, a Montessorri kindergarten run by nuns in Calcutta. From my experience, entering the American School as a senior, after years of strict rules and proper guidelines seemed like freedom. Even in class, where debate was encouraged as was disagreement with the teacher, intellectual freedom and curiosity seemed to be the things that differentiated the US system to the British and Indian systems which were far more academic and exam oriented. Until I came to the US, and actually met more than just those few who attended international schools (corporate expatriates and diplomat's children) my experience had led me to the conclusion that the US educational system provided children with the ability to think for themeselves and to be curious and creative, unlike the rote learning method propagated in other systems.

You mention that the "ability to self educate" is missing, it gives me pause to think of why, and to question my long held belief. It's not the educational system per se, but the culture built up around priorities in school. The system itself is not the problem, so much as the focus on being popular, captain of the football team, dates and social life versus the innate belief being passed on in other cultures that your teens are for study and to obtain good grades thus setting yourself up for life, and focusing on "life" can be done later.


Oh my eyes, my eyes...

Fikret's picture

I totally agree with you. I completed my education up to B.S. in Europe. I realized how incompetent the system was with its strict rules. Simply the system couldnot overcome its own potential problems becasue of that. I completed my MS degree in US, which I enjoyed substantially. I have completed projects, tasks where I identified my strengths and weaknesses without being surrounded by exams and bell curves. I have found enough grounds and support from the system to express myself, investigate and learn than ever before, priceless.

Schooling in the U.S.

Stephen's picture

This brings to light an interesting dichotomy regarding education in the U.S. It is important to note that all the ills of public education discussed so far here relate to primary (elementary through high school) education. The public school system on the whole for K-12 follows the same rote learning approach as the European school system. If you went through a more rewarding primary education experience, count yourself blessed; it is certainly not the norm.

From what I have been able to tell, things get better (though far from perfect) at undergraduate colleges; private ones seem to foster the "learning is vital, fun, absorbing, and self-directed" idea better than public ones (such as state universities) though there are exceptions. The better ones (like the one I got my B.A. in math from (yes, a B.A. in math)) make the point that education really is your own responsibility and you need discipline to get there.

The fact that you had such a good experience at the graduate level just reinforces that you hvae to go that far in the educational system in the States to have that sort of reward.

One correlation I find extremely interesting is that our dawning "flat" world (in terms of software) has more to do with the success of homeschooling than just about anything else. Yes, it could be done with just a local library, but think about the excitement a grade-school aged child has when a parent teaches about a subject that can then be explored to the full depths of the child's interest and ability just because the web is there and made possible by the flatness of the web's software landscape... My wife is in a section about space with our 9-year-old; it is very helpful to have the public resources of NASA at our disposal.

Flat World

Nick's picture

I must agree with what imho said. Because, I believe the school is just a stepping stone and it can not teach you everything. This is what normally university is supposed prepair you for is self study to better your required knowledge. One must be prepaired to continuously self educate oneself or one stays behind in the dust. Also, there are many challenges in life and unless one is lucky enough to die on the job while married to one company one has to be prepared to meet the new challenges by self educating. Unfortunately large corporations, nor the educational system, do not accept that as a viable alternative to formal education. Regardless, being able to do the job well is what this is all about. And through my experience in the industry I found out that many times people who did well at school (75%-85%) adapted to and performed better in the real world than the aces.

I agree..........

Anonymous's picture

Class room education often falls short due to the age old situation of being taught by those who never did anything but teach what they were taught by those who never did..........
I've often worked with very bright engineers that couldn't replace a battery who came in with a better salary than myself and became my superior but I did the job, taught them how and they recieved the bonuses, parking slots, certificates, and promotions as I taught their replacements the same old routine over and over agian.
I learned the hard way, "library, hard knocks, military school etc".
Years ago my military education was more valuable than a college degree. Today a college degree of PHD is often quoted on the open job requirements for work I have been doing for years. PHD????? Holy crap! This is easy stuff, is a PHD now about setting in class to get the paper without knowing anything about what the job is? I think so!
Ten years ago I was in demand as very qualified, sometimes over qualified. Now I've reached a certian age with even more experience and more education, "self taught" I find that often I'm turned down for a position I would really like to have and would be able to do the job standing on my head for someone younger with a statement that he or she has more experinece than me, or is more qualified.
I'd like the chance to see who can do the best job.........
I'm now getting this quite often and I know what it really means.
It means I'm two damnd old. How could someone just out of college with no hands on experience be better qualified than someone who is up to date with technology and has had more hands on time than the new grad has been alive?

Academically oriented hiring

Anonymous's picture

Google also makes applicants submit college transcripts.

Not Entirely True

Bill Anderson's picture

Google also makes applicants submit college transcripts.

I've been through the process with Google. Was never even asked for a transcript, at any stage.

That said, transcripts can tell you quite a bit about a person, much more than an IQ test, degree, or professional certificate can.

Interesting integration of Gatto and Friedman

Miles's picture

Hey, I think you put the ideas of Gatto, whom I admire, but who hasn't spoken in the last few years to the best of my knowledge, into a very relevant and timely context.... Friedman's new book and ideas.

Great work connecting these idea sets.


found you via groklaw I think

Gatto speaks

COD's picture

Gatto spoke this past weekend at a homeschool conference in MD. Unfortunately, Little League practice kept me from attending.

If you are interested, I'm 1/3 of the way thorough a real time review of The Underground History of American Education at my weblog


Ian Marsman's picture

Thanks very much. I have similar interests to you and so enjoy what you write, but I also had an un-fun time in school, although I was never labelled slow. This topic is very relevent to me at the moment as I try to help my daughter, a very bright girl who does not enjoy doing pages and pages of math sums or loads of group activities. The school's response to this, at least in part, has been to suggest that she has ADD and that she should be put on Ritalin. Argggh. Thanks for the article.

Homeschooling can be wonderful

lindanell's picture

My homeschooled son emailed me the link to this and sent a heartfelt 'thank you' to my husband and me for homeschooling him. I doubt there is a greater tribute to home schooling. He and his wife plan to homeschool their children when they are old enough.

I know that he was taught the core subjects, but allowed time to follow up on the subjects he found of interest. He was checking out books from the library on trig during the summer while still in grade school. He made excellent grades on the ACT and SAT tests and entered the university of his choice with ease. If I remember correctly, he aced the math scores on both. He CLEPped out of all math at college, including Calculus. He graduated Magna Cum Laud. And, self-learning continues to be his style.

We love him very much and chose the method of education we felt was best for him ... so regardless of the nay-sayers of homeschooling, I will always feel we made the right choice and don't regret any of the sacrifices we made to see he got it.


Anonymous's picture

Yeah, I know, it is used by fools to keep their children dumber than they. It is also used to help children learn more than their parents.

The question is simple : is your daughter the most precious thing in the world (besides mine) or not?


Anonymous's picture


The cool kids call it homeschooling, not home-schooling and not home schooling.

But most of the cool kids would not be cool in a public school...


Home Schooling Works.

Bob Robertson's picture

I, too, had 12 years of forced labor for the crime of being young. I read like a sponge, college books at age 10, and failed English "class".

Homeschooling works, and works well. Without bells to say when to start and stop a subject can be explored, not just studied. Turning the TV off is a great beginning, reading to the child when young sparks interest in reading and once reading is available there is no subject that is unreachable even if all the parent knows about the subject is what hours the local library is open.

Don't limit it to "broadband", text loads perfectly well over dial-up.

California is already crushing home-schooling where ever possible, labeling those who try as "child abusers" and the kids as "truant". In North Carolina, I have to register my son with the state, and register myself and provide proof that I have a diploma they recognize as valid before I am allowed to home school. Even a state as "libertine" as New Hampshire requires registration, and there are many states where it is outright illegal.

We in the FOSS community talk about the dangers of predatory monopolies every day. Government is the most powerful most predatory monopoly that has every existed.

Howdy from a good homeschooling state

Anonymous's picture

New Hampshire comes in close to the bottom of the list of states that are good for homeschoolers.

There are no states where is it outright illegal.

We live in Texas and that state rates close to the top of the list.


(wishing there was a list I could point at...)

(pointers to this article are circulating the homeschool oriented mailing lists. Now if we could get homeschoolers to understand the benefits of Linux :-) )

Linux, New Hampshire, and Homeschool

Anonymous's picture

New Hampshire is a wonderful state to homeschool. Its certainly not Pennsylvania or Massachusetts. NH has relatively few requirements and just abolished one of the few we have. We have been homeschooling here for 12 years, and our two oldest went straight to college (Ivy League and "baby Ivy.")

Open Source is wonderful but discipline is needed too. Just compare the ease of installation of Debian Linux (a truly open source distrib) vs. SUSE. SUSE works out of the box, no tweeking arcane files.

And intelligence matters -- just look at the elegance of FreeBSD with their relatively closed development community vs. the splintering of Linux.

Homeschoolers already understand the benefits of Linux. My son started
with SUSE 6.2 in what schools call 4th grade. However he has migrated to FreeBSD as it is a far more secure and stable OS. And it runs Linux binaries.

Home Schooling

Ian Marsman's picture

We are giving home schooling serious consideration.


max's picture

I also think about it - kids needs better quality of education.