I first came across Thomas Friedman in 2001 when I read “The Lexus and The Olive Tree”, an excellent primer for understanding globalization. When globalization was bursting into policy circles there were few books that explained the new order so lucidly. Ever since I remained a big admirer of Tom Friedman and eagerly lapped up his wonderful columns in New York Times. Then he wrote “The World is Flat”. It was the very first time in my life I sold back a book I had bought. The book was a bestseller and every American CEO who had not heard of Bangalore grabbed a copy of the book for in-flight reading before they reached Bangalore to negotiate offshore contracts. The book was panned by serious scholars. Yes he shone a nice light on little known aspect of India. Friedman’s book, the outsourcing phenomenon, the massive influx of H1B’s (including me) changed America’s perception of India for the better.
Friedman, however, painted another extreme picture of India. He portrayed an India that was ready to snag Nobel Prizes by the dozens, rock the world technology with innovations, math crazed students, students who took to science like ducks to water and so on. During an interview he was asked why he interviews only CEO’s and never the common man for his books and articles on globalization. Friedman replied “only CEO’s can explain the emerging order”. I was aghast at the hubris and could clearly see how he was losing touch from his days as reporter. His book “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, which brought him fame, was filled with tales of common men. His books on globalization, on the other hand, start and end with Nilakeni, including his latest column in NYT titled “India’s Innovation Stimulus”.
Friedman writes, “just when your mind tells you that this crush of people will surely overwhelm all efforts to lift the mass of India out of poverty, you start to notice a pattern: Every few miles there’s a cellphone tower and a fresh-looking building poking out of the controlled chaos. And the sign out front invariably says “school” — engineering school, biotechnology school, English-language school, business school, computer school or private elementary school. India is still the only country I know where you can find a billboard advertising “physics degrees.”
I did not have the stomach to continue. Friedman thinks flying First Class on a Jet, driving around in a Mercedes, staying at Marriotts and playing golf with Nilakeni gives him a picture of India. Silly guy. Nowhere else in the world he would see a billboard advertising “physics degree” because nowhere else in the world would degrees be sold like popcorn. I saw those boards during my last trip to India and told my dad that it reminded of the inverted V shape boards in front of Udipi hotels saying “today’s special”.
Only in India can a doctor purchase both MBBS+a P.G. degree for a package deal of Rs 1-2 crores. Only in India would MBBS students protest that the passing limit should be brought down by 50%. The much vaunted IIT’s do not even figure in the top 200 universities in the world. The research output of Indian professors, let alone students, is pathetic. I bet that most students do not even know what a ‘peer reviewed journal’ is. Of course not all of America’s students are Feynman’s but the system ‘encourages’ the excellent. An American 12th grade student sits for a 4 hour SAT exam. A medical school aspirant in USA sits for a 7 hour endurance test taking MCAT. In Tamil Nadu politicians and demagogues take pride in abolishing entrance exams. The student in Tamil Nadu is taught to fear exams, the student is taught to abhor merit, the student is taught that he/she is entitled to a college seat.
When the outsourcing phenomenon hit the airwaves, thanks to Lou Dobbs 'Exporting America' program on CNN, the death of IT industry in US was predicted. Friedman and his ilk enthused ‘there is nothing that cannot be digitized and sent to India for completion”. Friedman kept repeating that India graduates a million engineers every year.
Outsourcing is here to stay but the predictions of sending high level jobs never happened. A chief challenge was the quality of Friedman’s graduates. Duke University and McKinsey analysed India’s graduates by including a criterion, ‘employability by a MNC’. The number of qualified Indian graduates fell exponentially. Wall Street Journal ran a detailed report on how woefully inadequate the Indian graduate is. I've worked in the biggest investment banks and have seen at first hand how outsourcing experiments have failed chiefly due to lack of quality work.
Fareed Zakaria wrote in Time magazine, “I went through the Asian educational system, which is now so admired. It gave me an impressive base of knowledge and taught me how to study hard and fast. But when I got to the U.S. for college, I found that it had not trained me that well to think. American education at its best teaches you how to solve problems, truly understand the material, question authority, think for yourself and be creative”. Note, Zakaria is being polite about the education he received in India. I can vouch that most colleges in Tamil Nadu are not fit to be called colleges at all. That any of us turned out any good is despite the colleges we had been through.
If Indians want to progress they should stop drinking from Friedman’s kool-aid. (Drinking the kool-aid is an American expression to say somebody is buying into an idea blindly and is actually dangerous)