The economic ‘rewards’ of America’s obsession with fluff

Inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen’s words of warning on the precarious state of America’s economic strength should not be taken lightly.

Kamen, speaking earlier this month to members of the New Hampshire High Tech Council, provided a statistic that puts the situation starkly. According to Kamen, in 2003, some 62,400 engineers graduated from U.S. universities. In China and India, the total was 3.4 million.

The problem has very little to do with the effort China, India and other nations are putting behind their technology education policies. As Kamen says, it has plenty to do with the cultural choices Americans make every day – choices that have resulted in a nation that now produces more college graduates with degrees in sports management than engineering.

U.S. elected officials and the business community have to wake up to the reality that the nation is today reaping the effects of decades of celebrating fluff and superficiality over creativity and intelligence. In some quarters it’s called anti-intellectualism.

While a lot has been made of the deficiencies of the U.S. education system, solving the problem, as Kamen defines is, is far more difficult than hiring more teachers or coming up with another comprehensive test.

As Kamen says, “We don’t have an education problem in this country, we have a culture problem. We celebrate Hollywood, we don’t celebrate science and technology. And in a free country, you get what you celebrate.” Indeed we do.

If indeed America’s economic strength is imperiled by the last 40 or so years of obsession with cultural, political and economic ephemera, it is because all of us have made the choice to share in the obsession.

In fact, it would be misguided to look at America’s potentially deteriorating international economic status as one between this country and other countries. The fault lies not in others’ desire for economic growth and prosperity, but with Americans’ growing failure to accept the reality that the world economy is very different than it was 40, even 10, years ago.

As Kamen warns, if changes in attitude and focus are not achieved, “this country may not, in the next generation, have the highest standard of living or the best quality of life or all the other things that have always been there.”

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