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By Hedrick Smith
Random House, 1995, 474 pages

Rethinking America is a wide-ranging study of American commerce and education at a time of intensifying global economic and technological competition. Hedrick Smith focuses on four spheres — educational reform, labor-management relations, corporate governance, and industrial policy — arguing that America must develop "new ways of thinking about ourselves," and "a new mind-set" that embraces change, values people, team-work, and learning, develops long-range goals and strategies, and emphasizes the role of partnerships — between educators, parents, and businesses; between labor and management; and between business and government.

The old mind-set, according to Smith, was based on a belief in the value of competitive individual effort rather than cooperation. It also put a premium on the genius, creativity, and skill of the few rather than the collective efforts of the many. It tended to stress the importance of competition between hierarchically structured business firms. And it was predicated on clear divisions between labor and management and between commerce and government. While these assumptions have dominated American business, education, and policy thinking in the past, they are no longer adequate to keep America competitive in the new global marketplace, Smith says. The imperatives of modern economics and the competitive high-tech marketplace require an educated and valued work force operating in environments where short-term profit "is the not the only — or always the most important — criterion of success." Illustrating his points with case studies of such companies as RCA, Ford, IBM, and Motorola, he shows how many firms have found it necessary to fundamentally transform their corporate cultures in order to survive. Team-work, the flattening of hierarchies, labor-management cooperation, an uncompromising commitment to quality, and close collaboration with government are all necessary ingredients for survival in the new global marketplace.

The key to America's success or failure in the future lies in our educational system, in Smith's view. How people are taught to think, to relate to one another, and to work together — i.e., their basic orientation or mind-set — is a product of schooling. To be effective in the new competitive world, education needs to inculcate the habits of mind and the patterns of teamwork that have become the sources of competitive advantage. More than ever before, Smith insists, education must be relevant to the world outside the classroom, to the world beyond graduation. This requires opening new connections between school and business.

Smith drives home this point by contrasting America's educational system with those of Germany and Japan. Both countries stress excellence, but, unlike the United States, they value group achievement as much as individual achievement. Germany and Japan both invest considerably more in young people, and they both view their skills as important social assets for their country's future welfare. This contrasts sharply with the American system, Smith observes, which tends to look upon students as a low priority. This is particularly the case for America's "neglected majority" — the seventy percent of American young people who will graduate from high school but not go on to finish college. An example of what he calls America's "mid-kids" is Jason Fuller, a senior at a suburban Kansas high school, who, like many of his peers, is not headed for college. In Germany, such teenagers are routinely channeled into vocational apprenticeships that lead to good, well-paying jobs. And in Japan they are recruited while still in high school for positions in big corporations. Meanwhile, Jason Fuller, with little guidance from his family or his school, drifts through menial service and clerking jobs before joining the military in the hope of developing a career. "The curriculum and the educational priorities at most American high schools are geared to the college-bound," Smith writes. "The dream of college sets the main agenda for American high school education." This has to change. High school must provide a smooth transition to the world of work as well as offer young people a sufficient training to fully participate in the new economy. This involves transforming America's antiquated school-to-work programs with the help of American industries, labor, and government.

Smith gives several examples of what he calls "American Innovators" who have taken a lead in bringing about educational reform. These include Deb Meier who heads an inner-city New York high school that has developed a highly successful one-on-one mentoring system and innovative teaching and testing methods. He also describes the efforts of Bert Grover, former Wisconsin school superintendent, to establish a groundbreaking system of youth apprenticeships. "[T]he paradigm shift in the world at large is reflected in the common themes of the Innovators," Smith writes. "Their emphasis [is] on people, team-work, learning, long-term strategies, 'patient capital,' new partnerships, power sharing, and, ultimately, the joining of economic forces and institutions that have often clashed in America's past."

Smith makes good points, of course, but this book is less progressive than it at first appears and is therefore something of a disappointment. While he uses the terminology of innovation and renewal, Smith is actually rather old-fashioned in his prescriptions for "rethinking" America. As far back as 1968, William Bennis and Philip Slater (in The Temporary Society) examined the need for restructuring the American workplace and creating a system of education better suited to the needs of our times. Unlike this book, that one was forceful and original. For a more thorough understanding of the forces shaping the global economy, I would pass over this work and go directly to more far-sighted and thought-provoking analyses by people like Hazel Henderson, Paul Hawken, Willis Harman, James Robertson, Herman Daly and John Cobb Jr, to name a few.

Copyright 1996 by Scott London. All rights reserved.