Friday, June 22, 2012

Brokaw - The Time of Our Lives

I watched Tom Brokaw, long-time and respected news commentator, being interviewed by John Stewart a couple of months ago about his new book, The Time of Our Lives (2011). The interview was interesting enough that I chose to pick up the book on my last return trip from the U.S.A. to Qatar. It is a modest book, yet it still has some merit as a reflection of an elder statesman on what he sees as the promise of recapturing the “American Dream.” While clearly focused on America, some of the issues may be relevant in other national contexts where citizens are striving to achieve a higher quality and standard of living.

Brokaw covers everything from world politics (particularly the Arab Spring) to the breakdown of education in the U.S.A. to the exploitation of capitalism that startled us into reflecting on what we are doing. In essence, he suggests that America has lost its way from an earlier day of citizens striving to do their best while serving the greater good of a complex and multicultural society. The shared vision and patriotism that served America so well in the early 20th century has, in Brokaw’s estimation, eroded into a situation where, and quoting the champion of civic leadership John Gardner, “leaders in all segments of our society today… are rewarded for a single-minded pursuit of the interests of their group. They are rewarded for doing battle, not compromising” for the good of all (p. 24).

In addressing faltering educational achievement in the U.S.A., Brokaw noted that not only is there a disparity in earnings between college and high school-educated adults but that there is also a chasm of optimism – those with more education earn more and have greater confidence that they can achieve their dreams while those without education and consequential lower earnings potential exhibit despair over their status in life. The facts are that higher educated individuals (a minimum of a college degree) have half the divorce rate, half the obesity incidence, half the smoking rate, and they vote twice as often as others with lower education (p. 85). But it isn’t just that those with college educations do better, it is the type of education they receive that matters most. In comparing the style of college education in the U.S.A. to the rising interest in education in China, Brokaw quotes a study by Simon and Cao that concluded, “Chinese universities have become technique focused… Rote learning, in which students who can answer questions in classrooms may not be able to solve and manage real life problems” (p. 70). Engagement with real problems and taking responsibility for one’s learning is a distinctive quality of American education that perhaps China doesn’t even know it is missing.

Brokaw’s proposal for recapturing the American Dream is to invest more in education, reverse the rising debt young people take on to acquire their degrees, and then create ways for citizens to reinvest themselves in the welfare of others. He provides several examples of young wealthy Americans who have given portions of their wealth away in order to start not-for-profit organizations to serve others. He recommends that an expanded service core be created that requires all young people to sacrifice in service to their country, rather than only asking the poor among young adults to risk their lives in military service. Finally, he proposes that American business take a careful look at its purposes – is it only creating balance sheets that result in quick and ephemeral gain or should the role of business be to create sustainable performance dedicated to a wider purpose?

Brokaw spends the concluding pages of the book reflecting with nostalgia on the relationship he had with his parents and what he seeks to instill in the hearts of his grandchildren. He proposes that perhaps one of the most promising opportunities for the “Great Generation” and “Boomers” is to engage with their children and grandchildren, to encourage a return to the values that they’ve seen make a difference in America, and to return themselves to more modest and service-based living.

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