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Friedman Argues Imagination Key to America's Future

October 9, 2009 | by Marla Paul
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman addresses attendees at the inauguration of President Morton Schapiro. Photo by Peter Barreras

Listen to remarks by Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman

"Do you think it was just a coincidence that Citibank, Iceland's banks and the ice banks of Antarctica all melted at the same time?" Thomas Friedman asked the audience assembled for Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro's inauguration. "I don't."

Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, said, he thinks all these things happened at the same time "because this thing we call the great recession was a moment when the market and Mother Nature hit a wall."  He called the economic crisis "a warning heart attack" that we were growing in unsustainable ways in the financial and natural world. It also revealed America's education crisis and broken public school education system, Friedman said.

But universities are going to provide some of the cures, he predicted.

As an example of America's out-of-control growth, he recalled a visiting a strip mall in his hometown of Minneapolis that had two Caribou Coffee shops. The morning lines in one store had gotten too long, so instead of just adding another coffee machine, they added another coffee shop. "Such is life in our age of excess," Friedman said.

What got us into trouble is our situational values that pragmatically exploit short-term opportunities, he said. Rather, we need to think and behave in ways that sustain our natural world, business relations, personal relations and our community.

Friedman said he hopes universities will help define and teach a new model of growth. He envisioned a class, for example, that would be team-taught by an environmentalist, a banking specialist and an ethics professor. He said it could be called " 21st Century Capitalism: How to Grow in An Environmentally and Economically Sustainable Way."

"We need a model of growth to pass on to our kids," Friedman said.

Not only does our financial system need "a reboot and an upgrade" but also our education system, Friedman said. "Just being an average vanilla accountant, lawyer or contractor or assembly line worker is not the ticket it use to be. ... It's all about what chocolate sauce, whipped cream and cherry you can put upon your vanilla."

Not only do we need a higher percentage of kids graduating from high school and college, they need to have "the right education," Friedman said. Schools need to foster innovation and creativity.

"We need to invent and innovate our way out of this crisis," Friedman said. We need to engineer products and services that people need to make their lives more productive, more healthy, more environmentally sound and more enjoyable. "We need good engineers to designs those things and we need liberal arts graduates to imagine those things," he said.

"Imagination is the single most important competitive advantage we have today as a country," he stressed. "Imagining a new project is where the magic is. A liberal arts education is the best fountain for imagination."

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