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Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination

One of the few constants we have in education is time – and how we choose to use that time has a profound effect on both the individual and the country in which we live.

That principle is at the core of Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination, a recent film by entrepreneur/venture capitalist Bob Compton that juxtaposes how students from China, India and the United States are using those high school years. Compton’s vision, interspersed with commentary from Robert Reich, Bart Gordon, Richard Freeman and others, paints a vivid portrait of the position of the United States – and its potential future – in the global economy.

In its own words, 2MM is:

… a deeper look at how the three superpowers of the 21st Century – China, India and the United States – are preparing their students for the future. As we follow two students – a boy and a girl – from each of these countries, we compose a global snapshot of education, from the viewpoint of kids preparing for their future.

Before reading my comments on the film, I invite you to view the trailer on YouTube:

Having screened the pre-release of the film [the DVD will be available on November 15, I believe], I’d like to present my comments and whet your appetite for a must-see.

2MM is a clear, direct and eye-opening film that analyzes our global readiness with 6 examples – a boy and a girl from China, India and the United States – and sharp, relevant commentary from a diverse crowd of authorities.

We see a relaxed, individually-focused pair in the United States in stark contrast to the intellectually- and career-driven Chinese. And the Indians, though somewhat in the middle of that continuum of seriousness, are still seemingly more committed and prepared to contribute in adulthood than the average American student.

2MM isn’t the first to expose this difference – it is, however, the first to present the situation conceptually yet convincingly and ask, “Now what?

But I think this film goes beyond posing that question. 2MM shows clearly that the US, India and China [or more simply, the US and everyone else] have very different concepts of what education is and how it supports the answer to the question, “How do we live?”

In 2MM, the Indians and Chinese have a solid answer to, “How do we live?” – both explicitly and implicitly – and have built their education systems into that mindset. In the United States, we simply don’t use public education to live our lives in any specific way. We use school to teach skills [in theory] that will equip students to pursue whatever they’d like to pursue. We don’t have an answer to the question.

Two things are happening right now: 1) our world is flattening; and 2) we can see it. In a way, our shutter speed has increased due to communication advances, so we’re able to look at/analyze parts of that flat world with a speed and efficiency that we’ve never been able to. We’ve got a more easily analyzed plane and a better way to view it.

What we’re seeing – what 2MM shows – is almost a split-screen video of a few different approaches to how we live our lives. If we think of it as a race and the world as the field upon which that race is run, we can look at it this way:

1. The Chinese and Indian students are trained, prepared and committed to running from the starting line to the finish line within well-defined boundary lines. They’re going from Point A to Point B in a straight line. They don’t deviate.

2. The two American students aren’t running that same well-defined race. They’re watching it, figuring out how to organize it, they’re marketing it, they’re considering all the possibilities related to it – but they aren’t going from start to finish in their own lane. And if they choose to run, they’re running the way they want to and in whichever direction they choose.

There are advantages to both approaches here – we know this. But it also isn’t new. What’s new is that our flatter world and faster shutter speed allows us to juxtapose the two starkly different approaches. 100 years ago, when our flatter earth was mountainous and our progress slower, and when we were unable to see so clearly how different countries ran their races, it was very difficult to see. Now we’re all on the same plane, we’re looking at the progress in real-time and we’re seeing two separate performances.

The question isn’t, “Now what?” – it’s, “How do we want to live?” and then reforming or re-developing a public education system based on our answer. 2MM lays the foundation for this discussion.

2MM raises questions not just about how we want to live, but whether we want to instead just accept what we’ve got, run with our strengths and accept the consequences.

And then there’s the business world with which Mr. Compton is intimately familiar – a world that can’t afford to wait 100 years for this question to be answered properly.

NCLB barely scratches the surface of answering this question as it relates to our education system – I’d liken it more to lifting the sheet that covers it, taking a peek and reporting back – and it has divided the country’s education profession badly. Suggesting that discussing such broad, holistic questions as, “How do we want to live?” and, “How does public education support that?” is a tough project is an incredible understatement.

But 2MM has the capacity to open up forums for this debate in a way that we haven’t yet seen. One need not be an educator or policy wonk to be engaged by this film – we’re all stakeholders.

The film’s blog is titled, “What Should America Do?” – it’s about time we get started on the answer. Two Million Minutes has already begun.

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28 Responses to “Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination”

  1. Glen says:

    I’m excited to see this. I saw Compton talk in Boston at Harvard where the film was screened. He’s very impressive. The academics debated for hours on a Friday night. It clearly hit a nerve and showed how far we have to go and how much we have to do.

  2. Maya Frost says:

    Hi Matt,

    I appreciated your comments on the film, Two Million Minutes!

    I interviewed both Bob Compton and the film’s director, Chad Heeter, last week. I thought you might like to take a look at my post on this at

    http://freeagentu.wordpress.com/2007/11/07/two-million-minutes-gets-people-thinking-or-well-some-people-anyway/

    Thanks for stirring up discussion!

    Cheers,
    Maya

  3. Clayton says:

    Hi [First Name],

    I enjoyed checking out your blog. I’m a recent grad in Silicon Valley, and I’ve just started a company that is mapping the blogosphere to our world. Here is an example of a blogger in Georgia who’s plugged in: http://www.verveearth.com/landing/#type=user&id=772. It can be fun to explore different localities.

    It’s an easy process to get on board, and I can be reached at clayton@verveearth.com for questions or feedback. If you resonate with the vision of painting a global canvas of voices, please give VerveEarth a mention.

    Cheers! -Clayton

  4. Neil Ahrendt says:

    “The two American students aren’t running that same well-defined race. They’re watching it, figuring out how to organize it, they’re marketing it, they’re considering all the possibilities related to it – but they aren’t going from start to finish in their own lane. And if they choose to run, they’re running the way they want to and in whichever direction they choose.”

    It’s interesting seeing so many people analyze my life to a much deeper extent than I ever have, but I will say you’ve pretty much summarized the popular American student’s view on education. But truly, I think we are to blame for this: if we continue to tell our children that they should explore whatever they want, find what interests them, be all that they can be, etc etc, how can we expect them to do anything but constantly be searching for this?
    We don’t gear our schools towards producing engineers and scientists because 1) we realize most American kids don’t see the ‘glory’ of being one and 2) most American kids aren’t smart enough to become one. American public schools cater to the lowest common denominator, trying to raise up the average rather than concentrate on those with the potential for success. As a result, the smartest and most capable fall through the cracks and end up bored and unchallenged with high school. That’s not to say we won’t end up with the same high-tech jobs (Some of my best friends are now studying at institutions like Colombia, Rose Hulman, Georgetown, etc), but looking at the public high school experience in the US you will realize that there is little in terms of a challenge for students like me; we have to seek out that challenge on our own time, and if a child isn’t self-motivated, it isn’t going to happen.

    Thanks for helping to open up this discussion a little more; I’m sure in the coming weeks, there will be a much larger forum in which to debate.

    -Neil

  5. Matthew says:

    Neil,

    My only real concern with the coming debate – and I think that 2MM truly is setting the stage for it – is that we’re going to look too negatively on the way Americans go about their education. You and Brittany certainly considered topics in the film that the other students never touched, but I think it’s a mistake to condemn our style as having a total lack of seriousness of purpose.

    You and Brittany had part-time jobs, will likely do some work in college and, at the least, have solid internships for a couple of those college years. By the time you’re 22 or 23, you’ll have 6-7 [or more] years of varied, progressively more difficult work experience – and hopefully it’ll align in some way with what you’re studying. This is hugely valuable.

    The video also mentions confidence. I think that ‘confidence’ oversimplifies it and is slightly tendentious – few people are *less* certain/confident about their lives than a 17-year old [hey, it's just the way it works] – but the attitude is worth noting. There’s a great deal of capital carried in that attitude.

    The economy isn’t everything [though it's pretty close...] In recent years we’ve considered the topic of ‘social capital’ more than in the past. Guys like Robert Putnam have produced solid works that show us that mundane social institutions like the PTA and bowling leagues matter a great deal to our country’s development – or at least they can tell us what’s happening. Non-economic factors are going to play a serious role in how we fare.

    But it’s not just us – the rest of the world is changing socially at an even faster pace. I fear that the discussion resulting from 2MM might downplay the social aspects of the Chinese and Indian cases. It isn’t the film’s fault; most people seeing it just don’t have enough knowledge of the other cultures, or social organization/trends as a whole, to comment on those two countries.

    I have a feeling that I’m in a tiny minority here – we’ll see as the debate progresses – but I think that the American students are in the best position.

  6. Pat says:

    I’m excited about seeing this film. Of course the trailer implies that American students are just party goers and not committed to their education but for every 1 of these, I could show you a student at my school is the complete opposite. I’m sure the same goes for India and China. I hope though that this is a wake up call to Americans to get their butts in gear because this is the way the world pecieves all Americans.

  7. Lynn says:

    Hi Matt,
    I just reviewed the DVD also and I agree with much of what you’ve said. 2MM is a glimpse of 4 years in a student’s life. Does opportunity end after that? I think in America there is always opportunity. What are the opportunities for Indian and Chinese students who don’t quite make the grade in a high stakes high school environment? I’m not exactly sure.

    Michael Barone in his book Hard America, Soft America states that our incompetent 18-year-olds become the most competent 30-year-olds in the world. I think we need to look at a bigger window than just secondary school. Yes, we have lousy schools compared to the rest of the world but that’s not the end of the story.

  8. Mini says:

    I am fortunate to have come across your posting. I have 4 kids, one in college, two in high school and one in middle school. Their high school is considered to be more than reasonable, but I have never found it to be a stimulating, motivating or an outstanding institution. My kids have done well but it’s not because of the school, it’s what we have expected from them at home.

    There needs to be a whole paradigm shift in the US in the way we think about education – but there is so much inequity in our high schools to begin with that it is an overwhelming prospect. Perhaps this film will be a starting point for dialogue but there is so much to talk about.

    One question that needs to be asked is: Not only will our students be able to compete in the 21st century but will they want to, if it means a shift in our own personal value systems?

    BTW, I posted the trailer on my blog, thanking you for pointing it out to me. I have been reading your blog and really enjoy it.

  9. I have made this argument before, but assuming 2MM is as alarmist about American education as it sounds, I think the makers of this film need to explain what makes their warning different from those we’ve heard before. It actually sounds reminiscent of LIFE Magazine’s series on the crisis in American education in 1958. They followed a couple of American students and a couple of Russian students around and gave the impression that we were about to be buried by the Soviet Union because of our inferior education system. Then there was Nation at Risk in 1983. Then there was the early 1990s and the warning that we were about to be taken over economically by the Japanese. Despite all this, it was reported this summer that the American working force is the most productive in the world, and as Lynn points out, our 30-year-olds–most of whom came out of public schools–seem to be the toughest in the world.

    I ask again, what makes the message from this film more valid than the message from LIFE Magazine fifty years ago?

  10. Neil says:

    “My kids have done well but it’s not because of the school, it’s what we have expected from them at home.”

    I think that is key – American parents have continually blamed the school system for a lack of progress, rather than pointing the finger in the mirror at the real cause. In other cultures (like those in the film), it is shown as a failure on the part of the parents, not the schools, if the child does not succeed. But in yet another step to remove all personal responsibility from the American citizen, we’re content with accusing the schools of shirking their responsibility when it is the parent who should’ve demanded more of the child.

  11. Maya Frost says:

    Absolutely true, Neil.

    As the mother of four daughters, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to see how the system works and it always amazes me how much time some parents spend complaining about how this teacher is lousy or that teacher is impossible to deal with.

    Once again, it’s about time. The parent is making a choice to spend more time complaining about that B that should have been an A instead of actually helping the student or getting realistic about expectations. (We understand the source of grade inflation–the parents are demanding those higher grades.)

    As for the comment that this film is stirring the same pot stirred by previous books forecasting doom, what is different is the numbers. We have never been faced with anything like this in terms of exponential growth. There are more honors students graduating in China each year than there are STUDENTS in the US. There are twice as many English-speaking college grads coming out of Indian universities each year than there are American students graduating.

    In the past, we may have worried about a superior education system in Japan, but we never worried about those students outnumbering us. China and India collectively graduate TWELVE TIMES more engineers each year than the US. So, even if we could dramatically improve our education system overnight, we are in a losing race in terms of volume.

    THAT is the what makes it different this time around, and it’s the reason this film needs to be seen by as many parents, educators, policymakers and business leaders as possible.

    Best,
    Maya

  12. Mini says:

    As I have already said, I too, have dealt with the school system for 20 years (given the span of my 4 kids) – and yes there are some people who care more about the grade and blame the teacher for it then actually look at their kid -but isn’t this part of the problem? If the parents are not motivating their kids to perform at their best, and instead blame the system for their “failures” then we are really losing. Yes, there are a lot of failures in our system and we need to really begin to work at addressing and fixing the problems – because I do believe we will fall behind (if we haven’t already) – BUT along with institutional and system changes – we also need to look at what motivates our kids and drives them (or not) to succeed. This is an important part of the puzzle.

    How do we get a chance to view this film? I would love to have a screening at our local cinema for parents, students and community members. I am the co-chair of a local educational foundation – I am sure we could pack our local theater by doing a screening – i would even involve one of our high school student organizations in the planning. Any ideas about who I could contact?

  13. Mini says:

    I answered my own question – just found the website and see that the DVD will be available for purchase soon. I have emailed the producers.

  14. Bill Farren says:

    Having only seen the trailer, I wonder if the film addresses which students are more content. As is usually the case, it seems like the only point of view that is ever considered is the economic one. The trailer showed cranes, construction and other signs of “economic growth”. However, I doubt it addresses what is being lost in the process of growing an economy–both for the students and their societies. I’m more worried about countries that educate their best to enter the industrial economy without affording them any chance to discover what really makes them happy.

  15. “As is usually the case, it seems like the only point of view that is ever considered is the economic one.”

    The only point of view considered by whom?

  16. Bill Farren says:

    By the makers of the film.

  17. I guess my question wasn’t very clear – “As is usually the case” implies that there are plenty of other cases. Who do you mean?

  18. Bill Farren says:

    By the popular media, by educators, by politicians, by pundits, by policy makers…

  19. If all those people really are considering the economic point of view, they’re doing a remarkably poor job with its implementation.

  20. Sunny says:

    Hi everyone…
    Great discussion going on…

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, I will try for a DVD this weekend.

    I am an Indian came to US recently on a business trip.

    After reading the discussion, I want to post my views in an Indian perspective.

    Most of the posts above focus on American parents not motivating their child… American schools are not motivating the students… I feel that the students here have lot of options to choose their future (if the child is self-motivated).

    But it is reverse in India. Parents decide how they want to see their child in next 10-15 years and they will plan the child studies (no matter the child is interested or not).
    The day child born, parents decide that I he should become Doctor or Engineer or Scientist. If they decide to see their son/daughter as a doctor, they force the child to concentrate in biology, human science from their high school studies. If engineer… mathematics, Science.

    Now a day the students in India feel that they should have liberty to choose what they want to study and what they want to become.

    There are students who bunks the college and party with friends like every where.

    After seeing the movie, I think I can post more sensible comments.

  21. Sunny,

    We’d love to hear your perspective – I think we’d benefit a great deal from hearing teachers, students and businesspeople from both India and China talking about the film.

  22. Xiao Ke says:

    China is a place of war and battle since 2000 years ago, so our people are much sensitive to any possible loss.
    And as everyone know, the family concept is extremly strong in China, so you kids are not just fight better marks for yourself but also for your family.
    But China`s education system is not good in my view, several sentences could not describe the pain.

  23. Mudit says:

    Indian and Chinese education system prepare students for a lifetime of servility and jobs that require them to merely follow the beaten path. Your education system might look cavalier at first sight, but, in the long run, it is from among you that the really top players in nearly every field come out.
    We just prepare an army of office drones in my country and china.
    P.S.-If you want to see the underbelly of our education system, I can show you that. A lot many young people kill themselves, but, then this fact is quietly brushed under the carpet. God forbid, we can’t let an inconvenient truth such as this to throw a spanner in the forward march of our economic growth, can we??

  24. Travis Allen says:

    i want a copy of this film… is there anywhere i can get it

  25. Neil Ahrendt says:

    Travis –
    The official website, http://www.2mminutes.com, has an order form for purchasing the film.

  26. Raj says:

    China and India both have B+ population. They still have lot fewer opportunities compare to an individual in developed world. For a typical Indian to come out good, education (engineer or doctor) provides the best bet (things are changing good bit now a days). If one does mediocre academically it can get tough later on.
    There (in India), one does not think about dropping (taking break) quarter and resume study and think it will not have impact.
    In short, USA provides freedom and opportunity to individual to choose from (spring break or college) vs. In India (generally), from day one parents are more excited and worried about the Kid’s education and try to guide them according to their own and kid’s blended wish. Overall till Middle school, match and science are more thorough in India than here. But USA provides more non-theoretical study opportunities.

  27. AK says:

    I think the US with its excellent universities and educational standards is still at the top.
    I am from India and let me tell you it is very difficult to do a post graduation over here be it in medicine or an MBA.The competition is insane and you have to literally sleep with your books(+be very brainy) to get through any of the top colleges.
    I gave MBA exams last year and got through the written exam of one of the best colleges.(1,00,000 people give the exam and 500 are called for the interview).Finally 120 are selected.I was rejected in the interview round.I felt helpless at that time.After all I was still a failure right?So what good is a place where you have to be GOD to pursue your higher education.I am currently planning to give GMAT so as to gain admission in a US university.The problem is that it costs a lot when those dollars are converted into INR.Hence i am not sure about seeking admission even if i end up with a good score.So where does this lead me to?Nowhere.Just forget about higher education.This is not only my story. Rather this is the story of the Indian youth in general.(We are the lucky ones.Most of the kids do not get a chance to attend school itself)

    Why are Indians so hard working then as shown in the movie?
    Let me answer this.The living conditions for majority of the population are hopeless.
    Now imagine my condition.I used to take the local transport to school everyday.One reaches the bus stop and waits for his bus.The bus finally arrives but with people hanging from it.Now imagine 50 more people getting into the same bus.Now i see a person traveling in is AC car with comfort.What effect does this have on me?I want to be a successful person.It is a choice between living a difficult life or studying hard ,being serious about your career and living a comfortable life(atleast not travel by local transport)
    This gives us the drive to work hard.Life for the ordinary person is very difficult here.
    Now consider US.Since it is a developed country i believe that the state of local transport etc must be not that bad(I am sure people will not be hanging from the bus).A US kid leads a fairly comfortable life.What incentive does he/she have to slog his ass out?None i believe.This is where the difference in attitude creeps in.

    The situations that i have described in India are those of a metropolitan city.Life is even more difficult in the villages.I am personally happy with what i have.I like my country but i know it can get better.The day no student has to feel shattered for not getting in the top 120 out of a 1,00,000 people,the day there are equal opportunities for every kid,the day kids have a choice to pursue a career in innumerable fields (not just medicine or engineering)is the day i will be happy.

  28. We have an interesting debate going on about this subject at the following link:

    http://www.surveymagnet.com/2010/08/us-vs-other-countries-in-education/

    Come join the discussion.

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