If Thomas Friedman were Mormon . . .

If Thomas Friedman were Mormon . . . March 5, 2017
Thomas Friedman. Image obtained through Creative Commons.

The New York Times columnist would love the Church’s Global Education Initiative, but Donald Trump wouldn’t.

I recently finished reading New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s book Thank You For Being Late. It’s a timely examination of three forces whose acceleration is rapidly changing our world: technological progress, globalization, and climate change. Friedman argues that in order to keep up with the breakneck speed of these transformations, government and the private sector will need to develop new partnerships and platforms to prepare today’s workers for tomorrow’s jobs. He references a number of ways that this is already being done – corporations in Minnesota are working with nonprofits to train workers for vacant jobs in their factories; universities are easing access to education by embracing online learning; and nanodegree sites like Udacity are helping people gain useful skills to advance their careers.

Recently, I felt as if the LDS Church had gotten a hold of an advance copy of the book. Although I didn’t learn about it until this last week, apparently last summer the Utah-based church rolled out what it calls the Global Education Initiative (GEI). This effort, which encompasses a wide variety of programs, seeks to use the Church’s existing infrastructure, coupled with online resources, to make education more accessible to both Church members and nonmembers.

The initiative, crafted under the direction of Commissioner of Church Education Kim B. Clark, the former dean of Harvard Business School, is impressive. It partners with Church-owned universities, like BYU and BYU-Idaho, to offer online certification and degree programs in a number of high-demand fields, like programming, healthcare administration, and web design. It also offers remedial education opportunities for those who might not be ready for college coursework and provides English instruction for foreign-language speakers. Perhaps most interesting, it hosts a program called “Corporate Connect,” which partners with companies to train workers for specific jobs those businesses need filled. At the end of a Corporate Connect program, all those who completed the work are guaranteed an interview with the partnering company.

The Global Education Initiative embraces many of the educational solutions championed in Friedman’s book, and it showcases the Church’s commitment to lifelong learning. But that’s not all it shows – it also demonstrates the deep divide between the LDS Church and Trumpism. While this divide was often highlighted during the presidential campaign, this program offers a concrete example of the vastly different value sets that underlie their conflicting worldviews. Whereas Trump seems committed to the futile, Sisyphean task of fighting the tides of globalization by imposing job-killing tariffs and offering kickbacks to manufacturers, the Church is preparing workers for the future by giving them the skills to transition from vanishing jobs in manufacturing to careers in the high-growth fields of technology and healthcare. And while Trump trumpets an “us-versus-them” worldview, in which white Americans are arrayed in battle against an illusive “other,” the GEI demonstrates the Church’s embrace of universalism – the program is available to Mormons and non-Mormons, Americans and foreigners, citizens and undocumented immigrants.

I won’t deny it – I’ve been somewhat discouraged by the public stances the LDS Church has taken recently. Allowing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to perform at Trump’s inauguration, letting Elder Christofferson pray at his prayer breakfast, and failing to stop emeritus general authority Robert C. Oaks from taking an active role in the Trump campaign all seem to indicate that the Brethren don’t understand the threat that the Donald poses to America and the universalist values that the Church embraces. But programs like the GEI give me hope – they tell me that, despite the Church’s political faux pas, there is still a world of difference between the principles of Mormonism and those espoused by the Quack from Queens.

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