Minds Over Mines

You may have heard the term “resource curse,” but who knew that you could put numbers to it?

According to a study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the more oil and other natural resources (whether diamonds or coal) that your country has, the worse you’re likely to do in school.

The OECD came to this conclusion by looking at the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, exam, which tests the math and reading of 15-year-olds around the world. Writing in the New York Times over the weekend, Thomas Friedman summed up the findings: “Add it all up and the numbers say that if you really want to know how a country is going to do in the 21st century, don’t count its oil reserves or gold mines, count its highly effective teachers, involved parents and committed students.”

That academic achievement correlates with success is hardly news, of course. But it’s a striking testament to the increasing importance of knowledge work, something Peter Drucker defined and wrote about for much of his life.

Knowledge is the only meaningful resource today,” Drucker declared in Post-Capitalist Society. “The traditional ‘factors of production’—land (i.e., natural resources), labor, and capital—have not disappeared, but they have become secondary. They can be obtained, and obtained easily, provided there is knowledge.”

Photo credit: Pink Sherbert Photography

There was a time, of course, when the United States boasted arguably the best education system in the world. “The only resource in respect to which America can possibly have a competitive advantage is education,” Drucker wrote in his 1967 book The Effective Executive. “American education may leave a good deal to be desired, but it is massive beyond anything poorer countries can afford. For education is the most expensive capital investment we have ever seen.”

In more recent years, the ability of American students to excel in the classroom has come into question. Many other parts of the world—including Macau, Slovenia and Poland—outrank the U.S. on the OECD chart. For his part, Friedman said that Taiwan is his favorite place when it comes to mining its people’s “talent, energy and intelligence.”

What about you? What country do you think is best positioned in this knowledge age—and why?