Review: ‘Challenge to America with Hedrick Smith Parts I-IV’

Former N.Y. Times correspondent Hedrick Smith investigates U.S. economic and educational woes and possible solutions in an engrossing account of how the U.S. , sticking stubbornly to the status quo, has been the tortoise to a couple of hares -- Japan and Germany.

Former N.Y. Times correspondent Hedrick Smith investigates U.S. economic and educational woes and possible solutions in an engrossing account of how the U.S. , sticking stubbornly to the status quo, has been the tortoise to a couple of hares — Japan and Germany.

Two years in the making, Smith surveys Japanese manufacturers and examines German auto makers’ skilled teams. Program doesn’t mention Japan’s three-year slump, but does try to explain how Japan forged so far ahead after World War II.

In management and labor, according to Smith, Japan’s biggest industries are run for the benefit of the employees, as well as the owners. The powers of management are limited in Japan by custom, in Germany by law.

In Germany’s Ruhr area, government financing supports steel-producing companies in bad times by retraining workers. U.S. Steel, on the other hand, fired thousands to save itself. As Smith says of U.S. labor, “Millions of workers have found that they are expendable.”

Docu also spotlights how Japanese companies have picked up on undeveloped American concepts like RCA’s 1963 liquid crystal system to enlarge an empire.

In education, Smith investigates primary and high schools in the three countries. Japanese primary school minimizes teacher authority as the youngsters learn discipline, manners and, especially, teamwork. Cooperation and close partnerships are the hallmark of today’s Japanese and German education; according to Smith, the U.S. public system counts on individualism, but lacks purpose.

In today’s Germany, businesses work in partnership with schools so students not headed for college can become apprentices, while Japanese teachers guide students into industry. The program profiles one American youth who has to make his way into post-high school life without guidance.

Not much credit is given to how this country originally built its strengths, or how its production methods defeated Japan and Germany 50 years ago. Nor does it cite those defeats as spurs to the extraordinary vitality of both Japan and Germany from 1945 on.

The challenging program finds that meeting global competition demands closer alliances between schools and businesses, more government-business partnerships in a way that would have been decried as socialistic only recently. But standing pat means losing for sure, insists the report, and the tortoise is left back in the dust of tradition somewhere.

“Challenge” concludes its rich four-hour study with a half-hour interview with President Clinton.

Challenge to America with Hedrick Smith Parts I-IV

(Mon. (3), 9-11 p.m., Tues. (4), 9-11:30 p.m.; PBS)

Production

Filmed in Japan, Germany and the U.S. by Hedrick Smith Prods. Inc. and WETA/Washington, D.C. Exec producer, Philip Burton; producers, Eugene Marner, Kathleen McCleery, Steven York; executive

Crew

Editor, Hedrick Smith; camera, Mark Falstad, Manford Scheer, Foster Wiley, Skip Brown, Del Hall, Tom Hurwitz, Terry Stewart; editors, Cliff Hackel, Bonnie Cutler-Shear; title music, Charles Strouse.

Cast

Host-creator: Hedrick Smith.
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