06/22/2008 04:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Two Million Minutes Takes a Lifetime to Endure

It feels like it takes 2 million minutes to suffer through the insufferable 2 Million Minutes (it takes 54). It was worth my time 'cause then I can write about it in several places, but I have to admit I borrowed the copy I viewed. Not about to plunk down $25 for something I knew I'd hate (I had seen the producer and clips on ABC TV).

2 Million Minutes is roughly the time that elapses from the start of 9th grade to the end of the senior year. It follows a boy and a girl in the U. S., India, and China. The idea that two kids could represent a country is ludicrous on its face, especially for a country that has one third of its people still illiterate (India) and one where 40% of the students don't get past 9th grade (China).

The Americans are slackers, although they have ambitions and get good grades in a highly rated high school in Carmel, Indiana. The Indian and Chinese students are hypergrinds, 24/7 students (the Indian boy does kick a soccer ball around and sings with a group he and three friends have formed). They go to school many more hours and do much more homework. Rohit, the Indian boy, says American kids have more fun. "In India, you're cooped up studying," Then he adds with a smile, "At least you're SUPPOSED to be cooped up and studying. One senses his computer does other things than homework. Ruizhan admits to playing computer games a lot while he's cooped up.

Rohit says that by the time you reach 17 in India, you know what you'll be doing the rest of your life. Neil, the American says he can imagine doing many different things over a lifetime, anything except sitting in a cubicle. The Indians and Chinese want to be engineers, although the Chinese girl potentially has a musical career option.

Options. That's really what the video is about although it never emphasizes that. American kids have them, Chinese and Indian kids don't.

The voiceover and still screens supply the usual (and sometimes erroneous) statistics about 900 hours in school for Americans and 1500 in front of TV. There's the infamous 70% graduation rate which has been attacked, successfully in my judgment, for using bad methods that overestimate the drop out rate.

Three of the four Indian and Chinese students do not get their university of choice (the one Rohit applies to gets over 100,000 applications a year. The Indian students end up in nearby universities. Xiaoyuan, the Chinese girl studies music. Ruizhan gets his university of choice, but a general studies program, not the advanced math program he wanted. Neil gets a full scholarship to Purdue to study computer graphics while Brittany, the American girl, enters Indiana University with a double major--pre-med and Spanish.

Brittany early on mentions well-roundedness as a goal. Neil was captain of the football team the previous year but gave it up "to pursue other interests" in the words of the video. The foreign kids never talk about anything but studies.

The kids are interspersed with interviews of "experts." Some offer good comments, some don't. Vivek Wadhwa who splits his time between Harvard and Duke thinks that the U. S. hasn't fully realized the nature of globalization. But he also points out when you have economic security the way American students mostly do, there is not the external push for success. American students "have to rev their internal engines. In India, the students are struggling to get out of poverty." Makes a difference (I think between Duke and Harvard, Vivek might have a somewhat romanticized notion of economic security in this nation). Vivek, by the way, was part of a team at Duke that first debunked the false "650,000 Chinese engineers." Turned out a lot of "engineers" in China (India too) were what we'd call "technicians" at most.

For my money, the best comment from the experts came from another Indian-American, Vivek Paul who arrived here in 1980 and went on to found what became a multi-billion dollar company. "What America is REALLY about is creating opportunity. Economic mobility is greater in the U. S. It doesn't exist that much in other countries. This really is the land of opportunity." (I recall hearing a German businessman say once that if Bill Gates were a German, he'd still be a middle-level manager).

Toward the end, when the Indian or Chinese kids were on the screen, I wanted to yell at it: "Get a Life!" Not as a put down, but as a wake up call.

Related Note: When I came back from a visit to China in 1996, people who had been their 5-10 years earlier didn't recognize my descriptions. On June 21, the program "On the Media" was broadcast from China and a group of young people talking to hostess Brooke Gladstone said China has generation gaps just like we do, but they come every 8 years. One commentator mentioned that China now makes and consumes more concrete that the rest of the countries in the world combined.