Johnny Can't Add

Maybe we need to wake up.

The other day I went to the Web site of Bell Labs, one of the country's premier research outfits. I clicked at random on a research project, Programmable Networks for Tomorrow. The scientists working on the project were Gisli Hjalmstysson, Nikos Anerousis, Pawan Goyal, K. K. Ramakrishnan, Jennifer Rexford, Kobus Van der Merwe, and Sneha Kumar Kasera.

Clicking again at random, this time on the Information Visualization Research Group, the research team turned out to be John Ellson, Emden Gansner, John Mocenigo, Stephen North, Jeffery Korn, Eleftherios Koutsofios, Bin Wei, Shankar Krishnan, and Suresh Venktasubramanian.

Here is a pattern I've noticed in countless organizations at the high end of the research spectrum. In the personnel lists, certain groups are phenomenally over-represented with respect to their appearance in the general American population: Chinese, Koreans, Indians, and, though it doesn't show in the above lists, Jews. What the precise statistical breakdown across the world of American research might be, I don't know. An awful lot of personnel lists look like the foregoing.

Think about this: Asians make up a small percent of the population, yet there are company directories in Silicon Valley that read like a New Delhi phone book. Many of our premier universities have become heavily Asian, with many of these students going into the sciences. If Chinese citizens and Americans of Chinese descent left tomorrow for Beijing, American research, and graduate schools in the sciences and engineering, would be crippled.

Jews are two or three percent of the population. On the rough-cut assumption that Goldstein is probably Jewish, and Ferguson probably isn't, it is evident that Jews are doing lots more than their share of research-and, given that people named Miller may well be Jewish, the name-recognition approach probably produces a substantial undercount. I asked a friend, researching a book on Harvard, the percentage of Asian and Jewish students. Answer: "Asians close to 20%. Jews close to 25%-unofficial, because you are allowed to list by gender, ethnicity, geography, but not religion. Our last taboo."

None of this is original with me. In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences released a study noting that over half of U.S. engineering doctorates are awarded to foreign students. Where are Smith and Jones?

Why are members of these very small groups doing so much of the important research for the United States? That's easy. They're smart, they go into the sciences, and they work hard. Potatoes are more mysterious. It's not affirmative action. They produce. The qualifications of these students can easily be checked. They have them. The question is not whether these groups perform, or why, but why the rest of us no longer do. What has happened?

It is not an easy question, but a lot of it, I think, is the deliberate enstupidation of American education. Again, the idea is not original with me. Said the American Educational Research Association of the NAS report, "Serious deficiencies in American pre-college education, along with wavering support for basic research, were cited by the panel as major contributors to this problem."

Consider mathematics. In the mid-Sixties I took freshman chemistry at Hampden-Sydney College, a solid school in Virginia but not nearly MIT. It was assumed-assumed without thought-that students knew algebra cold. They had to. You can't do heavy loads of highly mathematical homework, or wrestle with ideas like integrating probability densities over three-space, or do endless gas-law and reaction-rate calculations, if you aren't sure how exponents work.

Remedial mathematics at the college level was unheard of. The assumption was that people who weren't ready for college work should be somewhere else. No one thought about it. Today, remedial classes in both reading and math are common at universities. We seem to be dumbing ourselves to death.

I recently had children go through the high schools of Arlington, Va., a suburb of Washington. I watched them come home with badly misspelled chemistry handouts from half-educated teachers, watched them do stupid, make-work science projects that taught them nothing about the sciences but used lots of pretty paper.

The extent of scholastic decline is sometimes astonishing. So help me, I once saw, in a middle school in Arlington, a student's project on a bulletin board celebrating Enrico Fermi's contributions to "Nucler Physicts" (Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee champions: 2003, Sai Guntuyri; 2002, Pratyush Buddiga; 2001, Sean Conley; 2000, George Thampy; 1999, Nupur Lala).

It appears that a few groups are keeping their standards up and the rest of us are drowning our children in self-indulgent social engineering, political correctness, and feel-good substitutes for learning.

Some of our growing dependency is hidden. We do not merely rely on small industrious groups in America and on foreigners working here. Increasingly the United States contracts out its technical thinking to Asia.

If you read technically aware publications like Wired magazine (and how many people do?), you find that major American corporations have more and more of their computer programming done by people in, for example, India. In cities like Bombay, large colonies of Indians work for U.S. companies by Internet. This again means that counting names at American institutions underestimates the growth of intellectual dependence.

The Indians, and others, have discovered the suddenly important principle that intellectual capital is separable from physical capital. To program for Boeing, you don't have to be anywhere near Seattle. Nor do you need an aircraft plant. All you need is a $700 computer, a book called something like How to Program in C++, and a fast Internet connection. Crucial work like circuit-design can now be done abroad by bright people who don't need chip factories. They need workstations, the Internet, and engineering degrees.

This too we would be wise to ponder. Americans often think of India chiefly as a land of ghastly poverty. Well, yes. It is also a country with about three times our population and a lot of very bright people who want to get ahead. They're professionally hungry. We no longer are.

People speak of globalization. This is it, and it's just beginning. Where will it take us? How long can we maintain a technologically dominant economy if we are, as a country, no longer willing to do our own thinking? If we rely heavily on less than 10 percent of our own population while employing more and more foreigners abroad?

It's not them. It's us. I've heard the phrase, "the Asian challenge to the West." I don't think so. When Sally Chen gets a doctorate in biochemistry, she's not challenging America. She's getting a doctorate in biochemistry. Those who study have no reason to apologize to those who don't.

The Mathematical Association of America runs a contest for the extremely bright and prepared among high-school students. It is called the United States of America Mathematics Olympiad, and it "provides a means of identifying and encouraging the most creative secondary mathematics students in the country."

An unedited section of a list of those recently chosen: Sharat Bhat, Tongke Xue, Matthew Peairs, Wen Li, Jongmin Baek, Aaron Kleinman, David Stolp, Andrew Schwartz, Rishi Gupta, Jennifer Laaser, Inna Zakharevich, Neil Chua, Jonathan Lowd, Simon Rubinsteinsalze, Joshua Batson, Jimmy Jia, Jichao Qian, Dmitry Taubinsky, David Kaplan, Erica Wilson, Kai Dai, Julian Kolev, Jonathan Xiong, Stephen Guo.


Your rating: None
Fred Reed's picture
Columns on STR: 76