The Education Gap

By: Mike Shedlock | Tue, Nov 8, 2005
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A CNN article is asking Is the U.S. becoming hostile to science? Let's take a look at a few snips:

A bitter debate about how to teach evolution in U.S. high schools is prompting a crisis of confidence among scientists, and some senior academics warn that science itself is under assault. In the past month, the interim president of Cornell University and the dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine have both spoken on this theme, warning in dramatic terms of the long-term consequences.

Cornell acting President Hunter Rawlings, in his "state of the university" address last week, spoke about the challenge to science represented by "intelligent design" which holds that the theory of evolution accepted by the vast majority of scientists is fatally flawed.

In the past five years, the scientific community has often seemed at odds with the Bush administration over issues as diverse as global warming, stem cell research and environmental protection.

Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have built a powerful position within the Republican Party and no Republican, including Bush, can afford to ignore their views. This was dramatically illustrated in the case of Terri Schiavo earlier this year, in which Republicans in Congress passed a law to keep a woman in a persistent vegetative state alive against her husband's wishes, and Bush himself spoke out in favor of "the culture of life."

The issue of whether intelligent design should be taught, or at least mentioned, in high school biology classes is being played out in a Pennsylvania court room and in numerous school districts across the country.

Polls for many years have shown that a majority of Americans are at odds with key scientific theory. For example, as CBS poll this month found that 51 percent of respondents believed humans were created in their present form by God. A further 30 percent said their creation was guided by God. Only 15 percent thought humans evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years. Other polls show that only around a third of American adults accept the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, even though the concept is virtually uncontested by scientists worldwide.

Jon Miller, director of the center for biomedical communication at Northwestern University said science and especially mathematics were poorly taught in most U.S. schools, leading both to a shortage of good scientists and general scientific ignorance.

U.S. school students perform relatively poorly in international tests of mathematics and science. For example, in 2003 U.S. students placed 24th in an international test that measured the mathematical literacy of 15-year-olds, below many European and Asian countries. Scientists bemoan the lack of qualified U.S. candidates for postgraduate and doctoral studies at American universities and currently fill around a third of available science and engineering slots with foreign students.

Northwestern's Miller said the insistence of a large proportion of Americans that humans were created by God as whole beings had policy implications for the future. "The 21st century will be the century of biology and we are going to be confronted with hundreds of important public policy issues that require some understanding that all life is interconnected," he said.

Compare and contrast the denial of science and math in the US with current happenings in China.

China Recruits Top US Scientists

The new York Times is reporting China Luring Scholars to Make Universities Great.

When Andrew Chi-chih Yao, a Princeton professor who is recognized as one of the United States' top computer scientists, was approached by Qinghua University in Beijing last year to lead an advanced computer studies program, he did not hesitate.

China wants to transform its top universities into the world's best within a decade, and it is spending billions of dollars to woo big-name scholars like Dr. Yao and build first-class research laboratories. The effort is China's latest bid to raise its profile as a great power.

China has already pulled off one of the most remarkable expansions of education in modern times, increasing the number of undergraduates and people who hold doctoral degrees fivefold in 10 years.

"First-class universities increasingly reflect a nation's overall power," Wu Bangguo, China's secondranking leader, said recently in a speech here marking the 100th anniversary of Fudan, the country's first modern university.

The model is simple: recruit top foreign-trained Chinese and Chinese-American specialists, set them up in well-equipped labs, surround them with the brightest students and give them tremendous leeway. In a minority of cases, they receive American-style pay; in others, they are lured by the cost of living, generous housing and the laboratories.

"Maybe in 20 years M.I.T. will be studying Qinghua's example," says Rao Zihe, director of the Institute of Biophysics at Qinghua University, an institution renowned for its sciences and regarded by many as China's finest university. "How long it will take to catch up can't be predicted, but in some respects we are already better than the Harvards today."

The president of Yale University, Richard C. Levin, interviewed in Shanghai, where he was the featured guest at Fudan's centennial celebration in late September, also had high praise for China's students.

" China has 20 percent of the world's population, and it is safe to say it has more than 20 percent of the world's best students," he said. "They have the raw talent."

But Mr. Levin also noted that China's low labor costs simplified the effort to upgrade. He said he had been astounded by the new laboratories at Jiaotong University in Shanghai, which he said could be built in China for $50 a square foot, compared with $500 a square foot at Yale.

But the biggest weakness, many Chinese academics indicated, is the lack of academic freedom. Mr. Yang, the former president of Fudan University, warned that if the right atmosphere was not cultivated, great thinkers from overseas might come to China for a year or two, only to leave frustrated.

Students here are not encouraged to challenge authority or received wisdom. For some, that helps explain why China has never won a Nobel Prize. What is needed most now, some of China's best scholars say, are bold, original thinkers.

"The greatest thing we've done in the last 20 years is lift 200 million people out of poverty," said Dr. Xu. "What China has not realized yet, though, if it truly wants to go to the next level, is to understand that numbers are not enough.

"We need a new revolution to get us away from a culture that prizes becoming government officials. We must learn to reward real innovation, independent thought and genuine scholarly work."

It seems we are at a genuine crossroads, both in the US and in China. While political forces in the US attempt to put us back in the middle ages so to speak, China has its own problem to learn to let academia challenge government authority.

There is also an issue of cost. When I started school at the University of Illinois way back in 1973, the tuition was something like $246 per semester.

Here is a chart of current costs at the University of Illinois.

Look closely and you will see that you need to add an extra $2,522 per year for the Biochemistry, Chemistry, Biology, Integrative Biology, and Molecular/Cellular Biology programs; and $3,162 per year for all programs in the College of Engineering.

With the add-ons the cost comes close to $20,000 per year. That is for the University of Illinois too. Private schools are much more expensive. Not having children, I can not fathom what it might be like attempting to put two kids (four? yikes!) through college. Nor can I fathom going to school for four years and ending up close to $100,000 in debt upon graduation. That does not count medical school, graduate school or a law degree either.

It seems kids are being indoctrinated to the idea of being enormously in debt right out of college, while parents are going ever deeper in debt in a struggle to help out.

After graduation, the next big hurdle is finding a job at an adequate pay scale to pay back college loans. Does it even pay to get an advanced technical or computer engineering degree? Not if the outsourcing trend continues as it has been going.

We are Outsourcing the Soul of America.

Business Week discussed this idea in "Outsourcing Innovation"

When Western corporations began selling their factories and farming out manufacturing in the '80s and '90s to boost efficiency and focus their energies, most insisted all the important research and development would remain in-house.

But that pledge is now passé. Today, the likes of Dell, Motorola, and Philips are buying complete designs of some digital devices from Asian developers, tweaking them to their own specifications, and slapping on their own brand names. It's not just cell phones. Asian contract manufacturers and independent design houses have become forces in nearly every tech device, from laptops and high-definition TVs to MP3 music players and digital cameras. "Customers used to participate in design two or three years back," says Jack Hsieh, vice-president for finance at Taiwan's Premier Imaging Technology Corp., a major supplier of digital cameras to leading U.S. and Japanese brands. "But starting last year, many just take our product. Because of price competition, they have to."

Boeing Co. is working with India's HCL Technologies to co-develop software for everything from the navigation systems and landing gear to the cockpit controls for its upcoming 7E7 Dreamliner jet. Pharmaceutical giants such as GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Eli Lilly (LLY)are teaming up with Asian biotech research companies in a bid to cut the average $500 million cost of bringing a new drug to market. And Procter & Gamble Co. (PG) says it wants half of its new product ideas to be generated from outside by 2010, compared with 20% now.

Some analysts even see a new global division of labor emerging: The rich West will focus on the highest levels of product creation, and all the jobs of turning concepts into actual products or services can be shipped out.

Consultant Daniel H. Pink, author of the new book A Whole New Mind, argues that the "left brain" intellectual tasks that "are routine, computer-like, and can be boiled down to a spec sheet are migrating to where it is cheaper, thanks to Asia's rising economies and the miracle of cyberspace." The U.S. will remain strong in "right brain" work that entails "artistry, creativity, and empathy with the customer that requires being physically close to the market."

Are the "right brains" somehow deficient in citizens from China or India? Somehow, I think not. With China and India turning out more engineers and the US "dumbing down" math and science with "unintelligent design" concepts, it's hard to see how we are going to maintain any creative edge if and when China decides to free up its academia from political interference. Unfortunately for the US, our academic paths now seem to be crossing. China seems to be opening up its academia while the US is reverting to religious fanaticism.

Combine religious fanaticism, rising tuition costs, and wage pressures (especially for computer engineers), with massive outsourcing of everything that is not tied down and you have the makings of an Education Gap that is destined to get much, much worse.


 

Mike Shedlock

Author: Mike Shedlock

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Mike Shedlock

Michael "Mish" Shedlock is a registered investment advisor representative for SitkaPacific Capital Management. Visit http://www.sitkapacific.com/ to learn more about wealth management for investors seeking strong performance with low volatility.

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