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21 Jul 2005 - 03:23 this recent thread. Notable by their absence were any Europeans. The mathematics talent was mostly coming from the 'second world' countries. Bernie and I also noticed the same phenomenon on a smaller scale in American students. In the generation prior to mine, a lot of the technical talent came from Brooklyn and New York City and other big eastern cities with a lot of bright first-generation American kids. My dad came from Brooklyn, went to good schools and got to go to Brooklyn College for free in those years, and so the son of a bus driver was able to become a pharmaceutical researcher with a much better standard of living than he'd had while growing up. In that generation there were a lot of men like him. In my generation, there were no longer as many kids from New York and the big eastern cities coming into the graduate schools. Other than Chinese and Russians, we had quite a few Americans from parts of America you never heard of; midwestern towns, and smaller towns in New York and New England. What happened? I'm not sure, but I think the kids from New York felt themselves to have options for getting ahead in life that didn't involve quite so much hard work. Probably the kids in Europe did too. Anyway, I've gotten far afield from what I wanted to post, an article about some recent testimony about America's critical need for homegrown talent.
Current shortcomings in U.S. education could leave the next generation of Americans ill-equipped to combat terrorism, according to testimony given before the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC). "The country's long-term security is tied to the quality of the workforce," Alfred Berkeley, a trustee of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute said. Berkeley's testimony before NIAC cited mathematics and science as key areas that need to be addressed at all educational levels. He stressed the importance of young adults being qualified to enter fields such as cyber security. However, Berkeley, who also serves as an NIAC member, said that current elementary education provides a poor foundation for the subsequent pursuit of these fields of study. "The public has not embraced education as a priority. We must find a way to engage the public with a sense of urgency," Berkeley said. Besides the problem of education quality, the United States is facing a shortage of students willing to study areas such as engineering. According to a National Science Board (NSB) report released in 2004, "bachelor's degrees in engineering have declined by 8 percent and degrees in mathematics have dropped by about 20 percent" since 1990.Check out the rest of it. As a final aside -- where could the next great influx of American technical talent possibly come from, with birth rates in America falling and people so wealthy that a future in a technical job appears harsh by comparison with their other options? Here in Colorado, we have a lot of Mexican and other immigrant Hispanic families. I understand that what we're seeing here isn't just local, but part of a larger trend in the U.S.. I'm thinking that their children, born in the U.S., would probably really appreciate the opportunity to make a good salary in a technical field. If the schools don't let them down. Those families don't have a lot of money to burn on tutors and Kumon.
Whither American talent?
Congressional incentives for study of math
Paul Samuelson on the 'science gap'
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Math and science have never been popular in American culture. In Europe, major streets in major cities are named after important European mathematicians such as Euler or Poincare. I defy anyone to name a major street in any American city named after an important American mathematician. Or even to name one. Can any American who is not a mathematician name an important American mathematician? [Hint: Norbert Wiener] The fact is that American mathematics was essentially non-existent until Hitler pushed a metric boatload of brilliant and charismatic Jewish mathematicians (like Oscar Zariski) onto us. Their brilliant students were then fortunate enough to get jobs all over the country during the Great Academic Expansion of the Sixties. After that, the jobs became scarce and the increasing wealth of the country led youngsters in other directions. At no time did the American public become aware that there is such a thing as mathematical research and that its stars are just as deserving of emulation as a famous athlete or singer. -- WichitaBoy - 21 Jul 2005
What a fine comment! How much time do our families spend watching American Idol? Our values are misplaced! -- CarolynMorgan - 21 Jul 2005
To that end, although "nerd" has taken on a new meaning since it was originally used to label certain kids as misfits and losers, it still has a negative connotation. It is interesting that such a negative term is the best term we can come up with to desribe kids who are good in math and science. Along with "geek". Steve H made some comments yesterday about "nerdiness", talking about stereotyping engineers, and how he had Brautigan next to his engineering manuals. I was involved in creative writing when I was in school and was frequently confronted with the comment "I don't understand how anyone as creative as you can major in something as dull and uncreative as mathematics". I never knew what to say to that. To these people, majoring in math meant nothing more than doing endless amounts of factoring problems. (If that's what it was about there'd be a lot more math majors since it would be an easy way to get straight A's). Even Bill Nye the science guy on PBS calls himself a science geek. I think this is sympomatic of the low stature math and science is given in this country as compared to Asian and eastern European countries. I really wish Bill Nye and others would stop apologizing for being scientists. I was going to say athletics has primacy over academics in this country, but since we have an epidemic of obesity in children, even that isn't true anymore. -- BarryGarelick - 21 Jul 2005
Barry, this is an excellent point. I call myself a geek, but it's derogatory and sort of apologist. I really know of no positive term to replace it with. -- CarolynJohnston - 21 Jul 2005
Carolyn, What's wrong with calling yourself a mathematician? Isn't that what you are? In my estimation (admittedly somewhat biased), that's something to be proud of. -- BarryGarelick - 21 Jul 2005
I'm not sure the 'geek' comments indicate low status.... We have an ethic against boasting in this country, and we're not keen on eggheads of any kind, although we admire intelligence and hard work. You've probably noticed that I make a joke of my own Ph.D. IN FILM STUDIES. I've come to think that my Ph.D. is a joke, for me, but it was extremely difficult to earn, requiring a vast amount of hard work and intellectual effort. There's a core element of good manners in self-deprecating statements when you're a Ph.D. mathematician talking to people who may be feeling a bit intimidated by fractions. -- CatherineJohnson - 21 Jul 2005
I've got to get my Chinese-immigrant acquaintance to write about this. He earned a Ph.D. in math here--I think he's maybe in his early 40s--and he continues to see Americans as much better in math. He and his wife both say, constantly, that Americans are more creative, which of course is what we always hear. They both say it's true. ALSO I've got to finally post something from THE GEOGRAPHY OF THOUGHT on Asians vs. Westerners in math. The author, a cultural anthropologist at University of Chicago, says that Asian culture is not intellectually compatible with mathematics, as Western culture is....and I believe he pretty much says that the high mathematics achievement you see in Asian cultures is a form of over-achievement due to brute hard work. I can believe that! For one thing, the Chinese mom I just mentioned (I haven't met her husband) also faints when she describes the workload she and other kids carried, trying to learn math. And for another, when I began working my way through the Russian Math book the difference just leapt out at me. That book is brilliant. Period. Next to the Russian Math books the Singapore books look like strivers. And I say that as a person who likes strivers. After our talk with Christopher's Phase 3 teacher, where we sprang the news on her that we wanted Christopher to move to Phase 4, Ed said, 'Our goal is for Christopher to be an over-achiever.' -- CatherineJohnson - 21 Jul 2005
The mathematicians I've been in contact with have no problem calling themselves mathematicians when dealing with parents, so I take issue with you there. I don't hear Ralph Raimi calling himself a math geek and he offers help to parents on the teaching of fractions all the time. Interesting point about the Chinese people thinking Americans are more creative. I know some Chinese people who say the same thing. The system of teaching in the lower grades was at one time very slave-like; teachers were gods and students sat up straight and were drilled like soldiers. I just talked with someone who knows a bit about the Chinese system, and I can't say I know anything about it. I do know that some countries like Singapore as well as China are looking at some aspects of U.S. math education as being more "innovative and creative" than theirs. I think it's not knowing what's really going on -- a grass is greener syndrome. The bottom line is that Singapore has privatized the writing of math books there in combination with a set of watered down standards. The Singapore math books we get here in the U.S. are the ones that were in use several years ago when the Singapore standards were stricter. But U.S. influence is pervasive, unfortunately. Singapore's math instruction is still head and shoulders above us but it has been weakened, according to my source. I'll be interested in what you find out with respect to the "geography of thought". -- BarryGarelick - 21 Jul 2005
The mathematicians I've been in contact with have no problem calling themselves mathematicians when dealing with parents, so I take issue with you there. I don't hear Ralph Raimi calling himself a math geek and he offers help to parents on the teaching of fractions all the time. Right, and Carolyn wouldn't call herself a math geek at work, I don't think. It has to do with politeness when you're out and about. With not showing off. -- CatherineJohnson - 22 Jul 2005
I do know that some countries like Singapore as well as China are looking at some aspects of U.S. math education as being more "innovative and creative" than theirs. I think it's not knowing what's really going on -- a grass is greener syndrome. That's what I thought at first, but I had extensive conversations with this woman, and I'm sure she's right. The differences are a couple of things. First of all, they really did have a kind of math-enslavement; it's astounding to listen to her description. Talk about drill-and-kill. But the real problem, according to her, is that college & grad school level students are still 'slaves.' Their course of mathematical study is chosen for them; it's possible that even their areas of research & thesis topics are chosen. They have no freedom at all to choose which area of mathematics to pursue. She said the result is that graduate students become profoundly burned out, and lose the elements that are involved in creativity, like motivation and 'spark.' That made perfect sense to me. We take huge levels of freedom and self-determination for granted. It had simply never crossed my mind that you might require an advanced graduate student to study what you tell him to study. But that's the system. I've heard the same thing about the Singapore books. I ordered a copy of a Singapore book for teachers, and you can see fuzzy elements all through it. This is another case of not getting the causality at all right. Americans, IMO, are probably the most creative people in the world (not that I know anything whatsoever about other countries & their creativity levels.....) A huge amount of our creativity comes from the fact that we are an immigrant nation. When we wrote SHADOW SYNDROMES, John and I both agreed that Americans have lots higher levels of ADHD because you have to have some ADHD to think it's a perfectly reasonable idea to pick up and move across an ocean. Then a couple of years ago a researcher managed to correlate a particular genetic variant that is associated with ADHD to the distance that person's forebears had emigrated. I'd bet the ranch we'll find the exact same thing with bipolar disorder, which we know from Jamison's work is associated with creativity. (That's an interesting discussion amongst French economists now. They need to 'liberalize' their economy, meaning make it more capitalist, but the fact is that the French simply do not have a 'culture' of entrpreneurism. They also don't have a 'character' of entrpreneurism. So every time they do liberalize in some way, nothing changes. A change in tax policy that would be a massive stimulus in the U.S. is a thud there. Ed says some of the smartest economists in France are now trying to figure out how to liberalize the French economy in a way that takes into account the French people.) Anyway, if Singapore is deciding that we're creative because our fifth graders collect data, forget it. We're creative because we're creative. Our lousy math curricula have nothing to do with it. -- CatherineJohnson - 22 Jul 2005
A neighbor of ours, who is earning a million dollars a year on Wall Street in a highly math-dependent position, told us, 'I don't hire Americans. They aren't good enough.' (He's foreign himself.) I've now heard this 3 different times, from 3 different men here in my tiny town of Irvington. One guy actually waylays Halloween trick or treaters, gives them his business card, and tells them, 'If you major in math in college, come see me after you graduate and I will give you a $60,000 job to start.' (OK, that may be a touch non-socially-skilled of him...) -- CatherineJohnson - 22 Jul 2005
I'm sorry, but Ralph Raimi is out and about amongst parents and does not have to call himself a math geek. He is not boastful, very polite, and does not feel he has to downplay his credential. With the exception of one mathematician I've dealt with, I don't find them boastful or show-offs. What are the fuzzy elements of the Singapore math books for teachers? -- BarryGarelick - 22 Jul 2005
Thanks for commenting on the Singapore books for teachers. I thought the same thing when I received mine the other day, but I just thought that maybe I was reading more into it than was there. I was hoping for more of an in-depth discussion on the best ways to teach basic arithmetic, like in the Liping Ma book. I think when a parent orders books like that there's a pretty strong chance that they aren't mathematicians by trade. I am going to try to spend more time with them today to see if I'm missing something. -- SusanS - 22 Jul 2005
Barry What's wrong with calling yourself a mathematician? Isn't that what you are? Yes, but I have found that I can be intimidating, even to (some) engineers. It was more okay to be intimidating when I was a professor than it is now. In some situations, I find it's actually useful to be a little intimidating (for example, in navigating the sometimes-a-little-sexist engineering business), but a lot of times, a little self-deprecating humor helps break the ice. -- CarolynJohnston - 22 Jul 2005