In today’s world, America is indisputably the most powerful country. In scientific fields, up to this day, the number of Nobels in science and Fields medals won by America stands far on the top of the list. Many people conclude inevitably that this is due to America’s education and science research system being the best in the world. To the extent that at present, both in the mainland and in Taiwan, China’s STEM and education worlds, to necessarily praise America is the norm, with faith in the American model ubiquitous. America’s educational materials are adopted in mass, and various kinds of American practices have become models of emulation, such that students in science research continuously go to American university, hoping to realize their there their dreams as a scientist.
But if we were to carefully examine the list of names of winners of Nobels in science and the Fields Medal, we would find that the situation is far from that simple. We can through commonly accepted as the most difficult, most prestigious Nobel in Physics and Fields Medals as examples, see if there exists any phenomenon worth noticing.
If by total numbers, below are the numbers of laureates of the Nobel Prize in Physics of the major scientific countries.
Surely, at first impression, America’s dominance is obvious. But if we were to look at the number of laureates over each period of time, we would find something different. Such numbers pre WWI are France 4, Germany 4, Britain 2, America 1. Clearly, before WWI, France and Germany’s physics research was at the forefront, with Britain’s closely behind, and America’s weaker by quite a bit.
But after WWI, Britain won the prize many times, rapidly rising to number one before WWII. The pre-WWI physics power France was downcast, yet Germany kept its power, and America’s speed progress was incredible. Between the start of WWI and start of WWII, the numbers were: Great Britain 8, Germany 7, America 5, France 2.
After the onset of WWII, France’s physics had a long slump, from 1939 to 1965, a long 26 years without anyone winning the Nobel in physics, with America’s rapidly becoming the country winning the most of that prize, and Japan and the Soviet Union’s having a good number of laureates as well.
Post WWII, the numbers are: America 79, Germany 14, Britain 12, Soviet Union/Russia 11, Japan 10, France 7. One can see how after WWII, America led by a wide margin, whereas Europe started to fall behind. What happened in the intermediary period of time that caused this situation? Was it due to America’s system being more advanced? I believe this is a question worth investigating, one cannot simply say that America’s lead in science must be due to superiority of its system. Because scientists don’t live in a vacuum. The development of science is closely related to the economic and political situation. Regardless of how reasonable a country’s educational and scientific research system is, if the country is extremely chaotic, the situation in turmoil, with academic research commonly interfered by the political situation, it’s very difficult to produce good scientific results. And out of all the main scientific powers, only America was isolated from the center of upheaval, having maintained political stability for over a hundred years, even in the WWII, America’s vigor was not severely damaged, and on the contrary, out of the stimulation on the economy from war production, in addition to being a refuge of STEM talents from many other countries, profited enormously. And what was the case with the other countries?
Let’s first look at Germany, where the level of science research was indisputably the highest prior to WWII, and also the birthplace of the modern research university. Germany twice suffered defeat in WWI and WWII respectively, with additionally the persecution of Jews after the ascension to power of the Nazis, leading to many established scientists and young talents to continuously drain out, this period of history is familiar to many.
France in WWI was severely damaged, especially in that many Ecole Normal and Ecole Polytechnique students joined the army fighting directly, dying in the battlefield. Many potential scientists died on the war front, a destructive blow to France’s science research human capital. After WWI, France’s political situation was unstable for quite a while, with a naval uprising in 1919, a railway strike in 1920, an economic crisis in 1930, and in 1934 even a major political crisis from a rebellion by right-wing fascist organization attempting to seize the parliament that almost sentenced to death the Third French Republic. In WWII, France was occupied by Germany, and of course, science research and education could not function normally. Fields Medalist Alexander Grothendieck and Nobel Laureate in Physics Georges Charpak even spent time in Nazi concentration camps, barely escaping death. In an environment of this type of turmoil, how can science research and education continue normally?
In Britain, even though the damage from WWI was not large, but in WWII there was similarly much destruction. There was for a while after WWII in Britain a ration system, the system of food rations was cancelled there as late as 1954. One might ask, how can one do research when one does not even have enough to eat? Even in 1970, Britain’s GDP per capita was only $2246, and America’s was $5126, with therefore the total GDP difference even larger. Naturally, the investment on education and science was nowhere as much as that of America.
And Russia, during the Czarist era was the most backwards nation in Europe, and after WWI, experienced a revolution and civil war, and only in 1922 when the civil war ended was there are relatively peaceful environment. But the Soviet Union as a totalitarian state, the politics often had destructive effects on science research and education. Especially in the Great Purge starting from 1934, a good number of outstanding physicists including Lev Shubnikov and Lev Landau were imprisoned, Lev Landau was relatively fortunate, released after a year, whereas the other young physicist who did exceptional work in the area of low temperature physics died in the prison after 8 years. Lev Shubnikov was only 36 of age when imprisoned, and based on the many scientific results he had already produced, especially on the type II superconductors and anti-ferromagnetism, it is entirely reasonable to expect that he continued on with his research, very likely he would have won the Nobel Prize, and even possibly created a physics school in the likes of that of the esteemed Landau. In the arduous WWII, the most developed area of the USSR in Europe was mostly occupied by the Germans, and the destruction from war took a long time to recover. Russian physicists born in the relatively peaceful post-WWII climate who received systematic and rigorous scientific research training in their best years were met with the catastrophic economic collapse from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with science research conditions in a devastating decline, many Russian physicists were forced to abandon science research or leave their country, and the people who remained were destitute, lacking in equipment and facilities. In this type of condition, in order to achieve results of similar caliber, Russian physicists would need to overcome more obstacles than their American counterparts.
As for Japan, it was originally a backwards Asian country, only after the Meiji Restoration did it bring in modern science from the West. Japan’s first physicist with international impact was Yoshio Nishina, who graduated from university as late as 1918. Having experienced the destruction of WWII in between, that Japanese physicists could achieve so much from such a low starting point and facing so many difficulties cannot not leave one with a feeling of deep veneration.
Considering how many years prior to awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physics the work is usually done and how in the early half of the 20th century, the main scientific powers besides America all faced interference from non-scientific factors, we have all the reason to believe that to simply observe the number of Nobels in physics is entirely insufficient to determine the reasonableness and quality of physics education and research system in each country. After all, to expect physicists of those other countries to do similar work as American physicists in chaotic times or beset by hunger and cold would really be too much. But if we only considered numbers of Nobel laureates in physics born after 1950 when all the countries had economically recovered in relatively a peaceful period, we would find that the American dominance begins to diminish.
Up to the present, the Nobel physics laureates born after 1950 are:
- Robert B. Laughlin, American physicist, born 1950, University of California Berkeley and MIT graduate.
- Eric Allin Cornell, American physicist, born 1961, MIT and Stanford graduate.
- Carl Wieman, American physicist, born 1951, MIT and Stanford graduate.
- Saul Perlmutter, American physicist, born 1959, University of California Berkeley and Harvard graduate.
- Brian Schmidt, American physicist, born 1967, University of Arizona and Harvard graduate.
- Adam Riess, American physicist, born 1969, MIT and Harvard graduate.
- Frank Wilczek, American physicist, born 1951, University of Chicago and Princeton graduate.
- Wolfgang Ketterle, German physicist, born 1957, Technical University of Munich graduate.
- Andre Geim, Russian physicist, born 1958, Moscow Institute for Physics and Technology graduate.
- Konstantin Novoselov, Russian physicist, born 1974, Moscow Institute for Physics and Technology graduate.
- Hiroshi Amano, Japanese physicist, born 1960, Nagoya University graduate.
- Shuji Nakamura, Japanese physicist, born 1954, University of Tokoshima graduate.
Among these, there are 7 Americans, two each from Russia and Japan, 1 German. America’s dominance has visibly shrunk. If one considers differences in populations of the countries, Japan’s performance actually is no worse than America’s, especially as America has three born in the early 50s. If one excludes those, Japan may even be a bit better, as America’s number of laureates goes down to 4, and thus no longer has absolute advantage. Once we exclude those, Moscow Institute for Physics and Technology (MIPT) physics department founded in 1955 and the prestigious MIT physics department both have two alumni laureates. The performance of graduates trained by the physics department of the MIPT relatively unknown in the hearts and minds of Chinese is not any lesser than that of the MIT physics department that can use its superiority in funding to attract the best physicists and students from all over the world. Actually, in addition to those two experimental physicists, the young MIPT physics department also produced Mikhail Shifman, Alexander Polyakov, Rashid Sunyaev, Nikita Nekrasov, etc top theoretical physicists of the current era, if they eventually win the Nobel, I think it would not be a surprise. But maybe some people will say, our sample is too small, not enough to indicate problems. But if you look forward even more, the American scientists born earlier could grow and did research in a peaceful and quiet environment, but their counterparts in Germany, Britain, France, Russia, and Japan could not but in flames of war or post-war destruction grow in a difficult environment, this type of comparison, for the other major science countries, is absolutely too unfair. In fact, in 1970, America’s GDP per capita was $5126, Germany’s $2636, Britain’s $2246, France’s $2815, USSR’s $1788, Japan’s $2015. In fact, the investment on science research and education of those other countries could not compare with that of rich and overbearing America. Even if America has an advantage, it’s hard to say whether it’s because of higher investment, more advanced equipment and facilities, and a stable political situation or because of a superior system.
Compared to physics, chemistry, and other experimental sciences, mathematics has very low material requirements, and depends more on the level of the students produced by a country’s educational system and the systemic advantages of the scientific research community. In physics, chemistry, and other experimental fields, American scientists can rely on the economic advantages of their home country to obtain more funding and purchase better equipment such that European and Japanese scientists directly lose on the scratch line of the race, but in mathematical fields, gains from the American economic superiority is vastly diminished. And the Fields Medal in math has a characteristic that restricts age, with only mathematicians under 40 eligible for the prize, and thus it can better reflect in recency the efficiency and quality of the educational and science research system of the countries.
If we open the list of names of winners of Fields Medal, America has a total of 13, France 11, Soviet Union 9, Britain 6, Japan 3, Germany 1. We notice how though America still has an advantage, it has been has been largely weakened, and France’s population is America’s 1/5th, with hardly a difference in number of Fields medal winners, if we are to discuss training and science research quality and efficiency, as far as America’s advantage is concerned, the reality is quite obvious.
Despite that the Soviet Union had fewer than America, there were as many as 6 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and only 3 mathematicians who won the prize during the Soviet era, which is completely contrary to the common perception that the math education and research was much higher during the Soviet era. Especially as we realize how many Soviet mathematicians universally recognized as having done better work than most Fields Medal winners who also became famous early on didn’t win the Fields Medal, like Wolf Prize laureate Israel Gelfand who was universally recognized as the greatest mathematician active in the latter half of the 20th century and Vladimir Arnold who gave a 45 minute lecture at the International Congress of Mathematicians as an undergraduate, whose reasons for not winning the prize were often non academic. Like, Vladimir Arnold, who participated in a collective drafting of a letter supporting mathematicians persecuted by the Soviet Union, was denied the prize via the doings of Pontryagin under orders of the Soviet regime. In reality, the Soviet regime at that time often prevented some mathematicians from going abroad. Like the first Soviet Fields Medalist Sergei Novikov and the second one Grigori Margulis were both prevented from leaving the country to receive the prize. The first Wolf Prize laureate Israel Gelfand only went abroad to receive the prize many years after winning it. Even his teacher Andrey Kolmogorov, a national treasure level mathematician, was not permitted to leave the country to collect his prize. One ought to know that when Andrey Kolmogorov died, the Soviet government gave him a state funeral at the level of that of the paramount leader of the Soviet Union, with members of the funeral preparation committee including then paramount leader Mikhail Gorbachev, premier Nikolai Ryzhkov, Second Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Yegor Ligachyov, and every other member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. When even Andrey Kolmogorov could not leave the country to collect the prize, whether or not other Soviet mathematicians could come to collect the prize, naturally would be a problem for the prize committee. So very likely because they were not allowed to leave the country to collect the prize, the prize committee did not want to make the effort to give Soviet mathematicians the prize, because by this way, their job would be much easier.
As for Britain, also with a population only 1/5th America’s, the number of Fields Medal winners reached half of America’s number, so its rate was much higher America’s too. Japan’s population is about 40% of America’s, and though lower than America in terms of Fields Medal winners per capital, we must similarly point out how there were Japanese mathematicians universally recognized as greater than most Fields Medal winners who did not win the prize, like Masaki Kashiwara. We must notice enough more that before WWII, everybody recognized Germany as the place where the best math was being done, with had many top mathematicians immigrating to America, including Herman Weyl, Emmy Noether, John von Neumann, André Weil, Richard Courant, and it’s safe to say that most of the best mathematicians in the world came to America. In contrast, the two other math powers France and Soviet Union, the entire country of France was occupied, excepting the over 70 years of age Élie Cartan who had long left the forefront of scientific research, the only mathematician in France then on par with those in the previous list, and the active at the cutting edge Jean Leray was then working in prison. And the Soviet Union only had one Andrey Kolmogorov, his student Israel Gelfand, at that time was only a hothead in his 20s. America’s performance, taking into account its absolute advantage in both human and material capital, was not actually that spectacular.
Since entering the 21st century, among all the mathematicians who won the Fields Medal, not considering dual Brazilian-French citizen Artur Avila, there are 4 French mathematicians, 4 Soviet mathematicians, and only 1 American mathematician, even if one counts Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani and Australian mathematician Terence Tao who both came to America for PhD and work after finishing undergrad in their home countries, the American system has produced no more than 3 Fields Medalists. Some people might say, didn’t Russian mathematicians Stanislav Smirnov and Vladimir Voevodsky also do their PhD in America. Yes, but please notice, Stanislav Smirnov’s advisor Nikolai Makorov and Smirnov were same, both Russian mathematicians from St. Petersburg State University, and Vladimir Voevodsky’s advisor David Kazhdan was the same as him, a Russian mathematician from Moscow State University. A Russian who after completing all his coursework at Moscow State University or St. Petersburg State University (really these courses compared to what is offered to American graduate students are more systematic, deep, and rigorous) goes to an American university to write a PhD thesis with a former Moscow State or St. Petersburg State professor, is equivalent to their simply moving their office to America. Especially with how American university math departments are usually very small in scale, so it is rare to have the phenomenon of two professors with research directions basically the same, so when they want to discuss problems, they can only do so with their Russian advisor or his students. If American universities are going to Moscow State and St. Petersburg State to take credit, they must really lack confidence in themselves. Of the Fields Medal winners 2002 and after, the earlier born was in 1962, and when he entered college, it was after 1980, which is already 35 years after the end of WWII, a time when those top mathematicians who immigrated to America from Europe were basically retired, and America’s GDP already went through 1/3 of the world in 1970 to 1/4 of the world, her funding advantage vastly diminished, if one were qualify to American scientists born and raised in America, America in the Fields Medal in math when compared with France and Russia has really lost to the point where not even underpants remain.
If one says that the Fields Medal sample size is too small, then in the mathematical community, another universally recognized metric for math training and research ability of countries, which can be similarly used as a reference, is invited speakers of the International Congress of Mathematicians. In the International Congress of Mathematicians in 2014, of those who give a 1 hour lecture, there were 2 American mathematicians, but there were 4 French and there were also 2 Soviets. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, brain drain and economic collapse was already manifest, but the performance of Soviet mathematicians was no worse than that of American mathematicians. One of the 1 hour speakers was Russian mathematicians Alexei Borodin who graduated from Moscow State in 1997, and afterwards went to America to do his PhD thesis with former Moscow State professor Alexandre Kirillov. When he was a doing his study at Moscow State, the writer of this was coincidentally a graduate student at Moscow State Faculty of Mathematics and Mechanics, so I am clear on what the situation was like then in that department then. At that time, the Russian economy was in a very difficult period, afterwards, Nobel physics laureate Academician Ginzburg’s salary was not even as much as the scholarship money I got in France (I myself at the same time registered in French universities, and obtained French scholarship money). The building of Moscow State Faculty of Math and Mechanics, magnificent on the outside, was dilapidated on the inside, the first time I went to the dormitory, its dirtiness and clutter not to mention, the toilet lid in the bathroom was entirely gone. The graduate students in our teaching and research section were mostly poverty-stricken, the graduate stipend was so low that they could not even feed themselves full, some people had to work odd jobs to scrape by a meager living. In this type of situation, that the professors could persist on their teaching and research, that the students could quiet their mind to study math, definitely required very high level of determination and perseverance. And France, economically fine and able to let people comfortably do research, even if one counts not the per capita but rather the total output, the performance of the French mathematicians has already clearly exceeded that of their American counterparts.
Even though we cannot analyze more fields, but to summarize, to attribute America’s current lead in science to superiority of its research and educational system is definitely unconvincing. In the mathematical field, the French and Russian research and educational system, has clearly submitted a better answer sheet. America’s science and technology advantage, when all is said and done, is only due to distance from the center of war and turmoil, with America’s not having experienced revolutions and wars at large scale, with its political stability unique during both world wars, and its ability to make money from war at the same time, or due to the reasonableness of its system, its ability to select and cultivate more science and technology talents and motivate the research enthusiasm and initiative of its scientists, to enable them to do better and more efficient work, to fully utilize their materials and their human talents, on this we must put a huge question mark.
If we carefully and deeply examine America’s teaching and research system, we will necessarily find that really there are quite a number of problems.
First of all, in American universities is the problem of expanding the number of graduate students with regard for its resources in faculty and funding. So let us first look at the personnel composition of two top American university math departments (these statistics can be obtained from address book on the main pages of each of the departments):
Princeton University math department has a total of 43 tenure track and tenured professors, and in that department the total number of PhD students is 63, on average 15.75 every year. (this department’s PhD students are on a four year system). The ratio between number of tenure track plus tenured professors and number PhD students per year is 2.73 to 1.
Stanford University math department has a total of 30 tenure track and tenured professors, and in that department the total number of PhD students is 80, on average 16 every year. The ratio between number of tenure track plus tenured professors and number PhD students per year is 1.875 to 1.
MIT math department has a total of 71 tenure track and tenured professors, and in that department the total number of PhD students is 120, on average 24 every year. The ratio between number of tenure track plus tenured professors and number PhD students per year is 2.96 to 1.
Let’s then examine the situation in top universities in Europe Paris University No. 6 and Paris University No. 7. The Paris central math research joint organization formed by the math and computer science departments of these two universities have a total of 437 tenured professors and researchers, 342 PhD students, 114 on average each year.The ratio between number of tenure track plus tenured professors and number PhD students per year is 3.83 to 1. (Reference: http://www.federation.math.jussieu.fr/)
Princeton University’s computer science department has total of 35 tenure track plus tenured professors and graduate students are as many as 138, on average 27.6 per year. The ratio between number of tenure track plus tenured professors and number PhD students per year is 1.27 to 1.
And Princeton University’s math department does not include operations research, statistics, and financial engineering (the Paris Central math research joint organization’s math major includes these areas), if you look at Princeton University’s financial engineering department, the situation is similarly at higher magnitude, that department has only 17 tenure track plus tenured professors, and graduates students are as many as 47, 9.4 per year on average. The ratio between number of tenure track plus tenured professors and number PhD students per year is 1.81 to 1.
Very obvious, even when the statistics include the computer science major where there tend to be more PhD students, Paris No. 6 and Paris No. 7 compared with Princeton, Stanford, and MIT, their PhD student numbers are still small. Like Princeton math department tenured plus tenured track faculty are only 1/10th of that of Paris No. 6 and Paris No. 7, graduates, but the number of PhDs graduated every year exceeds 1/7th of the two. One can see, Paris No. 6 and Paris No. 7’s number of PhDs admitted has been controlled much better compared to American universities. And the excessive recruiting of PhD students from those three American universities is quite severe.
Now in many countries, too many PhDs too few faculty positions has become a common phenomenon. PhDs of an engineering field like computer science can go to a company after graduation. The lack of faculty positions for them is not a big problem. But for PhDs in basic science like pure math, not finding a faculty position means necessarily switching fields. If a person enters college at age 18, then typically he will be 26-27 once he receives his PhD. A person almost 30 years old, has done so much study, and in a subject as difficult as math, to face the predicament of having to switch fields on unemployment after graduation, isn’t this quite brutal? Like math, it’s still relatively easy to switch to sectors in the likes of finance or insurance, but for a major like biology, to switch fields one might only be able to buy insurance. The biology major is representative of unchecked expansion of hiring of PhD students in American universities. The difficulty of finding work for biology PhDs has long been well known. Many people after finishing their PhD, do postdoc after postdoc, and are still doing postdoc in one’s 40s, and cannot see any hope of getting a faculty position. The perpetual postdoc phenomenon in the biology field is such that many students who can be counted as interested in biology research, per consideration of their livelihood, necessarily distance themselves from the field, which really has severely impacted the development of the biological sciences. And America’s few faculty position glut of PhDs phenomenon has made the problem of the perpetual postdocs in biology even more severe.
Why would in America emerge this type of situation. On this point, I basically approve of a view of Noam Chomsky in the article “The Death of American Universities.” The administrators of American universities, for the rapid expansion of the university and for winning in intercollegiate competition, use whatever method they can to bring in money and cut costs. To bring in money, they go out on all four fronts to obtain funding and donations, and to cut costs, they find ways to spend less. From consideration of cost cutting, American universities increasingly employ non-permanent faculty or graduate students on temporary contracts, postdocs, etc to do teaching and research work. Because the salaries of these people are much lower than the salaries of tenured or tenure track faculty. And then, they can use the saved money on some star faculty, to give these famous professors higher salaries or to renovate the school building and add to the facilities. In reality, in some countries which blindly learned from the American system, there has already emerged a situation similar to that in the American universities. Like in Germany, the number of tenured scholars from 2005 to 2012 only increased by 0.04%, and at the same time, the percentage of hires on temporary contracts increased from 50% to 58%. (Refer to Germany’s Regensburg University Björn Brembs’s article: http://bjoern.brembs.net/2015/01/booming-university-administrations/). In the universities in France and Russia that didn’t learn from the American system, most of the work on problem set courses, answer sessions, and homework grading is undertaken by lecturers and assistant professors with tenure. Yet in the American university, the one group undertaking this work is graduate students, in specific schools, even the courses are taught by PhD students. PhD students must complete their own research work on the one hand and must bear heavy teaching duty on the other hand. Compared to PhD students in traditional European universities, American PhD students must bear more teaching duties. Too much teaching duty means that one cannot concentrate one’s energy on research, which severely affects the quality of training of PhD students. And PhD students themselves are students, whose teaching experience and academic ability are not high, the effect of their teaching surely cannot compare with that of the older professors, this will necessarily affect teaching quality. Universities out of consideration for cutting costs, disregard society’s needs, blindly expanding the number of PhD students accepted, and many PhDs after graduation who cannot find a suitable position switch fields one by one, this type of phenomenon is a severe waste of social resources and has damaged the normal academic environment, and is very unreasonable.
At the same time, we have also the excessive commercialization of the American university, causing the universities to become ever more bureaucratized. To exercise more control over teaching and research and to have some relations with commercial institutions, the number of university administrators has increased, thereby making the administrators more powerful every day. This has damaged the academic freedom of the university, causing a phenomenon where those outside the field lead those inside it. Noam Chomsky in the article “The Death of American Universities” brought about this question. And this has been confirmed by the statistics pertaining to the import of the American system in German universities provided by Professor Björn Brembs. At the same time as the stagnation of the number of tenured faculty, German universities, after dismissing librarians and other technical support staff, the number of non-science administrative university staff increased 17% from 2005 to 2012, comparing the numbers of the two respective groups, the ratio of administrators to scientists from 2005’s 0.57 increased to 0.64 in 2012.
In reality, the over commercialized model not only affects teaching and research staff on temporary contracts. Even the behavior of tenured professors has been impacted. Comparing the teaching in traditional European universities to the teaching in American universities, we will find that in the traditional European universities, there basically do not exist teaching material, instructors all use lecture material that they create, and at the same time, teach per their own understanding and idea of it. For science and engineering majors, the problem sets and homework in problem set courses are all prepared by assistant professors themselves, and not per some teaching material or some ready-made problem set collections. In American universities, most courses have teaching material. Very clear, relative to European universities, American universities, even tenured professors do not want to spend time to hand prepare lecture notes and problem sets. I think this is related to how under the commercialized model, professors want to spend more time research, which is useful for obtaining more funding.
The size of faculty of a single department in American universities is very small, even in the math department at Berkeley considered by Americans to be a mega university, the number of tenure and tenure-track faculty do not exceed 65. In reality, it’s entirely in a state of small kingdoms abound, feudal princes fragmented. In this kind of state, it’s really not very conducive to the development of science and the cultivation of science and technology talent. Because to set up a bunch of little math departments, little physics departments, and not to integrate into one large-scale math department or physics department, this type of method would result in basic courses offered in repetition, yet advanced, leading edge courses unable to be offered due to lack of qualified instructors or too few students. The content in basic courses are usually relatively mature, to find reference material covering the course content is not hard, so to self-learn is relatively easy. But for advanced, leading edges courses one can basically only refer to a series of papers or specialized texts, to self-learn is much more troublesome. This type of state necessarily hinders cultivation of science research talents.
On another respect, when a single department’s faculty is small, it results in a fundamental inability to form concentrated scientific schools and equivalent scientific communities. You’ll have a very hard time finding a professor working in a similar field to collaborate with. Professors in different areas by virtue of that feel worlds apart, finding it very hard to mutually collaborate on scientific problems. Every professor basically in a state of fighting for themselves, which means a lack of timely and effective scientific collaboration. This type of situation would severely affect the development of science. In the mathematical field, as for the exceptional performance of French and Russian mathematicians, I think this is closely related to how Paris and Moscow are two cities where mathematicians all over the world are most concentrated. Because many mathematicians concentrate in one city, so you can easily find an expert who knows your field to discuss academic problems. And the math departments in those two countries are both larger scale compared to those in America, naturally possessing sufficient power to offer more advanced courses, helping students to rapidly reach the leading edge of the field. Like the math major at Moscow State in the 80s, every year the number of advanced courses offered were in the hundreds, every year the number of seminars held are as many as over 200, this type of environment obviously is much better than America’s situation of little math departments in great numbers for the growth of young scholars.
At the same time, because of the replacement by many small scale departments of a large scale department, there is a phenomenon of duplicate purchase of research facilities, books, journals, etc, resulting a large waste in the use of funding. At the same time, some research facilities, books, journals, etc are not purchased due to minimal use, thereby affecting the progress of research. This type of academic arrangement really is not conducive to the development of science.
In the recent years, the tenure system in American universities has attracted the interest of many people, many Chinese universities and research institutions all are trying to introduce the tenure system. But is this system really reasonable? Based on the interpretation of proponents of the American style university, the tenure system of American universities seems very beautiful, but in the American university system, on one hand, universities recruit PhD students like mad, resulting in the number of PhD graduates vastly exceeding the number of newly added faculty positions, which means that even for the most exceptional PhD students, not doing a few postdocs means not being able to obtain a faculty position. On the other hand, even if a young person obtains a faculty position after much effort, being a tenure track professor is not that one is a tenured professor, but rather requires promotion in 5-6 years to obtain tenure, otherwise the principle of “up or out” means that one must leave. Suppose a person gets PhD at age 27, does 5 years of postdoc, and smoothly does 5 years of assistant professor, that person is already 37 on obtaining tenure, and this is a very ideal situation. It is said that this type of system is conducive to bring about a young person’s research enthusiasm and initiative, but science research requires patience. Reality is of people who want to take the time to do science research, even if devoid of external pressure, there are very few who would not work hard to do research, and are there to eat an idle meal. If one is talking about an applied science field, this type of interpretation might be reasonable to some degree. But for basic science fields, one cannot see any reason in doing this. In the French system without up or out where lecturers are tenured faculty, are scientists actually not doing work and just scraping meals? What we especially need to point is that the French faculty system is entirely an archetype of a socialist big rice bowl, lecturers and researchers are based only on title and seniority. Based on the views of some people, French scientists should be everybody eating an idle meal, not publishing many papers, and certainly won out by American counterparts in science research ability. But in the mathematical field where the funding requirement is the lowest, the actual situation is exactly the opposite, considering the overall scale of science research of the two countries, in science research ability French mathematicians are instead slightly better. The Soviet Union, which employed similarly this type of socialist big rice bowl system, in science funding could receive a guarantee, in an era when science research can pretty much progress normally, in science also made remarkable progress, producing a large number of results of profound and far-reaching impact. Yet in Japan, before the putting into effect of corporate reform of national universities and research institutions, lecturers and assistant professors permanent staff equivalent to tenured professor, in recent yers, Japan has repeatedly won Nobel Prize, and these research results were really all done before the corporate reform of national universities and research institutions. In contrast, after the corporate reform of national universities and research institutions, employing a system similar to the tenure system, came out the Haruko Obokata scandal, bringing shame to Japanese science. From the contrast above, one can see how the proposition that the tenure system can stimulate more initiative in a researcher, enhancing research quality, actually lacks actual evidence.
On the other hand, we can find very many malpractices under the tenure system. Because in an up or out system, for a 30 year old research with a family and mouths to feed, to lose the faculty position might mean that the entire family has not enough to eat. Once pressure is high, it’s very easy for one to conceive of some devious maneuvers. First of all, the research results of an unknown young scientist usually do not attract attention, so in order to bring more attention to one’s own research results, many people busy themselves going everywhere for conferences, to promote one’s research results, instead of engrossing oneself in work in one’s office or lab. Many people are not working hard to solve basic scientific problems, but are instead busy following the trend and publishing trivial results in scientific journals. Compared to their European and Japanese counterparts, their self-promotion ability is much higher than their research ability. At the same time, in this type of psychological condition, academic fraud and academic corruption is difficult to prevent.
The reality is that usually, important scientific research results are not done by famous scientists, and most are done by young scientists. But the tenure system in reality favors famous scientists over young scientists. A method like this that produces too much pressure for young scientists is not actually conducive to the growth of young scientists. Because they must within 5-6 years present sufficient research results. This explicit time limit makes it such that they dare not attack relatively challenging scientific problems. Like Fields Medalist Ngo Bao Chau only published 15 papers when he won the prize, if he were in America, the estimate would be that he would forced out of math research or compelled to work on some short, flat, and rapid problems, following the tide of producing relatively trivial work. At the same time, this type of system does not encourage them to pioneer new fields, because this requires a sufficient amount of preparatory work. Like Wolf Prize laureate and Fields Medal laureate Sergei Novikov, when he was young spent two years time to learn physics, preparing to develop mathematical physics research, and did not publish any papers. If he were an assistant professor in America, I think he would not dare to do that. In reality, some important research results, even work of a monumental nature, might not be understood or be controversial at the start, especially if this is the result of a nobody, and in a circumstance very unusual. An example everyone is familiar with is mathematical giant Abel, his work pertaining to group theory and elliptic functions was never recognized as important during his life. When his work on elliptic functions was valued by the mathematical community, he had already been dead for decades. The work of Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki on the proof of the abc conjecture if verified to be correct would be another example. So in order to avoid this type of situation, a rational person would choose naturally to avoid controversy, and not publish work that is difficult for the community to comprehend, and instead go with the broad flow. If every scientist does this in his best years, the natural result would be the mediocritization of science, not at all conducive to the emergence of breakthrough work in science. Without breakthroughs in science one after another, what kind of progress would human society make?
The tenure system is a very brutal system, this type of approach, would only make young people fear science research, thereby rendering the best people too afraid to do research. Unless this country is like America, with many young people from other countries coming here to become cannon fodder, otherwise, this country’s science research community’s long term development is bleak, because exceptional young people would only leave science research in large numbers.
Promoters of American style universities often say that American universities have high teaching quality and high caliber of students. Is it really that way? One cannot deny that American university administrators still value teaching, because unlike European universities which depend on government funding, the functioning of American universities depends mostly on donations and funds generated by the school. Administrators naturally hope for more alumni to become successful, thereby obtaining more donations. Consequently, under drive from this economic interest, American university administrators have thought of all kinds of ways to enhance the quality of graduates. Aside from looking all over the place for scholarship money of high amounts to win over exceptional student sources, American university administrators have naturally thought of all kinds of way to improve teaching quality. To improve teaching quality, one must first assess teaching quality itself. So how do American universities assess teaching quality? The method is to use students to conduct anonymous investigations, having the students assess the teacher. Other than this, American university coursework is mostly optional, unlike in European universities, where most basic courses are required. Administrators believe, if students give a teacher a negative assessment, and a teacher without students picking his course is also not a good teacher. So a professor in order to curry favor with the students, dare not expect too much from the students as in traditional European universities, afraid that students give him low marks or not even take his course.
Courses which Americans regard as very strict, in reality are not difficult, and not strict either. Like many math students in America have heard of Harvard math department’s Math55. Harvard math department’s main page says (Reference: http://www.math.harvard.edu/pamphlets/freshmenguide.html), this course is America’s hardest undergraduate math class, demands 24-60 hours per week to do homework, and only appropriate for top students who have learned a year of college level math. And an issue of Harvard University’s newspaper (http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2006/12/6/burden-of-proof-at-1002-am/) says this class’s homework plus 3 hours of lecture and 1 hour of problem set session is basically equivalent to doing a full time job. And this course inspires endless dread in Harvard students. Somebody recalled, on the first day there were 51 people, two weeks later remained only 23. Sounds so scary. But if we actually look at the this course’s actual content and homework, what do we find? Here is the main page of this course taught by Noam Elkies:
If these types of exercises take 24-60 hours per week, I can only say that Harvard university math students are too weak. If this type of curriculum can count as America’s hardest undergrad course, then American math education level is a tragedy. To find exercises of this level on the mathematical analysis text of Zorich of Moscow State, can say that one can grab a bunch. If this requires the effort of a full time job, if they went to Moscow State they would not need to sleep for an entire year. If they solve exercises at this pace, have them take Ecole Normal’s entrance exam, the time of test might be extended from 6 hours or 4 hours to at least two weeks.
The author of this has not found their exam problems, so cannot judge how strict their tests are, but similar top American math department at Princeton, the final exam of undergrad in complex analysis, problems all came from exercises from their textbook (Stein’s complex analysis). More laughable is that these are open book tests. This is not any difference from giving points to students. The best American universities are like this, the situation at ordinary American universities must be more severe. So there has appeared in the grades of American university students what is known as grade inflation. In the report of American Academy of Arts and Sciences “Evaluation and the Academy: Are We Doing the Right Thing? Grade Inflation and Letters of Recommendation” written by Henry Rosovsky and Matthew Hartley (Reference: https://www.amacad.org/multimedia/pdfs/publications/researchpapersmonographs/Evaluation_and_the_Academy.pdf), they point out how between 1960-1974, the 180 schools they investigated, average GPA increased by 0.432. And through the investigation of 4900 college students, the percentage of students getting grade of A- or higher increased from 7% in 1969 to 26% in 1993. In Princeton University, 1973, among all the grades, 30.7% were A, but in 1992, this increased to 42.5%, at the same time, only 11.6% were lower than B. And based on the book “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class” by Ross Douthat, in 2000, half of the student grades were A. The image below comes from Economist (http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2014/08/economics-university-grading), reflecting the grade inflation trend of some of the elite schools.
But is it because American students have gotten better that grades have become higher? The report of Henry Rosovsky and Matthew Hartley after investigating the SAT scores of all American students came to the conclusion that this explanation is baseless. In reality, every more college students out of low academic ability are required by the college to go through remedial courses, that percentage have grown 39% from 1990 and 1995. Additionally, based on a study on college professors done by the American Higher Education Research Institute, only 25% of professors feel that the students they are teaching are academically prepared.
Really, aside from a few star students, even among elite American university undergrads, the level of most of the students is questionable. Based on my understanding, the MIT physics and Caltech physics students who go to École Polytechnique high energy physics department for undergraduate exchange are at the bottom in test scores at École Polytechnique. And these students should be the above average ones at MIT and Caltech physics departments, otherwise they would not dare to go into high energy physics. Moreover, students who are too weak, École Polytechnique would definitely not accept for exchange study.
At the same time, the tenure system has intensified grade inflation. The statistics in “Grades and Ranking: When Tenure Affects Assessment” by Jean Filetti (Reference: http://pareonline.net/getvn.asp?v=15&n=14) show that compared to tenured professors, tenure track professors are visibly more inclined to give high grades. This type of phenomenon does not surprise people. First of all, only tenure track professors, in order to receive high student assessments and avoid negative effect on their chance of obtaining tenure, do not want to offend students. Second, only tenure track professors have a question mark on whether they can stay permanently at the university, so in their mind, they often see themselves as an outsider to the university, with actions naturally very short term in motivation, lacking in long term considerations, and so naturally their commitment to academic standards is far from that of tenured professor, because they often see themselves as an outsider.
Really, this approach of American universities has resulted in a severe phenomenon wherein inferior coins expel superior coins. Professors who uphold academic standards, teach earnestly, and hold students to high expectations are fewer and fewer, and those who give easy points and teach easily are more and more. This type of situation will necessarily lead to a severe decline in teaching quality in universities, fundamentally threatening the progress of science and development of society.
At the same time with grade inflation such that exceptional students have a hard time distinguishing themselves, graduate schools and employers cannot tell which students are better, having lost faith in grades. Thus, one can only rely on the likes of recommendations, ranking of school of origin to select students, with the result that students with strong social networks are more easily preferred. A student’s mastery of knowledge matches not the ability to make connections. This type of approach severely damages fairness of the society. For example for graduate school admissions, if school grades cannot distinguish who is the better student, then one can only rely on recommendations or the school the student graduated from, or look at the papers published. But something like recommendations is entirely determined by the relationship between the letter writer and the recommended student, a student who obtains a strong recommendation letter is not necessarily a student of the highest caliber, but might be the student most able to establish social connections. This type of approach, in its essence is not much different from “xiaolian” in the Han dynasty, its corrupt practice is clear and easy to see. And to see the school of graduation of the student to determine whether or not to admit is also a very unreasonable way. Everybody knows that good schools can have really weak students, and very weak schools do not necessarily not have outstanding students. Especially under the American system, to look at school of origin would even more severely affect fairness of society. Because American schools at all level do not have entrance exams, and use an audit of student academic records to decide whether or not to accept the application. Under this type of admissions system, students from relatively weaker schools will be very disadvantaged, and meritocracy is fundamentally unattainable.
One must especially notice that American basic education has huge inequality problems. In America, there is no unified teaching outline or curriculum at either the federal or state level, so one cannot speak of basic requirement in its education. At the primary and secondary school level, the differences between different schools are quite high. American secondary and primary schools can be split into public and private schools, about 90% of secondary and primary schools are public schools, 10% are private schools. For public schools, the main source of funding is not from the appropriation of funds from the central government, but from the appropriation of state funds and district taxes, especially property tax. Like in the school year 2010-2011, 44.1% of American secondary and primary school funds came from the appropriation of state government funds and 43.4% came from the tax of school district, with especially 35% from property tax. (Refer to the summary of educational statistics from United States National Educational Statistical Bureau: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_235.10.asp) America has a total of 13506 school districts, and on average each district only has 20,000 some people. Public schools in richer districts with higher property tax revenues, yet poorer school districts clear have lower property tax revenues. From this, there is a large difference in funding between rich school districts and poor school districts, this is first reflected in teacher salaries. Like in the State of Maryland, the average teacher annual salary in the year of October 2010 in Calvert School District was $73986. At the same time, Dorchester School District’s average teacher annual salary was only $51789. (Reference: http://www.marylandpublicschools.org/NR/rdonlyres/F5B571DF-A470-47BE-9516-05DC870DEEBA/31303/analys13.pdf). In reality, there is a similarly high disparity in teacher salaries between states. In the school year 2012-2013, teachers in the State of New York averaged annual salary of $75279, yet the average annual salary of teachers in South Dakota was only $39580. The difference is almost by a factor of two. (Refer to summary of educational statistics from United States National Educational Statistical Bureau: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_211.60.asp)
It’s very obvious that when there is such disparity in funding between school district and a lack of uniform education standards, rich school districts can hire better teachers, have better facilities, and so the teacher quality is higher, with more rich people in the area, property prices are naturally higher, and poor people cannot afford the place. And there is little to safeguard the teaching quality in poorer school districts. And for private schools, naturally there are only the children of the rich who can afford the tuition. This way, the situation necessarily results in the kids of ordinary families losing in the race, and it is very difficult to change circumstances with one’s own hard work. Whether or not one can get into an elite school, ever more is not determined by one’s talent but rather depends on family background, which is per the common saying “rely on daddy.” This type of system will inevitably result in lack of social mobility.
As for using publications to determine whether or not to admit, this type of method also has problems. Disregarding for now that undergrads in relatively weaker universities would find it very hard to have this type of opportunity, assume that an undergrad at an elite school can receive sufficient mentorship in a sufficient research environment. But is the level of an undergrad really enough to publish papers? For an experimental science, the author cannot say too much. But fields in the area of math and theoretical physics, given the level of American students, how many have the ability to produce a publishable paper? Peter Scholze, math professor at University of Bonn in Germany who obtained a PhD after five years since entering university, was directly hired as a professor at the highest W3 level at Germany’s top math school Bonn, and was invited to be a speaker at the International Congress of Mathematicians only two years after his completing his PhD, published his first paper four years after he entered university. The ability of most undergrads in the best American universities is far lower than that of Peter Scholze. So, in really it can only be that for most of their papers, the professor, after already more or less having completed the work, lets the student patch up some missing pieces, and at the end, this is the professor giving results to the student. The National Science Foundation in order to encourage undergrads to publish papers funds all kinds of Research Experiences for Undergraduates, but at least in the math field, this type of approach has already changed to widespread funding of initiatives for professors to give papers to undergraduates. The names of authors on some of the papers, when the supervising professor is counted, is as many as seven, those in the field can easily tell what when on behind the scenes.
It is necessary to explain that the author does not discourage undergraduates from participating in research as early as possible, on the contrary, the author very much supports this practice, but to turn undergraduate research into professors giving students a paper, this kind of undergraduate research, what is the point? The top Soviet universities, traditionally also encouraged students to participate in research as early as possible. Typically according the requirement of the teaching plan, every student after end of second year must pick an advisor, and from the beginning of third year start participating in research activity under the supervisor, like participating in seminars and engaging in laboratory work, and at the same time, there is the requirement of yearly thesis and graduating thesis from third year to fifth year. In fact, there were examples of undergraduates doing important research work that stunned the academic community. Among the Hilbert’s 23 problems, two were resolved by Soviet undergraduates. There are respectively Hilbert’s 13th problem (solved by then Moscow State undergrad Vladimir Arnold) and Hilbert’s 10th problem (solved by them St. Petersburg State undergrad Yuri Matiyasevich, and later academician of Russian Academy of Sciences). Vladimir Arnold and Yuri Matiyasevich were both invited to give 45 minute talks in the International Congress of Mathematicians. But these research activities were all done under the requirements of the educational plan in a planned out way, not in attempt to create a great leap forward, with publication as the goal, evolving at the end towards a professor giving the student a paper. This so called undergraduate research of the type where the professor gives the student a paper cannot train the student’s research ability, and also cannot be used to tell whether or not this student has research potential, to use such a method to select graduate students is actually not much better than drawing lots to determine who to admit.
Grade inflation also leads to misjudgment of self of American undergrads, they believe they learned the material well when they obviously did not. They don’t spend any more time to go deeply through the basic theory, strengthening their fundamentals. Students with high self-motivation for learning, begin to learn more advanced material with all one’s might. Many people learned a smattering of advanced stuff, but cannot flexibly apply the knowledge in basic courses. Some people might say, American graduate education is very good, they can fill in gaps in the basics in their graduate stage. How are the American graduate courses? In reality, in American graduate courses, aside from the courses on the material of PhD qualifying exams, there are basically no exams. And the scope of the material in the PhD qualifying exams is at best at the level of the scope of the required courses in the five year undergrad in Soviet universities or of the M1 courses in French universities. And the advanced graduate courses equivalent to the specialization courses in the Soviet five year undergraduate system or the M2 courses in French universities, like algebraic geometry in the math major, and string theory in the physics major, do not have tests, their level of strictness and expectation far lower. In this type of system, aside from those courses in the qualifying exams, we must to the level of American students put a huge question mark. In reality, in America, many professors do not want to put much time on basic theory, wishing even that students don’t take courses, because this means less time for research, so there are hidden gaps and holes in many American students in their mastery of basic theory.
Maybe some people would think that to give students relatively high marks would give them more confidence, not giving them too much psychological shock. But is this really good for the students? Grade inflation leads to in students low level of mastery, with unqualified students not weeded out. In Europe in French universities, only 42% of first year students can enter second year. In the math department at University of Bonn in Germany, the students in the current third year cohort, there were 500 who entered and 400 were weeded out after two years. If American professors did the same as their European counterparts, they might have to pack up and leave. So many unqualified students leave the university with high GPA but do not know anything. For science and engineering majors, standards cannot be lowered as one wishes. Whether they enter the workforce or continue on to graduate school, these kinds of undergraduates will suffer sooner or later. Especially the ones who prepare for graduate school, the ones on the research track. They will soon realize, they didn’t prepare themselves for graduate school, and can only switch fields. These people even realize that they are not the right material when they finish their PhD. One might well ask, is it more humane to weed out the unqualified students at the early stage, letting them find a more suitable field, or to wait till they’re already 30 and tell them that really they were unqualified students, and must change fields. I think the answer is obvious.
Maybe some worshippers of American universities would be call into question how awful American students are, why are there still many American scientists doing good work in science? First of all, the American scientists we are familiar with now, their education was decades ago, not now, their success cannot say that the ways of American universities now are reasonable. In the last seem, when American science was advancing by leaps and bounds, American universities definitely did not expect as little as today from their students. Harvard in the 50s was not like Harvard today, with most people getting As, at that time, the average grade was C. Second, the few star American students are not necessarily the product of the American school education. Like many people might think of John Pardon, who published as an undergraduate on the prestigious journal “Annals of Mathematics” of Princeton University a few years ago. His father is full professor at Duke University math department. I think rather than say that he was trained by Princeton’s math department, better to say that he was trained by his father. But for a student with ordinary parents, is your father a professor at a famous American university?
As for America’s education and research system, we must awake to see that there are many problems, definitely not as good as according to those who blindly worship it, and should absolutely not invariably imitate its ways, and even more so not simply copy it. Otherwise, this blind worship of the American education and research system, copying of America’s ways, would necessarily bring damage to a country’s education and science research. In reality, this is definitely not frightening words to scare people, but something that is already happening in the education and science research fields in many countries. Aside from the aforementioned blind introduction of the tenure system in some countries that resulted in shortsighted actions of researchers affecting quality of research and teaching and series of flawed methods from education and research administrators, such as letting students give professors rating research and education quality, etc, the learning of so called “effortless education” and “character education” in America some countries in Asian and Europe with traditionally strictly regulated primary and secondary education has severely damaged national competitiveness. Like the so called education reform put into effect by Yuan Tseh Lee in Taiwan, caused the level of students in Taiwan to severely go downhill, which aroused much anxiety in many people inside Taiwan. At the same time, parents fear that students are too poorly trained, and parents with money will one after another register students for extra classes, which on the contrary places much greater burden on students, and simultaneously unreasonable polarization. Because this way, if the student’s family does not have the money to register for extra classes, the student will naturally be disadvantaged to those with the money. At the end, the cause of the resulting polarization is not the extent of the student’s talent and hard work, but whether the student’s family has money, which is really everyone competing on based on daddy. Even in China, the so called de-burdening and character education has brought disorder to China’s science education, now high school math does not even teach systematic knowledge on complex numbers and high school physics does not go into thermodynamics and similar. Being unable to rationally view the advantages and disadvantages of each country’s system, abandoning one’s strengths, blindly worshipping America, with America as one’s only guide, doing whatever America does, this way of doing things if it continues to spread, will only go to the dead end of mechanically imitating America, thereby destroying the country’s science and education foundation, impede the development of science and culture, to receive an effective warning is a must.
Translated by the author of this blog. Feel free to redistribute, but reference this page and site as the original translation source as well as the Chinese original. Feel free to point out typos/mistakes too.