Competing Views of Education

Tom Friedman:

My fellow Americans, we can’t continue in this mode of “Dumb as we wanna be.” We’ve indulged ourselves for too long with tax cuts that we can’t afford, bailouts of auto companies that have become giant wealth-destruction machines, energy prices that do not encourage investment in 21st-century renewable power systems or efficient cars, public schools with no national standards to prevent illiterates from graduating and immigration policies that have our colleges educating the world’s best scientists and engineers and then, when these foreigners graduate, instead of stapling green cards to their diplomas, we order them to go home and start companies to compete against ours.

To top it off, we’ve fallen into a trend of diverting and rewarding the best of our collective I.Q. to people doing financial engineering rather than real engineering. These rocket scientists and engineers were designing complex financial instruments to make money out of money — rather than designing cars, phones, computers, teaching tools, Internet programs and medical equipment that could improve the lives and productivity of millions.

Tom Barnett:

1) obsessing over PhD stats is useless, because “even if China spends a fortune to train more scientists, it cannot prevent America from capitalizing on their inventions with better business models.”

2) the commercialization, diffusion and use of inventions is more valuable to companies and economies than the original act of invention (hmm, I believe we call that the “Microsoft effect”), so more MBAs than PhDs

I prefer T.F. to T.B. here, though as I am a PhD student married to an engineer, I may be biased!

Razib’s take was written before the Toms’, but I think it a good coda here:

First, scientifically trained people are very common in quantitative finance. Second, history would probably have helped us see what was going to go down; the idea that property values were always going to go up was the latest tulip mania, though the idea was buttressed by “rigorous models.”

The way scientists can help the economy is simple: keep doing science & engineering and increase economic productivity through the generation of new techniques and technologies. That’s the real engine of growth & wealth. I think we’ve really hit the era of diminishing marginal returns when it comes to increasing efficiency through more intelligent capital allocation. Perhaps the lost luster of hedge funds and the financial sector more generally will mean that those trained in the mathematical sciences will remain in those fields. The argument in Knowledge and Wealth of Nations the modern affluence is the product of spillover effects from technological innovation should make it clear what the most optimal allocation of cognitive power is, at least when it comes to aggregate social utility.

So should our education system concentrate on a ‘next generation’ of scientists and engineers, lawyers and MBAs, critical theorists and community activists, or something else?

4 thoughts on “Competing Views of Education”

  1. I favor a bailout for aspiring political scientists 😉

    But seriously, one on hand I’m completely on board with Freidman’s long argued automatic green card to any foreign national who gets a Ph.D. at an American University, but the problem with American born students choosing MBAs and JDs over a Ph.D. may be difficult to solve. As I see it, many people pick that route both because the monetary rewards are much greater and because MBA and JD programs are easier to complete. Most MBA programs run around 18-24 months and law school is almost always 6 semesters – completed in 36 months. Compare that to a Ph.D. program that can run 48 months or more and it’s easy to imagine a 22 or 23 year old engineering student from a top program opting for an MBA and quick entry into the workforce versus a long slog through a graduate program.

    And because I spend too much time reading Half Sigma’s blog, I’ll add a simplistic twist: the lawyer or financial analyst in his mid 20s will probably get more chicks than the graduate student because he makes more money.

    All of this adds up to a lot of incentive to go for the quick professional degree, less incentive to go for a Ph.D. With the collapse of the financial markets this may change in the short term, but I hope we don’t craft long term public policy on the assumption that the finance industry will remain forever in ruin; it probably won’t.

    With all of this in mind how would the education system “concentrate” on training scientists and engineers? What type of incentives could be put in place to steer qualified applicants into Ph.D.programs as opposed to L and B schools? I don’t know much about Ph.D. programs in the hard sciences, but are there ways to streamline a Ph.D. in engineering to bring it closer to the 3 year program offered by law schools? And would that be desirable or would that weaken the value of Ph.D.? I know you’re a strong advocate of improving SMT education at the primary and secondary levels, but would that increase the number of young people that wanted to be engineers or just increase the number of numerate lawyers?

    Personally, I don’t think we can change (over the long term) the incentives for American students to become lawyers* and bankers. What we can do is offer green cards to foreign students who complete Ph.D. programs at our universities.

    *I do forsee a day when technology reduces the # of lawyers the market will support. Much of the document review currently done by young associates should eventually be done on searchable databases (a shocking amount of Biglaw work is still done on paper). But until those natural market forces reduce the demand for labor with a legal education, smart people will go to law school.

  2. Excellent post!

    I tend to agree with your take on these two views of the state of higher learning in the United States today.

    It may be simplistic, but look at the state of our economy and national prestige after decades of churning out MBA’s and JD’s whose main focus has been the vertical thinking pursuit of instant gratification.

    Subjects like philosophy, ethics and the knowledge of history have been thrown under the bus to gain traction to secure the almighty dollar today, at the expense of the future.

  3. Brent: Easiest way to increase the number of PhD candidates I can think of? A huge increase in the number of grants and scholarships available for doctoral candidates. It won’t catch the people who really want the instant gratification, but it will give people who’re worried about student loan payback a reason to look at the longer-term option.

  4. Brent Grace,

    Comprehensive immigration reform is important for this country, and I hope Obama pursues it vigorously [1].

    The labor market is impacted both by the demand and supply sides. These interact with each other over time. However, there is a great lag. The infrastructure of the educational system creates a large supply of students capable of doing well in law and business school (able to express themselves fluently, able to verbally debate, abel to play on feelings in order to get special treatment), but does a poor job of creationg students capable of doing well in engineering and science (able to think logically, perform mathematical calculations, and devise systems that can be falsified by others).

    While some mix of both skill-sets is needed, I think I would side with Razib and T.F. in thinking that our country has too much of one, and not enough of the other.

    historyguy99,

    It may be simplistic, but look at the state of our economy and national prestige after decades of churning out MBA’s and JD’s whose main focus has been the vertical thinking pursuit of instant gratification.

    Subjects like philosophy, ethics and the knowledge of history have been thrown under the bus to gain traction to secure the almighty dollar today, at the expense of the future.

    Excellent points! I think I half-agree.

    Both law and ethics may be on the wrong side of the quantitative revolution [2], existing as ‘soft’ fields where armchair philosophy (such as is engaged on in this blog) matters more than robust models and reliable predictions.

    Michael,

    Brent: Easiest way to increase the number of PhD candidates I can think of? A huge increase in the number of grants and scholarships available for doctoral candidates.

    Well said.

    As PhD assistantships are largely a function of funding decisions made by the National Science Foundation and related grant-funding agencies, this could be rapidly done by President Obama and the Congress increasingly the yearly budget of these organizations.

    Here’s hoping they do that!

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2008/12/28/reform-the-immigration-system.html
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2008/01/28/the-quantitative-revolution.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *