Friday, May 13, 2005

Where Have You Gone, White Engineering Students?

Thomas Friedman's latest Op-Ed column in the NY Times caught my eye because first of all, the title is a mirror-image of my blog "Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMiaggio" which I have been writing since 2002. Mr. Friedman usually writes about politics and international affairs, but in this column he laments the decline of American technological prowess and educational standards, subjects that are near and dear to my heart. The notion of our nation being unable to compete in the world economy frightens him:

For so many years, America's economy was so dominant on the world stage, so out front in so many key areas, that we fell into the habit of thinking we were competing largely against ourselves. If we fell behind in one area or another - whether it was math and science skills, broadband capacity or wireless infrastructure - we took the view that: "Oh well, we'll fix that problem when we get to it. After all, we're just competing against ourselves."

In recent years, though, with the flattening of the global playing field, it should be apparent that we are not just competing against ourselves. The opening of China, India and Russia means that young people in these countries can increasingly plug and play - connect, collaborate and compete - more easily and cheaply than ever before. And they are. We, alas, are still coasting along as if we have all the time in the world.
Citing our poor performance at an international programming competition, and anecdotal evidence at Harvard--where he taught a class--and Indiana University, Friedman does his best impression of Coach Dean Smith to exhort Americans to work together in order to improve our global standing. He offers no insight as to why we have become educationally complacent, and thus less competitive in the marketplace.

America today reminds me of our last Olympic basketball team - that lackadaisical group that brought home the bronze medal. We think that all we need to do is show up and everyone else will fold - because, after all, we're just competing with ourselves.

And we think we don't need to get focused and play together like a team, with Democrats and Republicans actually working together. Well, on the basketball court - and in a flat world, where everyone now has access to all the same coaching techniques, training methods and scouting reports - a more focused, motivated team always beats a collection of more talented but complacent individuals.
The problem with Friedman and liberals like him is that they have failed to set foot in a real classroom at any level. What they haven't cared to notice is that in college campuses across America, white students are increasingly choosing not to study engineering, mathematics or the sciences. Don't believe me? Just take a look at the student profile at any of the top American engineering college. At MIT and Caltech, nearly one-third (30.8% and 31.1% respectively) of the students are Asian. The numbers are the same or even higher at Cornell (my alma mater), Berkeley, Illinois and other highly-ranked engineering schools. My Cornell college classmate Brett noted that he recently peeked into an undergraduate electrical engineering classroom at Cornell and saw that at least two-thirds of the students were Asian. So if anything, Asians are even more over-represented in the more difficult engineering majors.

Still don't believe me? Then check out USA Today's 2005 All-USA High School Academic Team. Out of twenty students profiled in yesterday's edition of USA Today, ten are Asian-American. Dig a little further down to the Second-Team All-Americans, and fourteen out of twenty are Asian-American. One can easily see that a disproportionate number of the Asian-American students plan to study technical subjects. Given that fewer than 5% of Americans are of Asian descent, the numbers are staggering. What Friedman really needs to ask is this question: Where have all the white students gone?

Of course, liberals believe the solution to this "problem" is Affirmative Action. As the number of Asian students at the top college campuses threatens to grow even larger, school administrators seek to limit their numbers in the interests of "diversity". The official explanation is that the schools are attempting to remedy past discrimination against black and Hispanics by setting aside a fixed number of class spaces for them. Historian Victor Davis Hansen disagrees, writing:

The country is also no longer white and black, but brown, yellow, black, white, and mixed. When a liberal UC Berkeley chancellor remonstrates about "diversity" and "multiculturalism," lamenting that his merit-based entrance requirements have sadly resulted in too few "Hispanics" and "African-Americans" (he ignores that whites at Berkeley also enroll in numbers less than their percentages in the state population), what he really means — but won't say — is that there are apparently too many Asians, about 45 percent enrolled in Berkeley versus about 12 percent in the state population.

What will he do? Praise a hard-working minority that overcame historic prejudice against them? Hardly. We suspect instead the typical liberal solution is on the horizon: some clever, but secretive administrative fix that contravenes Proposition 209, and then denies that compensatory action is aimed against the Asians it is aimed at.
Imposing quotas on our very best students is not a smart thing to do, especially with the competition we are facing against China, India, Korea, etc. And so the net effect of limiting the number of spots for Asian-Americans at the top schools--most with origins from the very countries that Friedman cites as our competition--is a lowering of overall standards. Perhaps this dumbing-down of the student body, and ripple-effect that it has on the college curriculum, grading-system and the pool of applicants, is what Friedman has already noticed.

Earlier this week, a special report on the Indiana University High School Survey of Student Engagement, which covered 90,000 high school students in 26 states, was published. The study noted that 18 percent of college-track seniors did not take a math course in their last year in high school - and that "more than a fifth (22 percent) of first-year college students require remediation in math." Just 56 percent of the students surveyed said they put a great deal of effort into schoolwork; only 43 percent said they worked harder than they had expected. Even though 55 percent said they studied no more than three hours a week, 65 percent of those students reported getting mostly A's and B's.

"Students are getting A's and B's, but without studying much," Martha McCarthy, the Indiana University professor who headed the study, told me. "Our fear," she added, "is that when you talk to employers out there, they say they are not getting the skills they need," in part because "the colleges are not getting students with the skills they need." Ms. McCarthy said one of the main reasons Indiana did this study is to better inform high school educators about what is going on in their own schools so they can find remedies. All of these shortcomings developed over time, Ms. McCarthy said, but "we as a nation became complacent about them."
I've witnessed firsthand the tendency for native-born Americans, and not just those whose ancestors were from Europe, to branch out into less technical fields like law and business once their families have become more established in the US. However, the biggest factor in the decline in the number of students studying science and engineering is obvious to anyone who has stepped onto a college campus other than Harvard, whose few engineering students actually take classes at nearby MIT. With white American students steering clear of engineering and the sciences, the nation's top science & engineering programs and even corporations must look elsewhere for talent to fill their ranks without sacrificing quality.

Mr. Friedman's hand-wringing over the demise of American competitiveness is admirable, but affirmative action programs that liberals like Friedman support do nothing but hurt efforts to restore our standing in the global marketplace. Once upon a time, America was dominant in the world because it was much more of a meritocracy than its rivals. Why can't we allow that to happen again in today's America?


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