Yet again Americans dominated or participated heavily in five of the six 2017 Nobel Prizes. Well done. The one that eluded us was the Peace Prize awarded to a Geneva team for their work toward worldwide nuclear disarmament. Americans received or shared prizes in Economics, Physiology and Medicine, Physics, Chemistry and Literature. No mean achievements. But should that surprise?
America has eight of the world’s top 10 universities. Nine of the next top 10 — totalling 17 of the world’s top 20. Nine of the next 10 — totaling 26 of the world’s top 30. Throughout the history of the Nobel Awards, America singularly has received more prizes (336) and produced more laureates than the next 10 nations combined, and has carded the most Nobel Laureates (367) than the next 13 countries combined.
Not a bad track record. Yet we complain about our schools and educational systems? Seems we are doing a fairly good job of graduating some pretty bright and accomplished people. The 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), done every three years, compared 71 countries on science, math and reading. American students came out middle of the pack on science, slightly below the middle on math, slightly above the middle on reading. Singapore swept the top slot in all three categories. If the Nobel Foundation gave out awards for schooling, Singapore would’ve cleaned house.
So why do we do such a middling so-so job on the daily grind of schooling, yet sweep the Nobels?
There are 350 different languages spoken in 125.82 million American households which must be dealt with in classrooms, of which 31 percent of households are single parent; 80 percent of which are single mothers. 1.8 million students are undocumented. Students come from all socioeconomic classes — from the unemployed on welfare to the rich and super-elite. Yet all are measured by the same standard PISA test. Students often move around with their migrant worker parents and are tested with everyone else like everyone else. American students come from abusive homes and English limited-speaking homes but are expected to do as well academically as those from caring well-adjusted, stable, loving, nurturing, high-achieving, intact family homes. Kids living in poverty or abusive homes or gang-ridden neighborhoods come to school burdened with worries about things other than learning their ABCs.
We have still other problems. Compared with similar other countries, we are 5 percent of the world’s population, yet find ourselves incarcerating by some unconfirmed reports 25 percent of the world’s prison population. America incarcerates 724 people per 100,000 population. We have the worst gun violence statistics of developed countries.
America is a patchwork quilt of teacher training colleges and universities containing a just-as-crazy patchwork quilt of teacher training philosophies and competencies. American schools are also a patchwork of funding levels, teacher competency levels, teacher attraction strengths, rates of kids going on to college and universities, school dropout rates, English as a second language rates, migrant worker student rates. Yet we see that out of all this comes some pretty good stuff.
From all this, America produces more Nobel Laureates within its 26 of the world’s top 30 universities than any other country. Looks like we’ve got some pretty good things going. Comparing American academic achievement across countries of radically different demographics is comparing apples to oranges. Yet the fruit of our system rises to the top of the Nobel world.
American universities attract and host the highest percentage of all foreign students (19 percent), with the UK coming in second (10 percent) and China attracting only 2 percent.
Clearly we’re doing something seriously right, and we should be proud of it. We’re a country of diversity and extremes. And we shine brightly among nations. We have the strongest economy, the strongest military, we welcome ethnic diversity, our currency is the gold standard and world reserve. The best and brightest of the Western world gathered at Bretton Woods in 1944 and crafted the best and most stable economy the world has ever known.
There’s good stuff happening here and we can rightly feel good about it.
Brik McDill of Bakersfield is a retired psychologist. The opinions expressed are his own.