REMEMBER math class? Remember the few so-called "geniuses" who got A's while most of us muddled through? Remember the laggards, who never seemed to "get it"?
Our country reflects this division in how it trains the young in math and science. The majority of US youngsters get a mediocre math and science education, which, despite pockets of reform, produces eighth-graders who rank below those from Slovenia and Scotland on international tests. The most advanced country in the world faces a shortage of mathematically skilled workers.
Yet we also boast institutions that find young geniuses and encourage them to climb a tough professional ladder to careers as top-flight researchers. These institutions keep us No. 1 in most fields of science.
I had the privilege of meeting some of these 17-year-old superstars last month at the annual Science Talent Search awards dinner. The Science Talent Search, sponsored by Westinghouse Foundation and Science Service Inc., has nurtured talented students for 55 years. Each year 40 semifinalists earn a climactic week in Washington. Most become career researchers; five have won Nobel Prizes. The awards dinner features the kingpins of the science elite reading the names of the 10 winners in reverse order in the rococo ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel.
In some past years, I felt it was the ballroom of the Titanic. Judges and sponsors in black tie would exhort the kids to pursue the glories of pure science, in the heart of a city whose schools are near the bottom nationwide. Just blocks away, year in and year out, the finalists' counterparts shoot strangers because they cannot reckon the gain of a $5 holdup against the cost of a career in jail.
But that's how elites operate. The US had the good fortune to develop science high schools that put gifted youngsters under the tutelage of outstanding teachers. After the war we spread higher education widely, and layered on it a system of postgraduate education and stable, government-backed research so these brilliant minds could pursue basic science. The result has been uncountable benefits to our population plus a record- breaking string of Nobels.
Yet as Marie Antoinette learned, when elites get too remote from their constituents - in this case, when scientists are isolated from taxpayers and schools and teachers - they risk losing their privileges, maybe even their heads. My anxiety at past dinners was that, in that cocoon of brilliance, one heard nary a word about the wastage of educational failure just beyond the doors.
What kind of nation will we be if our scientific elite ignores the ongoing crisis in public education, the undermining of a skilled work force, and the human loss to those who never "get it"? Such indifference breeds the resentment of brains and high standards that we see in popular culture. Ultimately, it breeds votes in Congress against intellectual endeavors.
This year was different. Each finalist had been asked: What is the biggest problem facing the country? Each youngster's answer was read as he or she came onstage. John Joon Tae Cho, of Herricks Senior High School in New Jersey, replied that "a modest investment in educational systems would unleash great potential." Jacob Lurie, of Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland, believes "our greatest challenges are: balancing the budget ... stopping violence ... and improving education." When I talked to John Cho afterwards, he said he had tutored others through school, and planned to go on tutoring through college. Of course, that's the answer. Tutoring, acting on students' concern for education, is the solution to our awful disparities in math and science skills.
If this generation of scientists could undertake to tutor - individually and institutionally - those who are less fortunate, as part of their payback for promotion to a publicly supported elite, the context of US research and education would change for the better.