Putting Tolerance Above Math and Science Skills

The effort to quantify the intellectual qualities that make for a prosperous society tends to focus on skills. What such efforts should really focus on is social climate.

One recent study by Gild compared the skills of U.S. and Chinese software developers. It found that American developers are more proficient at common programming languages while Chinese are better at math and logic. To be more precise, Gild found that Americans are 19%, 22%, 24% and 26% better, respectively, at C++, C, Java and Oracle and C#. Chinese developers outscored their U.S. counterparts by 20% in math and logic.

I don’t know how the study measured these skills — probably by presenting questions involving various skillsets and scoring the number of correct responses. Gild is a firm that provides the service of testing the skill profiles of developers.

The conclusion Gild drew from the study is that while U.S. developers still lead the world we had better do a better job of teaching math and logic or risk falling behind China in software development, today’s most important area of technology. It also recommends that American schools introduce programming courses in its schools.

Of course we Americans have been bemoaning the fact that our kids lag behind the students of other nations, especially Asian ones, in math and science. American educators and politicians have been citing studies that suggest that our kids are very near the bottom of all industrialized nations in these skills, and the lamentations have been ongoing since, well, when we were kids.

To my mind this has always begged the question, “Then how is it that we continue to lead the world in so many hi-tech fields?”

There’s no question that countries like S. Korea, China, Japan and Germany have been closing the technology gap with us. But that’s to be expected. When countries go from struggling to feed themselves to having large middle class populations, they are going to improve their competitiveness relative to the U.S. But closing the gap is a far cry from passing us.

No matter how many studies keep showing that our international rivals are outscoring our kids in math and science skills, we manage to keep our lead where it really matters — actual creation and development of world-leading hi-tech industries, even years after those kids with inferior math and science skills have become the parents bemoaning their own kids’ lack of proficiency in those same skills!

The reason for this apparent paradox is that, at bottom, what matters most to maintaining our lead is a social climate that fosters creativity, entrepreneurship and risk-taking. While it is possible that similar climates will eventually arise in other nations, it will not be because they have become Kumon societies that drill their kids relentlessly on rote math and science skills. It will be because they have learned that more than anything else, an advanced society must be a tolerant one if it is to stay advanced.

History teaches us that tolerance is what fosters creativity and attracts the most skilled artisans, craftspeople, thinkers and technologists. That was the case with the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire and the British Empire — as well as the American Empire. The ability to attract the best and most creative minds will always trump the success of any one society in drilling its youth in a set of skills like math and science. We could double our education budgets and still fail to create anything like the number of tech geniuses that we continually attract from places like India, China, Russia, S. Korea, Vietnam and Pakistan.

So why not do both? Why not drill our kids to death in math and science and also maintain an attractive social climate? The question answers itself. The kneejerk impulse to force-feed a specific set of skills at the expense of educational latitude and a nurturing environment, by definition, would create an intolerant, narrow-minded society like those that currently produce all those math and science whizzes but can’t match our success in fostering world-leading technologies.

So while nattering about our need to foster math and science skills makes for interesting discussions, we should be grateful that we can’t marshall the will to turn our primary and secondary education systems into the kind of gulags that so many Chinese and S. Korean kids must survive to make it into college. When they complete their 12-year ordeals, the most creative and enterprising kids from other nations are often keen to flee to the U.S. where they can enjoy, at last, a degree of the freedom they had been denied in pressure-cooker societies.