While our students perform poorly on standardized tests relative to other countries, we have the most desirable institutions of higher education in the world and have a disproportionate share of Nobel Prize winners.  How is this so and do we denigrate out school system too much?

One explanation is offer by Thomas Sowell in Success Concealing Failure.  This was published in the Jewish World Review on 10/29/99, and is included as a chapter in The Thomas Sowell Reader.


AMONG THE MANY clever and misleading defenses of our failing educational system is the assertion that our universities are among the highest rated in the world and Americans consistently win a disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes. Both these claims are accurate — and irrelevant.

While Americans won the lion’s share of Nobel Prizes again this year, not one of these winners was actually born in the United States. If people born and raised elsewhere choose to come here and use their talents, fine. But do not claim their achievements as some vindication of the American educational system.

On the contrary, the painful question must be faced: Why were a quarter of a billion native-born Americans unable to win a single Nobel Prize this year, when a relative handful of naturalized Americans won so many? This is not a vindication but an indictment of our educational system.

Even more revealing, there is a systematic relationship between the difficulty of the subject and the percentage of American doctorates which go to Americans.

HKO comments:

While Sowell’s comments may be accurate there are other factors that have accounted for American success stories such as Steve Jobs and Steven Spielberg.  There is an American spirit that combines impatience, a healthy disrespect for authority, personal freedom, and a can do attitude.  What is missing in this article is why so many groundbreaking technologies the product of American minds.  Mark Zuckerberg, Sergin Brin (Google) are a few others that come to mind.

While this is not to excuse the quality of our school system and its importance for those who are not the outliers of success,  perhaps there are other factors that have allowed us to overcome this problem.  Perhaps formal education has proven itself less relevant.  This is a product of their poor performance and breakthrough widely available technology made available by some very smart dropouts.