It’s Nobel Prize season. The 2021 Medicine / Physiology Laureates just announced are two Americans, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, who have conducted groundbreaking research on the senses of touch, taste, heat and pain. Their joint discoveries could lead to new non-opioid pain treatments and other breakthroughs. Dr Patapoutian had turned off his cell phone and therefore missed the call from Stockholm. The committee eventually reached his 94-year-old father on a landline, so Dr Patapoutian learned he had landed his father’s prestige jackpot.
Do you feel a rush of pride when Americans win Nobel Prizes? I do. It is a sign that for all of our division, dismay and decay, we continue to strive for excellence. If you browse the winners Nobel Prize winners by country since 1901, you can see that a certain number of European countries are well represented. France won 70, Germany 109 and Great Britain 133. Russia / Soviet Union won 31 and Belgium 11. But the United States dominated the list with 388.
This year’s winners in medicine are not atypical. One was born in the country and the other immigrated. Dr Patapoutian, who traces his ancestors back to Armenia, was born in Beirut. He and his brother fled the civil war there when they were 18. He worked odd jobs including delivering pizza and writing horoscopes for an Armenian newspaper in order to establish his residence in California so he could go to college. At UCLA, he found a job in a lab hoping it would help him get admitted to medical school. It changed her life. He fell in love with basic research.
Everyone knows, or thinks they know, that our universities are in the grip of group thinking and awakening. But these stifling fads for the most part ignore the hard sciences, where a combination of investments in basic research, rigorous standards, and a long tradition of academic freedom create the conditions for talent to flourish and discoveries to flourish. By the way, China won 8 Nobel Prizes.
Our openness to immigrants is also part of history. Since prices started at the turn of the 20th century, immigrants have counted for 37% of American graduates in hard sciences. Immigrants were also well represented among US award winners in other fields. In 2019, two of the three US economics laureates were immigrants: Abhijit Banerjee, born in India, and Esther Duflo, born in France. At least one American Nobel Laureate in Literature, the poet Czeslaw Milosz, was born in Poland, and the Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger was born in Germany.
That talented people of all kinds (including those with little education) aspire to come here remains one of our greatest strengths. It’s not that Americans are smarter or work harder than others; it is that our culture and our institutions support excellence. Like Dr Patapoutian reflected, âIn Lebanon, I didn’t even know the career of scientists.
But there are movements in America now to limit or even eliminate programs for the gifted and talented. In New York, a task force appointed by Mayor Bill De Blasio recommended abolish all of the city’s gifted programs and selective high schools. Seattle’s system of testing children in the early years to identify “highly capable” learners fell under fire. And in northern Virginia, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) has changed its admission criteria to be more understood.
There is always a tension in democracies between excellence and egalitarianism. The gap between subgroups in school performance gives rise to calls to change norms so that each group’s representation in elite institutions can more accurately reflect the percentage of the group’s population.
TJ, a magnetic school known for its graduate program in math and science, is close to where my kids grew up. They were eligible to apply, but weren’t STEM oriented, so they got a pass. But other families, especially immigrants from Asia, viewed admission to TJ as the holy grail – a public high school that could be a ticket to top colleges – and their children studied hard to get one of these precious niches.
TJ’s admission test led to student registrations that did not reflect the region’s ethnic groups. of Fairfax County globally the student body is 38% white, 27% Hispanic, 20% Asian and 10% black. In the 2019-2020 school year, TJ enrollments were 71.5% Asian, 19.48% non-Hispanic white, 2.6% Hispanic or Latino, 1.72% black and 4.70% others.
The new admission criteria adopted for the 2021-2022 school year eliminated the standardized test, increased the required cumulative grade point average and awarded places in the first year class to the top 1.5% of each college. It also eliminated the $ 100 application fee.
A group of Asian students are suing Fairfax County, arguing the change is motivated by racial discrimination. their costume alleged that the biggest losers in the new system will be Asian students and that the biggest winners will be whites.
So far, the new system appears to have disadvantaged Asian students. Their share of class fall at 54.36. The number of black students increased from 1.7 to 7.09. Hispanics were raised to 11.27 and Whites increased their representation to 22.36.
Is it right ? The previous system did not discriminate on any basis except academic talent. Now it will discriminate on other grounds in the name of diversity.
It is extremely difficult to disentangle why some ethnic groups do better in school than others. Culture, family structure, historical discrimination, and luck all play a role. But there are two ways of trying to make society more equal. One is to slide the top and the other is to lift the bottom.
Fairfax County’s decision to eliminate the $ 100 application fee appears to be a great way to remove a barrier for poorer families. Lowering standards at TJ, on the other hand, elevates diversity at the expense of excellence.
STEM-focused education at TJ is not for all students, but it serves society as a whole. The kind of students who can do advanced math and science work are making discoveries that help the rest of us live better lives. He should be there for future Patapoutian doctors.