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Look East, Young Man

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When I happen to tune into a late-night talk show devoting its hour to the dismal state of American education, the experience is invariably dejá-vu all over again: With depressing regularity a district administrator bemoans test scores. Much less frequently an actual teacher makes an appearance and then the refrain is equally predictable: don’t blame us.

I am not a primary or secondary school teacher fighting in the trenches, but I do see the results. For the past six years I have taught freshman physics at Princeton University and I am here to tell you that everything you have heard is true.

At Princeton we have three introductory physics tracks: 101, the pre-med track for math-phobic biology majors who endure physics solely to pass their MCATS; 103, the calculus-based physics track serving primarily future engineers, a sprinkling of chemists and biologists—and an occasional physics major—all of whom arrive with AP physics under their belts; and 105, the super-deluxe track, a brutal, near-sophomore-level course for the future Navy Seals of physics, adamantine overachievers who come armed with not one, but frequently three years of high school physics. I have taught all of these.

Yes, half the students are Asian, either direct from China or first generation Asian Americans. In 103, the difference between the Asian students and the American students is so marked that they might well constitute distinct populations, and the reason can only be rooted in cultural attitudes: an American student may be failing the course and still think he is getting an “A,” while an Asian student may be getting an “A+” and think she is failing the course. Asians are here to work; Americans are here to ensure that Princeton remains a Division 1 athletic powerhouse. The results are naturally evident, not only on test scores, but in work habits. Asian students’ exams, correct answers or not, tend to be models of clarity, each step written out clearly below the previous. Exams from Americans often more closely resemble Rorschach tests, ink blots left as exercises for interpretation.

If the Asians are the most industrious, the best prepared are the Eastern-Europeans, who come equipped with the vestiges of old Soviet-style education. Those students, passing through a system largely influenced by the mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov, have often attended special math-science schools and have been fire-tested through Olympiads. Few Russian undergraduates are visible in Princeton physics, but our Bulgarians , Romanians and Serbs tend to be so well trained that not long ago I was forced to quip to a colleague, “Anyone whose last name ends in ‘ovich,’ ‘adzich,’ or ‘escu’ should be put in the honors course without discussion.” No exaggeration. Each year a tiny handful of students—four or five—places out of freshman physics altogether via an in-house exam. Last year none of these were American.

The standard retort to such observations is that foreign education rewards discipline, while American education rewards creativity. Believe me, I’d settle for some Yankee discipline, and I’ve seen no lack of creativity on the part of the foreign students. Never forget that the Manhattan Project and the postwar science boom was largely the work of immigrants. The fact that American students have all taken AP physics is virtually irrelevant; they have clearly been taught to pass a standardized test and their knowledge of actual physics generally suffices for three weeks.

The NY Times article “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just so Darn Hard)” (4/11/11) , reporting that 40 percent of potential engineering and science majors switch to other fields, surprised no one at a university physics department. Ensconced in the delusion that college is merely an extension of high school, freshmen frequently slack off for the first weeks of the semester with near-fatal results. High schools would do better not to teach physics at all than arm students with the attitudes they bring us. The expectation of an heroic “last-minute” turn-around is pure Hollywood fantasy.

As for the perpetual debate over math skills, I am not privy to standardized exam scores, but the incoming algebra level in calculus-based 103 has been declining since I arrived at Princeton, and last year—after returning from a sabbatical—it appeared to have glitched downward to the worst I’ve ever seen (something I heard from other institutions as well). “These are the future bridge-builders of America” has been the mournful refrain echoing through the long corridors of the Princeton physics department.

People often ask me, “Can this really be happening at Princeton? Aren’t your students the best of the best?” I’m telling you it can happen at Princeton and is. My chief worry about the 105 minority—who take physics out of genuine interest and who, despite the fact that we regularly pulverize them with our exams, generously reconstitute themselves—is that we are needlessly discouraging potentially excellent physicists. (Some of the 105 dropouts, I’m told, remain bitter for life.) For the over-representation of foreign students in all the courses I am grateful; as long as students from China, India and Eastern Europe see fit to study on these shores, physics in the United States will survive. I am concerned about the situation a generation forward, when Asian and Eastern European universities reach the level of our own and students will no longer be sufficiently dazzled by the prestige of an Ivy League education to make the great trek.

I worry even more about how to teach natural science to a generation of students whose attention span has asymptotically approached zero and whose notion of problem-solving differs so radically from my own that I often feel we are currently witnessing the emergence of a new species. Homework is now done collectively on Facebook—if you can’t solve a problem, a friend in Timbuktu can. More likely, the friend knows a website where the solutions have been posted. It has been a decade since students attempted to integrate. Does that matter in the age of online integrators? To the vast majority of professions no, but surely at some level—perhaps at that of designing efficient integration algorithms for calculators—analytical problem solving skills are necessary to society. They are fast disappearing. Gone.

I also worry that Princeton, and presumably other like universities, are not addressing the current generational shift. About five years ago, a working committee on which I served decided to jettison three weeks of course material in order to concentrate on the remainder. Otherwise we teach physics at Princeton much as it was taught fifty years ago. To this day corridor arguments persist between old-timers who believe we are engaged in a race to the bottom and those who believe that we must adapt or die. I am of two minds. None of us embraces a dumbed-down course, but at the same time it seems to me that the typical faculty response, “Freshman physics hasn’t changed in fifty years, why should we?” is a recipe for slow suicide. Unfortunately the “advanced” methods of professional science educators—each of whom seems to feel he or she is in possession of the magic bullet—leave the majority of active physicists, including myself, cold. I do know that in the long run the students will win, but if winning means teaching the students currently being produced by our high schools, then either high schools must wake up to the demands and to the competition, or universities must be prepared for a drawn-out Pyrrhic victory.

Tony Rothman About the Author: Tony Rothman's latest book is Firebird. Follow on Twitter @TonyRothman1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 16 Comments

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  1. 1. ElCabong 9:40 am 08/29/2012

    I hate to burst your bubble but the people who make A’s and B’s in high school work for the people who make C’s, D’s and F’s.

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  2. 2. lamorpa 10:51 am 08/29/2012


    You are wholly incorrect. Wishful thinking at its worst.

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  3. 3. RSchmidt 11:24 am 08/29/2012

    Is this a surprise coming from the county whose population believes bronze age myths are real, who think that if science discovers something that you don’t like that you can simply lie to make it go away, who believe that extraterrestrials frequently abduct American citizens to give them proctology exams? The American people have the scientific literacy of a third world theocratic nation. So, contrary to what republicans claim, the US needs immigrants because the American people are not intelligent enough to fill the STEM jobs being offered. Think about that next time when you vote for a president based on his faith and not on his intelligence.

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  4. 4. DV111 6:38 pm 08/29/2012

    The problems discussed concerning Princeton physics courses is quite wide-spread, and pervades much of science and math, beyond the “hard” sciences. We see the same thing in Biology graduate students and in 1st year medical students. There seems to be little curiosity in understanding the underlying principles of any topic under discussion. It’s also amazing to witness the feelings of entitlement that come with post-bac students in general. I shudder at each exam.
    Of course, all I can say is this is my experience only. Maybe it’s different elsewhere, but the article and how it reflects my own experiences makes me quite concerned.

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  5. 5. Asteroid Miner 1:01 am 08/30/2012

    As bad as high schools were 50 years ago, it is hard to imagine that they are getting worse.

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  6. 6. rsmithCSL 8:56 am 08/30/2012

    One of the big problems I have seen, and which I think is as big or bigger than the issues with schools, is the decline of technical hobbies. I am not that old (early 30s) but I remember the wonder that model rockets, ham radio, chemistry sets, and telescopes provided for many young people and eventually inspired me to study physics.

    Most of these hobbies are dying a slow death. At most ham radio clubs, there is no one under 40 and what kind of wonder does talking across the world hold in the age of cell phones and the Internet? Chemistry sets are watered down due to fear of litigation, and the awe of the space race has died down making looking at the stars seem blasé for some. In addition, the market for science fiction books has become much smaller compared to that of fantasy like Harry Potter.

    The schools could be perfect, but without that wonder, no one is going to put themselves through the pain to do the hard sciences.

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  7. 7. car2nwallaby 10:56 am 08/30/2012

    Wow. I haven’t taught here, but I’ve been a TA. I certainly don’t want to defend the sense of coddled privilege that I think the author rightly detects from some undergrads. But I’ve seen plenty of smart, curious, hard-working students as well, some of whom put more effort into their courses than their teachers.

    If students don’t arrive with the expected notion of problem solving, then it is the professor’s job to teach it to them. One can’t expect students to know things they’ve never been taught, including the scientist’s way of thinking in addition to facts. If this post only complained about lack of knowledge, then it could be a good argument for high school curriculum reform. But this reads like a personal attack on students themselves, which sounds like a cop out to me.

    Why should professors be left cold by lessons from learning theory, which is rapidly transitioning away from soft and squishy thanks to evidence-based neuroscience? Problem solving means that you use any tools available to you, even if they originate from beneath you in the social sciences. Annual reiteration of the same derivations in a chalkboard-based vacuum seems like evidence of the same lack of curiosity and innovation that is here bemoaned in the students.

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  8. 8. tflahive 1:23 pm 08/30/2012

    Entering college is an adult decision. By that time, students should be able to solve problems on all levels, including bad teachers and curriculum.

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  9. 9. CherryBombSim 4:41 pm 08/30/2012

    It’s implausible that algebra skills of American high school graduates have declined significantly in only 6 years. Likely, it is your perception of the students’ ability that has changed. Or maybe Princeton has been lowering its admission standards. hehe.

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  10. 10. Postman1 10:06 pm 08/30/2012

    Iamorpa – Unfortunately, ElCabong is somewhat correct. Look at the heads of many of the tech cos. Quite a few drop outs in there and it holds true for a lot of other cos.
    I think one of the largest problems is the well promoted idea that everyone should be allowed to go to college. This leads to that feeling of entitlement, but the majority of high school grads are better off to go directly into a vocation. Many of those that do, are homeowners with families by the time their college bound classmates are done. Also, since most of the college bound never complete a degree, they are just that much farther behind and in the hole for huge tuitions. Most people are not cut out for college, that is just a fact, and when they go anyway, they are going to fail and bring down the rest with them.

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  11. 11. SwedishEmil 1:09 am 08/31/2012

    Another professor that hasn’t figured out that the Asian students just memorize answers to questions that they know will appear on the exams. Most profs were hip to this game years ago, I guess this guy is just really behind the curve. Try quizzing them on questions that haven’t appeared in the textbook or in previous exams, then you’ll see what’s really going on. If students in the West placed the same level of emphasis on rote memorization, we would see similar results from them on exams which reward that type of preparation.

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  12. 12. curiouswavefunction 2:56 pm 08/31/2012

    ElCabong: “I hate to burst your bubble but the people who make A’s and B’s in high school work for the people who make C’s, D’s and F’s.”

    True, and without the A’s and the B’s the C’s and F’s would not get anywhere.

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  13. 13. BobAho 9:59 pm 09/1/2012

    hmm… “an heroic effort.” A half an hour from now I’ll mount a heroic effort to point out that your editor lacks an attention to detail.
    BTW having TA’d writing for a couple of years, where the population was majority Asian descent native English speakers, they too descended into the laziness and lack of detail you so deplore. I think I heard this refrain before, “the kids these days.” Did you also walk 3 miles uphill through the snow everyday to and from school?

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  14. 14. gs_chandy 1:38 pm 09/30/2012

    I’m from India, hence not in aposition to comment on Dr Rothman’s views of the situation of US science learning. However, I want to point out that, in most cases, it should not impossible to raise standards. Of course, it is probably more difficult in the US where there are a great many ‘distractions’ for the youthful mind. Also, I’d believe that most students from India would probably work much more doggedly than US students at overcoming learning difficulties – this is probably because of a much higher value ascribed to educational success here. However, there are tools available that can help significantly: primarily ‘Interpretive Structural Modeling’ (ISM), a simple modeling tool based on the transitivity of certain relationships within system, which enables exploration in depth of any system taken up for consideration; and ‘Field Representation (FR) Method, which enables simple ‘clustering’ of factors in systems – both these tools are integrated in something I call the ‘One Page Management System’ (OPMS), a powerful systems aid to problem solving and decision making.

    Using the OPMS, a student who had done very poorly in math right through his school career was able to improve, very significantly indeed, his results in math example and quizzes, by developing his models for his Mission: “To understand thoroughly all topics of my math syllabus, and THEREBY to improve, very significantly, my results in my math exams, tests and quizzes”.

    More information about the OPMS available from gs (underscore) chandy (at) yahoo (dot) com. — GSC

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  15. 15. gs_chandy 2:03 pm 09/30/2012

    Further my post just appeared, I believe it should be mentioned that both Interpretive Structural Modeling and Field Representation Method were invented by the late John N. Warfield, Emeritus Professor, George Mason University, Fairfax, USA. More information about Warfield’s seminal contributions to systems science available at and from ‘The John N. Warfield Collection’ held at the library of George Mason University – see The OPMS integrates both these modeling tools and all of Warfield’s insights into systems science in a simple tool, usable by any high school student, to tackle complex issues and problems by breaking them down into their simplest ‘system components’ and integrating them again to enable easy understanding.

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  16. 16. fabadami 12:41 am 02/22/2015

    I agree with Dr. Rothman. My husband and I attended the U of Chicago and now live near Princeton Uni. As employers, we noticed a substantial decline in the quality of students across divisions in top schools compared to twenty years ago when we were in college. This enterprising phenomenon is not limited to the US, it’s a feat unshackling itself across the world. Perhaps rampant technology rolled out to herds is the culprit, perhaps raising the retirement age or college standing in for vocational pass-times has something to do with it – as they say in modern parlance, “idk”. Regardless of what school system kids are being churned out of (public/private/parochial), the general attitude is that bridge-building can wait. After all, most bridges have another generation to go before needing engineering talent for a facelift, or so the thinking goes. Apply that to nation-building and you’ve achieved decimation of the Generation XYZ Empire. Latchkey kids from every strata are ecstatic over the testing drivel their unionized educators are pandering to – kids now don’t need to imbibe a particle of learning, their parents just red-shirt them till they attain six feet of puberty to hit ball and have the mental maturity to color within a circle, then they fill out a few forms and walk onto campus with a glowing sense of entitlement. Those that go past the local math circle mosey on to “accelerated track”, and there the matter ends. Passing incompetents on to college is, for overcrowded schools everywhere, a no-brainer. Keep expectant tax-paying-or-not parents happy, keep reaping rewards on someone else’s (t)/(d)ime, make it someone else’s problem, not mine. Plus, it fits the modern tech world paradigm – chopshop education for the masses, at the level of the collective whole.

    fwiw, 7 is spewing tosh, 11 is behind the curve (as a 2nd generation Asian, I should know), 12 is wrong and 1 is right – without C, D and F, A and B have no roof over their head so there is no point in having plenty inside it.

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