At the start of the 21 st Century our nation has fully evolved into an Information Technology Society. IT is pervasive in all industries, in manufacturing, in service based businesses, in finance, in medicine and pharmaceuticals, and even in education. One need only enter a retail store, contact a service representative or pass through a supermarket checkout counter to recognize the impact of IT. Information about both the buyer and the product is displayed on a screen to aid, verify and execute the transaction. But what is even more impressive and invaluable to education, to research and in fact to all knowledge-based activities and businesses is the power to search immense databases and discover all sorts of facts in minutes. Not so long ago such queries would have taken days in libraries or government records offices, if they could be answered at all. The under-21 generation can not conceive of life without the ubiquitous data terminals, personal computers and the Internet. Even those of us over 30 who remember the pre-1990 era often lose sight of just how much our lives have been changed by Information Technology.
Who can doubt the role of education in nurturing, sustaining and evolving this IT Society? What else could have brought about the spectacular progress to date? Under education we must include all levels: primary, secondary, college, graduate and professional schools and continuing education. And lump in research, which both informs higher education and is a product thereof. But here we encounter an amazing paradox. Our nation’s education establishment, particularly in its primary and secondary segments, is faulted for poor performance. And yet most of the progress in Information Technology has come about as a result of our country’s research and development activities which depend so heavily on education. Beginning with the enabling technology, consider the transistor and the ensuing amazing progress in solid state integration, as codified by Moore’s Law; advances in digital computer architecture in both its hardware and software implementations; in digital communication and information networking principles. All were products of our educational system, as were their descendents, the personal computer, satellite communication and broadcasting, cellular telephony and the Internet. And perhaps most significant long-term has been the role of IT in discovering the mysteries of life. The computation-based genome project was only the beginning of our discovery of the marvels of that ultimately complex system which is the human body. So with all these achievements, for the most part the product of our country’s brains, how can American education be considered mediocre?
Cynics might contend that these successes aren’t all due to our educational system or to the research and development skills that it generates. That much of our nation’s progress in IT and its many applications were the result of the entrepreneurial spirit, of the willingness to take investment risks, of successful marketing and merchandising techniques and on and on. All true, but without the spark of the idea, the enthusiasm of the researcher-entrepreneur and her or his hard work in the lab and in the office, none of these successes would have come to fruition.
So what is it about our education system that brought this about, is it still working or are parts of it broken and if so, can they be fixed? I’ll start at the top of the pyramid and work my way down. Almost sixty years ago as World War II was coming to an end, in a moment of unparalleled lucidity, the Administration and Congress empowered a committee chaired by MIT Professor Vannevar Bush to advise on means for preserving the momentum of scientific research and development which had been created through wartime programs such as the Manhattan Project at the Universities of Chicago and California and the Radiation Laboratory at MIT and Harvard. The Vannevar Bush Committee recommended that the Defense Department continue its support of basic research and advanced development for the benefit of the nation. Though these funds were never more than a miniscule percentage of defense expenditures they had an immense impact on our country’s ability to innovate. These high-end government R&D funds went in large measure to university managed research laboratories and federally contracted research institutes. The breakthroughs occurred there as well as at a few industrial research laboratories funded by monopolies or quasi-monopolies such as the Bell Telephone System and IBM. Just as important, from these institutions, as well as by direct support from the Federal government, came funds for faculty research and graduate student training at our major research universities. A cultural revolution overtook the science and engineering establishments at these universities. The engineering schools morphed from what might be called “cookbook-based” professional schools into applied science educational institutions contributing to the creation of knowledge. And the pure science departments, including mathematics, no longer looked down on their practically oriented colleagues but rather collaborated in the application of theoretical concepts to real world problems. As a consequence, our top graduate and professional schools became recognized as models of higher education, taking the place of the venerable and traditional European meccas of learning. Of course, the so-called “brain drain” of established scientists and academics from Europe and Asia to the U.S. also contributed to our excellence.
Whatever the interplay of these complex forces, graduate schools have attracted the best and the brightest from all over the world. The percentage of foreign students has grown steadily over the remainder of the 20 th century, but except for the last decade, their almost universal goal was to remain after graduation and gain citizenship in the time honored tradition of our country of immigrants. Whether native or naturalized, the graduates of our research universities populated the ever growing industrial R&D establishment as well as the faculties of our universities and colleges. In most cases the undergraduate programs benefited equally from the cultural upgrading of the university’s graduate programs. What initially is presented to advanced graduate students as recent scientific discovery in just a few years becomes part of our core undergraduate curriculum.
Which brings us finally to the weakest link, secondary and primary education. On this I can only speak as a concerned layman with strong opinions. The causes of deterioration of the system are many, inter-related and complex. They include budget issues which impose large class sizes and inadequate teacher salaries, relaxation of standards and lack of uniformity in these standards across states and even school districts, failed experiments and inconsistency, school board, administrator and teacher discord and on and on. But ultimately, it all boils down to a basic problem of our society: a general lack of concern for education and of respect for the teaching profession. The fault is often of parents and sadly it grows in seriousness inversely to the socioeconomic status of the family. This trend does not apply, however, to families whose cultural backgrounds value education, often first generation Americans. The record of children from such families proves the importance of family involvement and attitude.
There are of course still teachers dedicated to their profession, who take great pleasure and satisfaction in exposing young minds to the wonders of learning. Sadly, today many are gravitating to private schools to teach the students from affluent and concerned families. There remain some excellent public secondary schools, even in such large urban centers as Boston and New York. These, however, usually require entrance examinations, an often insurmountable barrier for students from families for which education is not a priority.
One topic which I have not touched upon is the secondary school curriculum for students going on to scientific and technical careers, nor do I intend to. It is my firm belief that what a high school student learns is less important than the way she or he learns. Concentration, thoroughness and a positive attitude toward learning are the best preparation for further education, a career and life. Development of reading comprehension, retention skills and basic quantitative understanding and skills are the common denominator that college preparatory schooling must provide. Beyond this any rigorous curriculum will do, whether it’s heavy in the humanities, in mathematics and science or in languages, provided there’s reasonable exposure to all three. In short, the best secondary education is one that develops strong learning habits. And for this, information technology can be a powerful tool.
Which brings us to our last point. Up till now we’ve dealt with how education prepares for and supports the information technology society. Now let’s ask how information technology can support education. The majority of tots through teens in this country have access to a personal computer and it’s usually connected to the Internet. It is no exaggeration to say that usually they are far more computer savvy than their parents and often more savvy than their teachers. After all, as we said at the beginning, they perceive the PC no differently than the automobile or television. Their introduction is often through playing computer games. From there, they progress to sending e-mail messages to their friends and even accessing a search engine to find the song they want. The PC has done more to promote literacy than any government sponsored literacy drive. No matter that the text of e-mail messages more often than not contains gross errors in spelling and grammar. At least children have been motivated to read and write. Then it’s up to the school to teach them correctly. I hope the day will never come when voice recognition and voice synthesis software will fully replace the screen and the keyboard.
Beyond this basic benefit, IT tools can and do make learning more effective, more efficient and even more fun. The potential availability on the Web of source and background material for learning history, art, literature, music is unbounded. Language learning is greatly facilitated by a combination of audio and visual aids. Science and even mathematics can come alive through computer simulation. Programmed learning can efficiently hone skills and promote retention. We must recognize, of course, that many of these software tools are not easily developed nor are they inexpensive when written by experts. But the same can be said for so many of the programs we have grown to depend on in our daily lives: word processing, spread sheets, Internet access, search engines and so on. What all these have in common which render them eminently accessible and inexpensive is the huge markets they serve. Well, there’s a huge market in education. Why doesn’t the same entrepreneurial energy that created our vast store of standard software turn to this task? Probably because of the disarray and disharmony within the educational establishment. This should be an opportunity for the federal and state governments. Compared to the billions spent on wiring classrooms for the Internet and the failed initiatives toward universal testing, investments in courseware should be far less expensive and less controversial and ultimately much more effective.
To have information technology, the beneficiary of our nation’s intellect, turn around and become the benefactor of our educational system would not only constitute a virtuous cycle, but it may be the only way to preserve the level of innovation needed to maintain our nation’s standard of living and quality of life.
Andrew Viterbi, co-founder of Qualcomm, is a USC Trustee, a member of the Board
of Councilors of the Viterbi School of Engineering and holds the Presidential
Chair in Engineering at USC.