Twofish's Blog

August 16, 2006

Too many smart people….. Implications for MIT

Filed under: academia, education, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 1:33 pm

My annoyance with a lot of reports on education in the United States is that they totally miss the big problem that is facing the United States, which is going to get worse over time, and that is that the US educational system has been wildly successful at producing the most educated and literate society in the history of the world, and the social, political, and economic systems are unable to adapt to this wild success. (Someone ought to do a paper on the “myth of American educational failure” as well as a paper on the “myth of the failure of the war on poverty”.)

There is a lot of doom and gloom about how the educational system has failed, but this flies in the face of the reality I see every day. If the US educational system is such a disaster then why is it that admissions to elite universities have become so hypercompetitive, why is it that the salaries of teachers and academics are so extremely low, why is the system set up to *actively weed out* people from the academic system. If you look at the numbers, the US is generating 1000 physics Ph.D’s each year and the economic system simply has no idea what to do with them all. This is not a sign of a failed educational system.

The analogy that one can present is with food. For most of the history of mankind, the struggle was against malnutrition and hunger. Today, in most parts of the developed world, hunger is not a problem, and the big problems are obesity and diabetes. Similarly, the problems we are now facing in the educational system are not problems of educational scarity but of educational abundance.

And the “problem” is going to get worse. One number that gets constantly quoted is how many engineers China and India are producing, what isn’t mentioned is that China and India are struggling desperately to find jobs for all of these people.
This wild success has a lot of consequences. One major one is if the number of qualified people increases and the number of spots for those qualified people stays the same, the selection criteria get increasing silly and arbitrary. If you have 1 spot and 200 qualified applicants, there is no good way of filtering out people, and the system you use to choose that one person is going to be bogus.

So what do we do….. It would be immoral (and more importantly impossible) to make people stupid (although the educational system is trying), so the only solution I can see is to remove a lot of the bottlenecks that stand in the way of getting smart people to be socially productive.

This has implications for MIT. From a “get qualified applicants” point of view, MIT could boost undergraduate enrollments by a factor of five to ten, and still have roughly the same caliber of student. If we get rid of the restrictions that limit undergraduate education to 18-22 year olds, then the number of qualified applicants could easily go up to twenty to fifty without sacrificing educational quality. The bottlenecks are logistic, number of dorm rooms, campus buildings, number of teachers etc. etc. etc, but those logistical issues can be dealt with.

(The admission test I’d use for MIT is simple. If you find jokes about 100 digit prime numbers on bathroom walls funny, you are in.)



  1. Methinks you are confusing the “top” of the educational pyramid (1000 useless physics PhDs a year) with the base (millions of elementary and high school graduates who can barely read and write, let alone count; and millions of college graduates with “qualifications” evrey bit as useless in the Real World (TM) as theoretical physics – social studies, anyone?). In general, people talking about the failings of the US educational system are referring to the base.

    As for your proposed “solution”, it’s a brilliant way to exacerbate the problem. First you complain that there are no adequate positions for the graduates being produced today, then you suggest the solution lies in increasing production “by a factor five to ten” or even “twenty to fifty”. If today’s situation is overproduction, what’s a five- or fifty-fold increase? What are all those new graduates supposed to do with their degrees?

    Comment by Maltus — August 16, 2006 @ 8:01 pm

  2. But you see this problem even at the base. People, whose parents would have been excluded from the educational system, are getting high school diplomas and college degrees. A lot of the talk about “declining standards” misses the fact that the educational system today is teaching people that would have been totally excluded a generation or two ago.

    If you massively increase the number of undergraduates, this will provide jobs for the large mass of Ph.D.’s that can’t find work. As far as what people will do with their degrees, one of the main points of an education should be to give people the education to figure out what to do with their education.

    Ultimately I think it is a societal choice. Is our society one dedicated to making people smarter, with the belief that smart people will figure out what to do, or is it a social choice to make people dumber?

    Also what do you consider qualifications that would work for the “real world”?

    Comment by twofish — August 16, 2006 @ 8:25 pm

  3. If you massively increase the number of undergraduates, this will
    provide jobs for the large mass of Ph.D.’s that can’t find work.

    1) Who’s to pay the salaries of all these new professors (not to mention support
    all their new students)? Obviously not the market, or this expansion would already
    have taken place. So you are talking about tax-financed jobs, i.e. higher taxes for
    everybody else. No thanks.

    2) What shall the 5-50-fold more graduates produced by these new professors do after
    graduation? Ah yes, go on to grad school. So a decade from now instead of 1000 you
    have 5000-50000 Ph.D.s that can’t find work. Then what? Expand the educational system
    5-50 times again? To educate what, cats and dogs? Paid for by whom, our generous
    Martian neighbors?

    Is our society one dedicated to making people smarter

    I certainly hope not. Free societies are created by individuals to provide security
    and a collaborative infrastructure to help them achieve their own, individual goals,
    not to “make” them this or that. Making citizens smarter is something which Germany
    was into in the 1930s. No thanks.

    Besides, what does this have to do with universities? Are you perchance falling in
    the trivial trap “educated” = “smart”? As Heinlein was fond of pointing out, it is
    quite possible — even commonplace — to be an educated moron.

    what do you consider qualifications that would work for the “real world”?

    Whatever there is demand for. Buy a newspaper (or click over to, look
    under “Help wanted”.

    Comment by Maltus — August 16, 2006 @ 10:11 pm

  4. 1) Academia is as far from a free market as you can possibly get. Put in some free market forces in the academia, and you will get some vast improvements in efficiency. There is a *vast* expansion in for-profit education to meet people that are poorly served by the traditional educational system. The demand is there, it’s just that the supply is constricted by market inefficiencies.

    Having CEO’s and managers that can understand basic physics and calculus is going to lead I think to *vast* economic growth. The trick then is to figure out a way so that the wealth generated by this growth, can make it into the hands of people willing and able to teach basic physics and calculus, and to get rid of the middlemen.

    The economics of the system is this. University of Phoenix students pay $1000 per credit hour for a month to particpate in a 15 student course, and I only get $1000 of that a month. If you get rid of some of the market rigidities, then even with overhead, there is enough money for me to make a decent living off teaching. Plus, I can offer courses that UoP doesn’t teach (i.e. basic business calculus).

    2) The massive number of Ph.D.’s produced by the system go out and do physics. They get day jobs as programmers, janitors, or whatever, and then spend time outside of their day jobs doing research and writing papers. The money is there (see the UoP example), the trick is figuring out how to cut out the middlemen. The model I have is break apart the university and to have professors work like independent agents in the same way that doctors and lawyers do.

    3) Did I say that education takes place in universities?

    4) What is in demand today will not be in demand tomorrow. All of those jobs that are in monster today, they will be in India tomorrow. If the education is any good you should be able to figure out what to do when that happens.

    I think that there is too much effort in education to teach people to passively get skills for the want ads. The type of skills that I think should be more actively taught are those that allow people to start their own businesses and gather enough capital so that they have the financial ability to lead their lives and do what they want to do.

    I think you are assuming a great deal about me that is not true. I got my Ph.D., went to work in the oil industry, went into logistics, and now I’m considering a career move into quantitative finance and Wall Street. The physics Ph.D. was crucial to each of these jobs.

    The problem is that the academic system is so rigid that there is no way for me to get back in with the skills that I’ve acquired in the business world. So I want to bash a hole in academia. so that I can get back in.

    Comment by twofish — August 16, 2006 @ 10:45 pm

  5. Also a Ph.D. in physics is far from useless. Go into an oil company and look at a software development team. At least half of them have Ph.D.’s. Go into the derivatives group in a major Wall Street investment bank, if you don’t have a Ph.D. in mathematics or physics, they won’t even look at your resume.

    The trouble is that you have physics Ph.D.’s with real world industry experience, and academia excludes them.

    Comment by twofish — August 16, 2006 @ 10:53 pm

  6. So, after you left a comment on my post on the border blog I thought I should comment here. Given that I have no experience of the US university system, I might be talking rubbish here.

    I disagree almost completely that the answer is to increase the intake into top universities. In the UK this is now a government target – to get 50% of students into universities by increasing intake across the board – and very few people (outside the government) think it’s working.

    I also disagree that the increasing the number of enrollments would have no impact on quality. I went to what I would consider the best UK university; friends have done admissions interviews their. The most interesting comment was that it was actually much simpler than they expected to tell the good candidates at interview. It’s like you’re trying to rework Xeno’s paradox; every candidate below the borderline is only a tiny amount worse, so we shift the borderline…

    The point that I most definitely disagree with is that increasing enrollments is a minor logistical problem. Not all problems scale. Microsoft in 1984 reacts differently to Microsoft in 2004. Increasing the size of a university by a factor of 10 will lead to massive changes. The major changes in UK universities that have occurred with the increase (currently approximate doubling) in student numbers is a large increase in the number of administrators and decrease in teaching staff per student. Staff morale, and relations with central administrators, are both not at their best.

    But in the end I just think that your case is unviable, as I think you’re confusing breadth of education with depth. For most people in employment it is necessary to have breadth of education, to understand what is possible and the limitations and problems that might arise, and also to know (roughly) where expertise can be found. For some people in employment it is necessary to have depth, so that ideas and advances can be worked out in detail.

    This comes through most clearly in your comment that CEOs knowing calculus would lead to economic growth. I can’t see why that follows at all. A CEO should be running a company, not doing detailed physics calculations. (Of course, modern business techniques may require calculus for all I know; then I would expect a CEO to pick them up in the proper way – through studying for an MBA)

    In the end I believe that the problem with education (in the UK) is that too many people want too many different things. Employers want employees that require no training in their current job, are enthusiastic and sufficiently motivated to foresee any problems and opportunities to save the company money, and are willing to work all hours and be paid peanuts. “The public” wants teachers to turn out productive taxpayers that will never cause a problem, are never anti-social, never go into debt, etc., except when it’s their child, when they have to get the best. And all this has to be without any tax increases. University admissions staff want a system that will produce perfectly ranked students that have all required basic knowledge, are enthusiastic about their subject and so will self-study, and sufficiently curious to work hard without being curious enough to ask questions at times that would interfere with research. And all that has to occur at minimal cost to the universities, as the professors certainly can’t pay.

    I haven’t mentioned your points about the market approach in universities. It comes up in some of my posts on the border blog, and in some of my links. All I will say is that it is being tried in the UK in education, and I think it is failing; the primary outcome is the rise of the administrator mentioned above.

    Comment by reivers — August 17, 2006 @ 7:50 pm

  7. Let me think about this. I have a suspicion that US and UK educational system are sufficiently different that statements about one might be totally wrong in another.

    As far as quality goes, my statements were based on the personal observation at a large state school (University of Texas at Austin) that the number of people going into physics were a rather small fraction of the number of people who I thought were qualified to do so, and people were kept out by institutional sadism (which didn’t happen at MIT). The interesting thing is that although the average person at MIT is academically sharper than the average person at UT Austin, the skill levels for the average person who wants to be a scientist or engineer is (as far as I could tell) comparable.

    The comment about CEO’s and calculus was made because you can get an MBA at the University of Phoenix without taking business calculus and calculus is not even an option. In any case, the physics curriculum can be changed to make it more useful for business people. One trivial example is that I’ve found that a scary large number of managers cannot think about large numbers, and don’t know some very simple techniques for dealing with them. There is also a shocking inability to deal with ideas like “error bars”.

    What I was talking about “market approaches” I was talking about a system in which I could put up a shingle saying “astronomy classes for sale” and someone could easily convert that knowledge into marketable academic credit. The problem with a lot of what is goes for the “market” is that they create “cargo cult markets.” Things that superficially resemble a market, but which are end up worse than useless.

    Comment by twofish — August 17, 2006 @ 8:10 pm

  8. Something else that might be a major factor in the United States is the massive increase in science and technology spending in the 1960’s as a result of Sputnik. This created a large number of scientists graduating from Harvard, MIT, and Princeton who then went west to build departments in the large state public universities.

    The other curious thing is that there isn’t a “Ph.D. glut” when it comes to the general economy. There actually is a pretty strong demand for “industrial physicists.” The problem is that right now academia in the US is bifurcated so that if you leave, there is no road back.

    Comment by twofish — August 17, 2006 @ 8:16 pm

  9. In effect, increasing the size of student populations serves only as a tool of social control. As in warehousing these noisy hooligans! It costs much more money to incarcerate them–why not pretend to educate them while making money to boot! The net result is that large populations are removed from the pool of disgusted job hunters. What a wonderful scheme. And what a sleazy scam. It can also be compared to a legally sanctioned pyramid scheme. It never stops, and it never gets anywhere. Any new and original paradigms out there from some of you overeducated geniuses? Or is is genii?

    Comment by Ed — July 7, 2007 @ 11:19 pm

  10. Only smart peole should go to school

    Comment by leverne sumter — January 28, 2008 @ 7:09 pm

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