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.)