No Chinese researcher, educated in China, researching in China, has received a Nobel Prize in science. The U.S. has over 270 Nobels, although admittedly some researchers were refugees educated in other countries. And while the Nobel Prize is not an absolute indicator of a good educational system, it is a general indicator of a system that allows creativity. A country with many Nobels will likely have more creative engineering and industrial applications.
When asked to lecture on this China–U.S. difference, I examined the lives of many Nobel Prizewinners. I found factors that it would be wise for Kansas to consider before adopting the Common Core national curriculum.
Richard P. Feynman was a brilliant young physicist and mathematician recruited by Oppenheimer to lead the mathematical work on the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb. Older Americans will remember him dunking a rubber O-ring into a glass of ice water during the investigation into the first Space Shuttle explosion. But he was valuable to me because he remembered details of his education in short biographical essays in the book "Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman."
In the chapter titled "A Different Box of Tools," Feynman recalls his high school physics teacher, Mr. Bader:
"One day he told me to stay after class. ‘Feynman,’ he said, ‘you talk too much and you make too much noise. I know why. You’re bored. So I’m going to give you a book. You go up there in the back, in the corner, and study this book, and when you know everything that’s in this book, you can talk again...."
"That book also showed how to differentiate parameters under the integral sign—it’s a certain operation. It turns out that’s not taught very much in the universities.... The result was, when guys at MIT or Princeton had trouble doing a certain integral, it was because they couldn’t do it with the standard methods they had learned in school.... So I had a great reputation...only because my box of tools was different from everybody else’s...."
Having a different box of tools was an important factor behind this Nobel Prizewinner, father of quantum electrodynamics (a concept Einstein never could understand). It illustrates the academic freedom and responsibility that was unique to American teachers: deciding what, when and how to teach. In today’s world of state standardized education, what teacher can risk having a student that is not nose-to-grindstone on the pathway to studying for the assessments? The national Common Core curriculum, to be followed by a national common core test, will complete the de-professionalization of teaching.
Because there is a lag period between K-12 and the post-graduate frontier of research, today’s Nobel Prizewinners were still educated before the jack-booted educational mandates that were imposed after "Nation at Risk." We are already seeing the damage done to narrow the curriculum and stamp out diversity in teaching.
Only three of last November’s nine science Nobel Prizewinners were educated in the U.S.
Other countries that have national curricula throughout their history have seen the bad effects of standardized curricula and are moving to get away from this cookie-cutter standardization. Only in America do we ignore our history of success and deliberately destroy the diversity that has served us so well. Educationists are slamming down their fists and demanding that everyone have the same box of tools. Our many bright and creative young children, our future "Feynmans," deserve better.