American Mathematical Society: Hurdles to U.S. Tech. Improvement

Allow me to liberally paraphrase a piece from the current issue of the AMS’s publication “Notices.” Thereafter, I’ll contrast my version with the original.

The US presents particular obstacles to achieving technological improvement at a national scale, deriving from its social and economic diversity and also from an entrenched tradition of entrepreneurship and private industry which precludes a federal role in any primary initiatives. Yet to achieve real improvement at scale requires some national coherence.

The laws of physics are the same in Florida and Montana; it makes little sense in a highly mobile population for more than one cell phone technology to exist within our borders. It would be like building a national railway system with different gauge tracks in each state.

Readers will no doubt realize that this argument is undermined by the substantial advances Americans have witnessed in Cell phone technology over the years, despite—perhaps even because of—the existence of alternative suppliers developing different hardware and operating systems. All the while, we are somehow still able to call/text one another without worrying whether our interlocutor is an Apple addict or an aficionado of Android. And scale hasn’t proven to be a problem. Apple and Google have managed to serve very, very large numbers of people indeed.

So far as I know, few people are seeking a federal takeover of cell phone manufacturing or service in the hope that this would improve the user experience or increase “national coherence.”

And of course the American Mathematical Society is not propounding such a silly idea. What they actually published was a piece by award-winning mathematician Hyman Bass in which he writes:

The US presents particular obstacles to achieving educational improvement at a national scale, deriving from its social and economic diversity and also from an entrenched tradition of “local control,” which precludes a federal role in any primary initiatives. Yet to achieve effective reform at scale requires some national coherence….

Fractions are the same in Florida and Montana; it makes little sense in a highly mobile population for the math curriculum to change at state lines. It would be like building a national railway system with different gauge tracks in each state.

Why, given what we know about the diversity, interoperability, and dissemination of excellence within our private sector industries, would anyone imagine that the way to improve our centrally planned state school systems would be to centralize control over them even further, at the national level? Should we not perhaps draw the opposite conclusion? That the reason education has not enjoyed the same relentless pattern of useful innovation and the “scale-up” of excellence that we now expect in other fields is that we don’t allow the same freedoms and incentives in education that we do in all those other fields. Might it not be that state-run monopolies work no better in American education than they have ever worked in any other industry in any other country (which is to say: very poorly)?

How about freeing education from the stifling pall of monopoly, unleashing both parental choice and entrepreneurial freedom on a grand scale? It adds up.