The skills gap, as we discussed in the first installment of this series, is a controversial topic. But some, like Adam Davidson, founder of National Public Radio's "Planet Money" program, claim the term is misnamed. For him, a skills gap is really an "education gap."
Based on six years of research I invested in writing my book The U.S.Technology Skills Gap, I agree with Davidson. And with Glen Whitney, the founder of the Museum of Mathematics, the country's only math museum located in New York City, who says math (and science) are subjects Americans "love to hate and believe were done by dead Greek guys 1,000 years ago."
The first cracks in America's education gap could first be observed in 1909, according to A Short History of Mathematics in the United States, a book written by David Klein.
In his work, Klein tracks a precipitous 41 percent drop in the percentage of American high school students enrolled in math courses from 1909 through 1934. Even at a time when there was incredible technological innovation in America like the Henry Ford's Model T automobile(1908), the radio circuit (1918) and Polaroid photography (1931).
That American kids were not math whizzes should not have come as a surprise. Education was not valued in America at the time. In fact, though the inventions just mentioned were brought to market by Americans, the world's center of technological innovation in the 1930's was not America. It was Germany -- a country where math and science skills were revered. A country that was putting those math and science skills to work building massive war machines in the country's run up to World War II under Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
I often ask CIOs and IT executives this question: Who was/is the most famous scientist in the history of America? More often than not, the reply I get back is "Albert Einstein."
Technically, the answer is correct. Einstein was an American citizen for the last 15 years of his life. But he never was taught in an American classroom. Rather, Einstein was educated in Switzerland and Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1933 as Hitler was about to come to power in Germany.
After America entered the war in December 1941, the United States War Department bluntly awakened America to its math and science problem. Though the American military at that time had more mules than tanks, the new equipment the War Department did have was more sophisticated than war equipment used at the end of World War I. Equipment that demanded intelligent people to operate complex machines.
The hitch was this: though millions of patriotic men and women lined up to serve, many of them lacked skills in math, science and cognitive thinking. The War Department, therefore, was forced to quickly assess those deficiencies by creating an aptitude/IQ test called the "Army General Classification Test."
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