by David Safier
The NY Times has an article about conflicts between our immigration laws and our need for the best techies in the world. The story is about a valuable engineer at Google who lives in Canada. He and his wife are both originally from India, but she doesn't have a visa to live here, so the couple is forced to live in Canada.
Soon enough, the article gets into a discussion of our dependence on foreign born techies.
And inevitably, the subject of our schools comes up:
Most people nod their heads knowingly at Barrett's statement and say, "Yes, that's why we have to import so many engineers. Our schools suck."
Let me take the other side of this argument and say the quality of our schools isn't the main reason why we have so many immigrants in Silicon Valley, though I'm not entirely convinced I'm right. What I know for sure is that business loves to blame our schools for everything that ails business — I've heard the mantra since I began teaching — but they're often incorrect.
So let me assume our schools aren't to blame and search for other reasons.
Lots of these immigrants working in Silicon Valley got a substantial part of their K-12 educations here, as well as all of their college educations. The guy who's the focus of the story came to the U.S. when he was 14, then went to Harvard. Can we say his entire success is built on his education before he was 14? If so, it wasn't Indian schools that can take pride in his education, since he grew up in Saudi Arabia. I don't hear much about the overwhelming strength of Saudi schools.
I taught immigrant students who graduated at what has to be the top ranks of students anywhere in the world, and they got a good part of their education in U.S. public schools. Yet these students would be included in stories about the superiority of immigrants and the education they got in their home countries.
A huge part of the success of some of the immigrant students I taught had to do with their families. Their parents were often well educated people who made education the primary focus of their children's lives. Given students like that, any adequate school with accelerated classes will produce top notch students who can make it at Harvard or Yale or anywhere in the world.
Since the focus of the NY Times article is an Indian immigrant and they make up a sizable part of the Silicon Valley tech world, it's important to remember that India has a long tradition of mathematical excellence. It's no surprise that India would be a breeding ground for brilliant computer scientists, regardless of how their schools stack up against ours. It's pretty damn paternalistic for us to assume the U.S. should naturally be the origin of the best tech engineers. It's obvious that the more modernized India and other countries become, the more top people they'll produce in every field.
But let's take this one step further. The immigrants who end up as top techies here are not a random assortment of people from their native countries. They're a self selected group. Their parents were part of a small minority who had the gumption to pick up and move here, if they came with their parents. If they came on their own, it's because they were the top of the top in their countries who figured they would have a better chance of achieving fame and fortune here than at home. These brilliant immigrants who seem to leave our native born workers in the dust should be compared only to our most brilliant and ambitious young adults. Let's turn this around. If the top one percent of our native born techies decided to work in India, they'd certainly take the country by storm, and everyone there would marvel at the genius this country produces.
Next, think about what happens when people with different perspectives gather together to create products that no one has thought of before, or to find new solutions to old problems. Getting a group of equally talented people whose different backgrounds cause them to challenge each other's assumptions is exactly what you want. Heterogeneous brilliance is going to trump homogeneous brilliance every time if the goal is innovation. So these immigrants most likely are at the center of some of technological innovation simply because they are immigrants. At home, with like minded people, they might not be as innovative or productive.
One final point. The easy money to be made in our financial sector has lured lots of ambitious young people away from other professions. Face it, only a small sliver of techies ever get rich, while for the past few decades, scads of marginally competent people in the financial world made ridiculous amounts of money. What if some of our most talented people lured by the siren song on filthy lucre had gone into high tech professions instead? I think we'd see lots of them doing very well in Silicon Valley.
I honestly believe our best public schools give their best, brightest and most ambitious students a chance to equal any student educated anywhere in the world. And these "best public schools" I'm talking about aren't rare occurences. You find them all over. It's our mediocre and bad schools that are in need of serious improvement. Our best schools can certainly be improved, but they're pretty damn good.
To blame U.S. schools for the abundance of immigrant tech engineers in Silicon Valley, I believe, is to indulge in very sloppy thinking. And it's important to realize that the business sector encourages this simplistic cause-and-effect thinking because it likes to use schools as a whipping boy for its failings and as an excuse to loosen immigration laws so it can replace home grown employees with immigrants who will accept lower wages.