Science and Knowledge

An outstanding fact about modern society is its enormous effort to develop new knowledge. The United States is participating vigorously in this trend. The launching of the first Soviet sputnik was not only a scientific triumph; it was an event that shaped public opinion into renewed support of American science. Funds for research and development from all sources doubled between 1955 and 1960. The federal government foots roughly half of the national bill for research.1) About 8 per cent of all research funds – or an estimated one billion dollars in 1960 – was spent on basic research, that is research with no other immediate purpose than to widen knowledge.2) Most government money went into the physical sciences. The big foundations, which in 1953 had given 10 per cent of their research grants to physical science, gave 31 per cent to physical scientists in 1957. At the same time, their support of social science declined from 42 per cent of all grants to 28 per cent.3)

The traditional measure of new knowledge is the number of scholarly publications that appear. Here the picture for the United States is not encouraging, partly because of a failure by publishers to issue scholarly books with small editions. If we total all books in the natural and social sciences, pure and applied, we find that in 1958 there were 6,500 books (including re-editions of previously issued books) published in the United States. The U.S. figure is barely above that of France, which reported 6,100 titles and much below the figure for the Soviet Union, which put 50,000 titles in print.4) In fact, the number of American scientific books hardly increased at all between 1938 and 1958 5) in spite of the increase in scientific facilities. Although scientific journals have grown in number and scope, there can be no doubt that findings by American scientists are slow in reaching print, a fact that retards the spread of achieved knowledge, and makes the achievement of new knowledge more difficult.

The scientific effort is also reflected in the number of persons who produce new knowledge, the scholars, the number who transmit it to others, the teachers, and in the number who receive it, the students. Presumably, the number of people who obtain a doctor’s degree (the Ph.D. degree, the Ed.D., or the Sc.D.) stands for at least that many contributions to science, in the form of their doctoral theses. At the turn of the century, the number of such doctorates granted annually was about 250; in 1953 the number was 8,300. The number of living holders of doctor’s degrees in the physical and biological sciences has more or less doubled in every decade since 1900, from approximately 1,000 in 1900 to 40,000 in 1953. To this latter figure should be added the working scientists who do not have doctorates, a group estimated to be 6 or 7 times larger.6) Most of those who achieve doctorates continue to contribute to further growth of scientific knowledge. A study has shown that during the first eight or nine years after receiving their doctorates, eight out of ten natural scientists have published at least one title other than their dissertation. The corresponding figures for Ph.D.s in psychology is seven out of ten, in mathematics and English, six out of ten, and in history, two out of ten.7)

By 1956, the country had over a million and a half teachers.8) The number of elementary and secondary school teachers rose 145 per cent between 1900 and 1950, while the number of college teachers rose 780 per cent.9) One out of every five teachers in the United States is a college teacher. In terms of training, community standing, and to some extent also in terms of the age-groups they instruct, American college professors are the counterparts of the senior teachers in gymnasiums and lycees on the European continent. The universities proper – that is, colleges with graduate schools – number around 175. The following ten were rated as the very best by a study from 1957: Harvard, California (Berkeley), Columbia, Yale, Michigan, Chicago, Princeton, Wisconsin, Cornell, and Illinois. This rating did not include the engineering schools; if Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology are added to this list, we have a group of twelve outstanding universities which awarded one third of all doctor’s degrees in 1957-58. 10)

In 1956, there were 149,000 schools in the United States with 38.9 million students. Among elementary and secondary schools, 88 per cent were public and 12 per cent private – mostly Catholic parochial schools – but among the 1,852 schools for higher learning, the proportion was reversed: 35 per cent were public and 65 per cent private.11) Since public schools are operated by the local, rather than national government, school budgets become important issues in local politics, and the school curriculum is not immune to influence from local figures of power or money; a situation rather different from the typical European one in which schools are run by a ministry of education and subject to the influence of national politics and national figures of power. A small group of private boarding schools for boys have a unique position of prestige in the United States. Sometimes known as St. Grottlesex, they comprise these schools: St. Paul’s, St. Mark’s, Groton, St. George’s, Kent, and Middlesex. These schools are the nearest correspondence on the American scene to famous "public" schools like Eton and Harrow in England. However, many additional secondary schools in the United States have an academic excellence that equals St. Grottlesex.

Americans nowadays remain longer in their schools in more senses than one. The average length of the school year increased from 144 days in 1900 to 178 days in 1956.12) The per cent enrolled in schools has increased in every age and stratum, and educational attainment has increased too; at the beginning of this century the average American completed elementary school, while now he completes high school and increasingly often goes on to college.13) The relative size of the college population in the United States is far above that of any other country for which we have statistics.14) In the year 1900, one youth out of every sixty reaching the age of 22 had been graduated from college. The corresponding figure for 1953 is one out of eight, and it may be one out of four before long. In 1900 nearly half of all college graduates had prepared themselves for law, medicine, or the ministry. In 1953 only 8 per cent of the graduating class went on into these professions. The recent college graduate is more likely to continue his training in a school of business or a school of education than in the traditional fields of medicine, law, and the ministry.15)

The question has been raised whether the country has enough intellectual talent to justify this expansion of higher education. However, an undergraduate education at the typical college is not intellectually demanding. The intelligence level required to go through college is at present modest; one out of eight of the poorest 20 per cent among high school graduates was admitted to college at mid-century.16) The coming increase in persons reaching college age may bring about stricter academic standards.

The indices we have of competence, that is, command of knowledge, are based on examinations and educational diplomas and degrees. The ladder of degrees is in theory a fairly clear-cut measure, in the sense that the holder of a higher degree usually knows more than the holder of a lower degree. Six regional accreditation boards concentrate on setting standards for colleges, in order that degrees from different accredited colleges may be as nearly as possible equal in the competence they imply. There are similar checks made, in the various states, of grammar schools and high schools. However, the local or private control of education in the United States cannot but cause considerable variation in the meaning of degrees and diplomas. There are many who believe that Americans are becoming increasingly conscious of degrees and diplomas, but the great variations in the meaning of the same degree from one school to another and from one decade to another make snobbism about degrees a tenuous enterprise.

Academic competence has not been equally distributed among all categories of the population. In 1900, over two-thirds of all college graduates were men, and even at mid-century men outnumbered women three to two. The education of the Negro population has posed special problems for the United States. Fewer Negroes receive a higher education, but the difference between the races is declining. In the population over 65, the non-whites have only half the amount of schooling of the white, a fact that reflects what used to be. In the age group 25 to 29, however, the non-whites have nine-tenths of the schooling of the whites, as measured in years of education, and this reflects the recently achieved near equality.17) Still, white students make better progress in school than Negro students. In 1950, 42 per cent of the non-white students were one or more grades behind in school, compared to 16 per cent of white children.18)

It is not surprising that persons in higher income and occupational groups have higher education. In 1959, farm laborers had a median schooling of 8 years, and other laborers had 9 years. Farmers, too, had a median education of 9 years, a fact, incidentally, indicating that they will not get the better city jobs should they abandon their farms. Operatives, craftsmen, and service workers have 10 or 11 years of education, salesmen and clerks 13 years, managers, officials and proprietors have a median education of 12 years, and professionals and semiprofessionals over 16 years.19) We also know that Protestants and Jews have, on balance, more education than Catholics.20)

In the course of a lifetime, according to one estimate, a college graduate is likely to earn 1.6 times as much as a high school graduate, and 2.3 times as much as someone whose education ended with eight years of elementary school.21) Since most jobs now are salaried and cannot be passed on to children like property, those who hold privileged positions in society have to send their children to college in order to maintain their family’s position. Of all high school seniors whose fathers are professionals or executives, 73 per cent apply for college admission; among those whose fathers are small businessmen, 48 per cent apply, compared to 45 per cent among children of clerical and sales workers and 21 per cent of children of manual workers.22) The former groups use college to consolidate their family position, the latter groups to advance it.

The expansion of college education has, on the whole, reduced the educational inequalities in terms of sex, race, religion, and income, but it has at the same time increased the inequalities in terms of age. The expanded facilities for higher education have been opened primarily to young people. In the standard metropolitan area of New York and northern New Jersey, there was in 1950 a 33 per cent greater likelihood of finding a male college graduate in the 25-29 age-group than in the 45-54 age-group, and a 92 per cent greater likelihood of finding a female graduate in the younger age-group. In response to this inequality, colleges for adults have emerged. In 1950, under the influx of veterans from World War II, 5.4 per cent of the men in the 25-29 age-group, a category clearly over-aged for conventional colleges, were engaged in undergraduate education in New York City.23) The veterans are no longer in school, but the colleges for adults have maintained or enlarged their enrollments.

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1) Infra, Table 61

2) National Science Foundation, "Funds for the Performance of Basic Research in the United States, 1953-58", Reviews of Data on Research and Development, NSF-60-43, No. 22 (August 1960), p. 1.

3) Infra, Table 46

4) Infra, Table 60

5) Infra, Table 59

6) Dael Wolfle, America’s Resources of Specialized Talent, Harpers, New York 1954, p. 41.

7) Bernard Berelson, Graduate Education in the United States, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1960, p. 55.

8) Infra, Table 63

9) Infra, Table 62

10) Berelson, op. cit., p. 126.

11) Infra, Table 63

12) Infra, Table 64

13) Infra, Tables 65, 67 and 68

14) Infra, Table 66

15) Wolfle, op. cit., p. 127

16) Infra, Table 71

17) Infra, Table 68

18) Infra, Table 69

19) Infra, Table 72

20) Infra, Table 77

21) Infra, Table 73

22) Infra, Table 70

23) 1950 Census of Population, vo1. 2, Part 32, New York, Washington, D.C., 1952, p. 235 and p. 220.