Cliff Slater’s Second Opinion

The Honolulu Advertiser

Monday, January 31, 2000



Another lesson for Hawaii


Michael Lewis tells us in his new book, The New New Thing that during this past year "nearly half of all Silicon Valley companies were founded by Indian entrepreneurs." (1)

Many of these entrepreneurs were originally from impoverished families in rural India—itself at the bottom of the scale of world’s economies. How these individuals came from uneducated families in total poverty on the other side of the world, went on to become multi-millionaires in the U.S., and helped lift us up with them in the process, are lessons from which Hawaii can learn.

Even before independence, former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru determined to cull from the general population those young individuals who demonstrated extraordinary ability, drive, and determination in the sciences and to give them the finest possible technical education at public expense. To that end, he also encouraged Russia, the U.S., and other countries to help fund the Indian Institutes of Technology of which there are now five. He believed it the only way to build India "towards self-reliance in her technological needs." (2)

The result has been not quite what Nehru envisioned. Rather than making India a technology leader, it instead now provides a wildly disproportionate number of high- technology entrepreneurs in the U.S. Nehru, and his successors, failed to realize that it was also necessary for them to provide a low-interference business environment in order for high technology businesses to thrive. Instead, they have, even today, a high-interference somewhat socialist economy. It is precisely the environment to squelch budding high-tech entrepreneurs. The result has been India’s loss and America’s gain.

What can we learn? It is not politically correct in the U.S., and especially Hawaii, these days to focus intense efforts on the brightest students. Nevertheless, it is precisely what Thomas Jefferson thought necessary "to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries." (3) To listen to our nation’s education establishment discuss Jefferson as "the father of public education" one would think that he had proposed an egalitarian education for everyone. Instead, his proposals focused on selecting the finest minds from the general population and assuring them of the best education possible. (4)

By focusing efforts on the brightest, Jefferson said, "the best geniuses" will be culled from the community at large (5) and this would benefit us all since we would "avail the state of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated."(6).

Instead of focusing on the brightest and most motivated, we seem in the U.S. much more concerned with those students who are the least motivated and the most disruptive. Trying to motivate those intent on failure at the expense of those wishing for success has led to a general "dumbing down" of our schools. Some students do not do their homework? Then let’s do away with homework. Some students have failing grades? Let’s lower the passing grade.

The result is that today to talk of "graduating" from high school is meaningless. Is it any wonder that today American-born citizens earn a minority of the computer science doctorates awarded by U.S. universities? (7)

Lou Gerstner, head of IBM warned recently that, "Unless we arrest the wasting decline of our public schools—and do it now—America is destined to be an also-ran in the emerging digital economy." He went on to say that it would take a "fundamental, bone-jarring, full-fledged, 100 percent revolution" to change U.S. public education.

And he was being quoted approvingly by the head of National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union, Bob Chase who added that we were "a nation in denial" about our public schools. Should we be surprised at the results, Chase asked, when half of all 12th graders take no science courses and one out of three take no math? (8)

In Hawaii, it is not a lack of money that is responsible for our poor public schools. We spend $150,000 annually for each class of 25 students and that is 73% more, even allowing for inflation, than we did 25 years ago. (9) Where does it all go? For that matter, when is anyone in the Legislature even going to ask?

Get rid of the high overhead and the deadening civil service rules and we could bring in the best principals and the best science and math teachers from anywhere in the English-speaking world. And we could start devoting more effort to our dedicated students and less on the unmotivated.

Cliff Slater is a Honolulu businessperson who represents the Reason Foundation in Hawaii. Footnotes and sources for data are at:


(1) Lewis, Michael. The New New Thing. Norton. 2000. p. 116.

(2) Ibid. p. 115. Also Indiresan, P.V. & N.C. Nigam. Indian Institutes of Technology—An Experience in Excellence. p. 1. [to be published shortly by Oxford University Press for the World Bank]

(3) The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial Edition (Lipscomb and Bergh, editors), 20 Vols. Washington, D.C., 1903-04. (Thomas Jefferson to M. Correa de Serra, 1817. Vol. 15, p.156.)

(4) Jefferson, Thomas. Notes On the State of Virginia. in The Portable Thomas Jefferson. Peterson, Merrill D. Penguin Books. 1979. p. 193-9.

(5) Ibid. p. 196.

(6) Ibid. p. 198.

(7) National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Studies, Science and Engineering Doctorate Awards: 1998, NSF 00-304, Author, Susan T. Hill (Arlington, VA 2000). Table 4.

(8) Chase, Bob. Still 'A Nation at Risk': Fifteen Years Later, We're Also a Nation in Denial. Washington Post. April 12, 1998.

(9) Download a zipped excel file of Hawaii education statistics detailing the official sources of data used.