Since 2000, Americans have won 21 of the 37 physics prizes, 18 of the 33 medicine prizes, 22 of the 33 chemistry prizes and an astonishing 27 of the 30 economics prizes. Pretty impressive considering our nonstop anxiety about failing schools, mediocre international test scores, undergrads not majoring in math or the sciences, and the rest. Singapore, South Korea and Finland may regularly produce the highest test scores among 15-year-olds, but something isn't translating: Nobody from Singapore has ever won a Nobel. Korea has one—for peace. The Finns last took a science prize in 1967.I'm not sure about that "mostly private" university system. The bulk of the undergraduate teaching goes on in community colleges and regional state universities. On the other hand, the way the states are treating their flagship campuses, "partial privatization" might best describe Wisconsin, Illinois, California, and Michigan.
The secret of America's Nobel sauce isn't hard to understand: an immigration culture that welcomed everyone from Ronald Coase (from the U.K.) to Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (from India) to Martin Kaplus (from Nazi-era Austria) to Elizabeth Blackburn (from Australia). A mostly private, highly competitive, lavishly endowed university system, juiced by federal funding for fundamental research. A culture of individualism and an ingrained respect for against-the-grain thinking.
The government shutdown is unfortunate; a default would be a disaster. But anyone who thinks America's best days are behind us should take a close look at the latest Nobel haul. It says something that we take it for granted.Indeed it does. Graduate education remains a strength of the university system, although degree creep (college the new high school, the master's degree the new baccalaureate) will eventually erode the intellectual base for those Nobels.