Praise of Folly: STEM Faces Stiff Opposition in American Culture

“Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” —Thomas Gray

One night more than 50 years ago, my father took his children out to look up at a great wonder — a star moving slowly across the sky. To this seven-year-old, the words “Sputnik” and “satellite” were meaningless, and I had no idea how profoundly they would affect my life.

In a cold-war induced panic, the United States began a massive approach to elevate our knowledge in what we now call the STEM areas. America had been jolted into the belief that national prosperity — even survival — demanded a population knowledgeable in science, technology, engineering, and math.  In a few years that program reached me, and I was directed into an “honors” science and math path that ended with my taking every science class in my high school, including AP chemistry, as well as going all the way through calculus before heading off to college. That story may be a surprise to those who knew me as an English teacher, but the change in focus was due more to politics (the Vietnam War) and to a really bad Calculus II teacher in college than to any shortcomings in the national focus on science and math.

Today we live in a different world, though. In a recent column,* Maureen Down lamented that America has regressed from a country in which it was chic to be smart to one that has “refudiated” that notion with a new ethic, one we might call the wonderful world of ignorance. Her examples are limited to the political world, but they go far beyond that, and they spell trouble for initiatives like STEM that run counter to this trend.

On November 10, NBC news described the latest horrible news about American preparation in math. You might think this would spur us to action, but the truth is that we are more than happy in our ignorance — we revel in it, and we are opposed to anyone who would have it any other way. We see education as a waste of money that could be better spent where it really matters. Here in Colorado, the newly elected state treasurer talked about how money being wasted on education could be spent creating more correctional facilities.

I encounter the math problem with some regularity in my part time work as a scuba instructor. To become certified as a scuba diver, you have to be able to perform some very simple arithmetic calculations — very simple. I sometimes encounter students who simply throw up their hands and say, in essence, “I don’t do math,” even with the single digit multiplication and division required of them. They feel no shame in not being able to divide 60 by 3 — math is hard, after all, and apparently unimportant.

But science is where we really see the problem. It is not only not cool in America to be literate in science, it is close to being evil. It is those scientists, after all, who are spreading all those lies about evolution and global warming. It is those scientists and their false warnings that are causing our poor, innocent industries to have to install needless pollution control devices and thus send key jobs overseas. In some Internet forums in which I participate, people clearly think there is, somewhere, someplace, a Science Pope who secretly dictates what scientists around the world are supposed to think about “evil-ution” and global warming. The Science Pope tells them how to falsify evidence, and he does not allow anything that does not toe his official line to be published. Scientists who dare to print something heretical apparently are secreted away and executed, I guess.

[Update 11.23.10: See John’s November 23, 2010, comment. -js]

But math and science are not the only areas in which ignorance is chic. Among the rarest things to find on television is a show about history on the History Channel. Assuming that those in charge of programming are striving for the best market share they can get and are not instead lunatics, their decision to focus content on shows about lumberjacks, truckers, UFOs, psychics, sharpshooters, pawnbrokers, people who bring old junk to pawn brokers, people who fix up the junk people bring to pawnbrokers, gun experts, and Bigfoot sightings (or lack of them), and Modern Marvels — the Pencil Eraser — must reflect the interests of the kind of people who tune in to that channel.

So, more money and effort for STEM initiatives? And feed the evil machine of evil, pointy headed intellectuals trying to pull our attention away from Snooki? Forget it!
* Click here for the Webcite alternative.

5 Responses

  1. John, tough love?

    For decades, the starving of the beast has meant to most people reducing revenue to the federal government. Unnoticed by most has been the starving of the other “beast,” our wonderful education system.

    Remember when California has the best post-secondary system in the country with essentially free two years of college for any high school graduate plus world-class universities.

    (That’s not to demean any one institution. I’m speaking of the entire system.)

    It’s a nasty thought, but someone must speak it. Fascism loves a malleable populace. Malleability requires ignorance and lack of interest in thinking. Thinking is replaced with feeling, with gut instincts. It’s so much simpler to feel than to think. That’s how fights start. That’s how wars start.

    The wealthy need not worry. They have their $20,000 per year (or more) private schools that prepare their children to take over.

    What does it say when 1,000,000 school children have a 25% chance of graduating high school in four years?

    As much as I dislike the acronym, STEM, I agree that our expertise in these four disparate areas will make a huge difference to our national future. In the last three decades, lots of the best minds in these areas were siphoned off into Wall Street where they added nothing to our national security and even reduced it by contributing to the recent recession.

    For me, K-12 education in technology is unnecessary. Engineering should be added in carefully so as not to confuse young people who may not understand how engineering and science differ. Hint: science explores the universe in the search for ideas; engineering builds things — exploring and creating are not the same.

    Mathematics provides some thought discipline and must be an important tool for engineering and science as well as finance, economics, and other areas. I happen to believe that mathematics is better taught in context, but I cannot prove it.

    To me, as scientist, I think that science is the crown jewel of STEM. It takes on the three-year old’s question, “Why?” It feeds engineering and technology with new views of the universe. For example, science allowed engineers to create the technology of LEDs. All three used mathematics extensively to do so.

    However, science education has been dumbed down to where it’s just a bunch of words, formulas, and procedures to be memorized. It’s been simplified so that students have no sense of the soaring sense of wonder or about the many scientists who made so many mistakes before finding the right answer.

    Today, it’s considered cool to believe that science destroys beauty, that a lovely sunset has been reduced to a bunch of numbers.

    This attitude recalls the words of John Herschel to me.

    “To the natural philosopher [scientist], there is not natural object unimportant or trifling…A mind that has once imbibed a taste for scientific enquiry has within itself an inexhaustible source of pure and exciting contemplation. One would think that Shakespeare had such a mind in view when he describes a contemplative man finding
    Tongues in trees – books in running brooks
    Sermons in stones – and good in everything
    Where the uninformed and unenquiring eye perceives neither novelty nor beauty, *he* walks in the midst of wonders.”

    In other words, the truth is exactly the opposite of this unfortunate popular view. Richard Feynman echoed this same sentiment over a century later when discussing how understanding science enhances rather than detracts from the beauty of a sunset.

    But science does not simply provide information to aid in understanding and in decision making. It also trains the mind to sift data rather than just accepting your gut instincts or trusting to talking heads on television. It helps, in its own way, to make us better citizens of democracy.

    • Harry, re:

      “For me, K-12 education in technology is unnecessary. Engineering should be added in carefully so as not to confuse young people who may not understand how engineering and science differ. Hint: science explores the universe in the search for ideas; engineering builds things — exploring and creating are not the same.”

      Conversation 2 days ago with P., a pre-teen who just started middle school and is very much into creating (as a toddler, he’d summon the adults around him and direct them in the execution with his wooden blocks of what he had in mind but didn’t quite yet have the motor control do do himself):
      P: Do you remember my blog? Now I’m making my own real site.
      I: Great! What are you using for that? Joomla? Drupal?
      P (laughs): No, I’m making it offline with Notes and an XHTML tutorial from le site du zéro – wait, I’ll send you the link (he whisks out his cell phone and e-mails me “Site de tutoriels“). It’s great: they also have tuts for php, C+….
      I: Wow. Is it for a school assignment?
      P: No – that I know of, I’m the only one in my class doing that.

      Then he excused himself: “I must finish cramming 3 chapters of Treasure Island for a test.” I suggested reading the novel for fun and using the relevant Wikipedia article for the cramming. “It doesn’t work: our teacher always asks about little circumstantial details to make sure we have really read the assigned chapters”.

      So yes, maybe it’s just as well P is not being taught tech at school, if that’s the way learning assessment goes there. However, couldn’t an alternative way be found? Like asking students to do what P. is doing for one page, then showing them tools that simplify this?

  2. John, I found myself laughing out loud in places. Humor somehow drives truth home when nothing else seems to work.

    “Isle grads ill-prepared for college” — this was the top story in this morning’s [Honolulu] Star-Advertiser: “More than a third of Hawaii public school graduates who enrolled in the University of Hawaii system following graduation last year needed remedial instruction in math or English.”

    And the folks who would probably be most outraged at this “news” are the public school teachers who worked their tails off to prepare them for college.

    I understand their befuddlement. I’ve worked with my freshman comp students on documentation skills and felt confident that they’d do well in subsequent classes that required research writing.

    When some of them enrolled in my advanced writing class, I was dismayed that they’d apparently forgotten nearly everything I had taught them. I found myself referring them to info that we’d covered the previous semester.

    What’s happening?

    It seems they’re simply going through the motions to get things right, and by that they mean “the way the teacher wants it.” This way they’ll get a good grade. Learning isn’t even in the picture.

    They’re not learning. That is, they’re not generalizing from the specifics and forming rules that they can apply to similar situations. They seem to be treating each case as unique, with little or no transfer.

    If this is true, then they see content and procedures as totally arbitrary and “learning” as memorizing specific sets of isolated rules and information. Apply them to a given task, receive a passing grade, and move on to the next disconnected, arbitrary set of rules and information.

    What’s missing in this pictrure is someone who can help students see the connections between and among the rules and contents for different learning activities in all the various fields of study.

    This person is supposed to be the teacher, but the compartmentalization of learning into subject areas exacerbates the problem of transfer, of understanding the why as well as the how.

    We often think that this higher order of learning, this ability to generalize, to transfer, is expendable when the focus is on learning specific content and procedures. But what we don’t realize is that all our work on specifics is for naught if learning goes no further than the task at hand. -Jim S

  3. Harry, I understand where you’re coming from re science and instinct. But I don’t fully agree.

    I don’t make as clear a distinction between science and engineering as you do. I think a lot of theory comes from practice. In fact, they go hand in hand. The hands-on informs the theorizing and, vice-versa, the theorizing informs the hands-on.

    In my mind, there’s always a gap between what we know and what we think we know. This is as it should be. And the latter, what we think we know, is intuition or instinct.

    It isn’t the same as guessing wildly. In fact, it’s based on an informal or even subconscious process of info gathering and sorting. It’s the root of the eureka experience. And it’s logic in a fuzzy way.

    Those of us in the humanities live by this intuition because we see it at work in the arts. It’s a knowing that transcends linear logic, and artists count on the audience to make the necessary leaps.

    In this regard, the humanities are essential to the sciences, where the ability to see wholes when presented with just a few seemingly random parts is a necessity for innovation, for the next step. This, I guess, is imagination.

    I think students are probably attracted by what you might call engineering problems, or real world problems that require practical skills. Steve Eskow mentioned these types of problems in his article on ee-learning.

    When students want to solve a problem but their “tools” are inadequate, they are ripe for learning. And if tools aren’t simply handed to them at this juncture, they become highly receptive to info and inventive of necessity. When they succeed, they’ve learned — learned how to learn. In a nutshell, this is Dewey.

    I believe some of the best science has its roots in everyday issues, in common problems. We, educators, need to learn how to recognize these opportunities and learn how to present them to students to ignite a desire to learn. (This is Eskow.)

    I guess I’m equating science with learning, as an attitude toward the world, one that is eager to take on problems because solving them is not only useful but fun in a way that makes us profoundly human.

    Science is a systematic approach to problem solving via hypothesis testing, but it can’t get off the ground without instinct, without heart. It just wouldn’t be fun. -Jim S

  4. I just ran into an example that I would have included in the article had I known about it when I wrote it. The ocean ecosystem is being seriously threatened by the world-wide slaughter of sharks to feed the exploding desire for shark fin soup in China. Here is an article about it: If it continues, the results could be devastating to us.

    After you read the article, go to the bottom of the page and read the comments left by the readers.At the time I am writing this, here are the latest three comments left by thoughtful readers:

    “let’s feed them tree huggin liberals that write this crap”

    “I better hurry an go game fishing for one of those species before I cant catch sharks anymore, they are better looking on my wall than in the ocean anyway.”

    “Extinction is nature’s way of purging the planet of old species to make way for the new. Human disruption to this process driven soley on our emotions, causes a hamful imbalance to nature’s process.”

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