Peter Wood has an interesting commentary in the Chronicle today. At least, it starts out well, but by the end it turns into a bit of a train wreck. The good part is a discussion of a growing deficiency in science and math training in the US. The usual ignorant reaction to this problem is to flog the students and demand more drill-and-practice in the classroom, more testing, incentives and punishments for the schools … the familiar Republican litany of No Child Left Behind, which treats the problem as a superficial one that can be corrected with more multiple-choice tests, or by marshaling market forces to make that engineering job in adulthood more attractive to 8 year olds. That’s not the answer.
The precipitous drop in American science students has been visible for years. In 1998 the House released a national science-policy report, “Unlocking Our Future,” that fussily described “a serious incongruity between the perceived utility of a degree in science and engineering by potential students and the present and future need for those with training.”
Let me offer a different explanation. Students respond more profoundly to cultural imperatives than to market forces. In the United States, students are insulated from the commercial market’s demand for their knowledge and skills. That market lies a long way off — often too far to see. But they are not insulated one bit from the worldview promoted by their teachers, textbooks, and entertainment. From those sources, students pick up attitudes, motivations, and a lively sense of what life is about. School has always been as much about learning the ropes as it is about learning the rotes. We do, however, have some new ropes, and they aren’t very science-friendly. Rather, they lead students who look upon the difficulties of pursuing science to ask, “Why bother?”
Those of us who are scientists did not go into this field because we calculated the economic benefit (we’d need to be profoundly innumerate for the answer to that one to come up positive), nor was it because our middle school teachers gave us lots of tests. It’s because we were inspired by the dream of learning more about the world around us, and we were motivated in spite of the difficulties of the subject.
Right now, this is an anti-intellectual country in which the media and politics constantly bombard us with the message that science is uncool, the domain of geeks and nerds, and instead of bringing out the power of science in our schools, the emphasis is always on the boring minutiae. It’s important to master the tedious mechanics, of course, but we also need to put the excitement front and center. And we also have to challenge students, rather than putting them on coasters and letting them slide to graduation.
At least on the emotional level, contemporary American education sides with the obstacles. It begins by treating children as psychologically fragile beings who will fail to learn — and worse, fail to develop as “whole persons” — if not constantly praised. The self-esteem movement may have its merits, but preparing students for arduous intellectual ascents aren’t among them. What the movement most commonly yields is a surfeit of college freshmen who “feel good” about themselves for no discernible reason and who grossly overrate their meager attainments.
The intellectual lassitude we breed in students, their unearned and inflated self-confidence, undercuts both the self-discipline and the intellectual modesty that is needed for the apprentice years in the sciences. Modesty? Yes, for while talented scientists are often proud of their talent and accomplishments, they universally subscribe to the humbling need to prove themselves against the most-unyielding standards of inquiry. That willingness to play by nature’s rules runs in contrast to the make-it-up-as-you-go-along insouciance that characterizes so many variants of postmodernism and that flatters itself as being a higher form of pragmatism.
That’s the good part, but unfortunately the rest is a cranky tirade against diversity, especially those darned women who are asking for special privileges to break into the domains that properly belong to men.
The science “problems” we now ask students to think about aren’t really science problems at all. Instead we have the National Science Foundation vexed about the need for more women and minorities in the sciences. President Lawrence H. Summers was pushed out of Harvard University for speculating (in league with a great deal of neurological evidence) that innate difference might have something to do with the disparity in numbers of men and women at the highest levels of those fields. In 2006 the National Academy of Sciences issued a report, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering.” Officials of the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education are looking to use Title IX to force science graduate programs to admit more women. The big problem? As of 2001, 80 percent of engineering degrees and 72 percent of computer-science degrees have gone to men.
A society that worries itself about which chromosomes scientists have isn’t a society that takes science education seriously. In 1900 the mathematician David Hilbert famously drew up a list of 23 unsolved problems in mathematics; 18 have now been solved. Hilbert has also bequeathed us a way of thinking about mathematics and the sciences as a to-do list of intellectual challenges. Notably, Hilbert didn’t write down problem No. 24: “Make sure half the preceding 23 problems are solved by female mathematicians.”
Grrrr. Summers was not speculating in league with neurological evidence — he was babbling about the anecdotal evidence from preferred toys in his children to justify patterns of discrimination against women. Women are entirely capable of doing science and math as well as men, but cultural forces and the pressure to conform to anti-science norms — the very level Wood is saying we need to work at to improve science participation in the first half of his essay — conspire to discourage women from working at the highest levels of their fields, and encourage men to discriminate against them. The title of the essay is “How we keep students out of science”…maybe he should open his eyes and notice that the question of “How we keep women out of science” might very well have the same answers.
What if we treated his initial description of the problem as prescriptive: we have a science-gap in American students, therefore we should take this as evidence that Americans are inherently more stupid than others, and therefore should give up on trying to teach them more science? The answer, then, is to invest less in education and more in importing Chinese. Ridiculous, I know, yet that is what he is proposing with women: they are less capable by assertion, therefore don’t worry that that part of the science labor pool might be underutilized.
It seems to me that working to improve science education for a significant segment of the population that is not being inspired to pursue science and technology careers is a good strategy for working out solutions for the whole population. If our educational system has shortcomings in bringing up enough scientists, I’m all for working on the part of the problem that has the same shortcomings times two — we’ll get the biggest boost there.
As for the Hilbert story — he also didn’t impose the restriction that the 23 problems should only be solved by men.