Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Is Education the Answer?

Brian Leiter links to a recent New York Times article in this post at his blog. The article itself is now only available for a fee in the Times archives, but Leiter produces the following excerpt:

American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century....

Dr. Miller, who was raised in Portsmouth, Ohio, when it was a dying steel town, attributes much of the nation's collective scientific ignorance to poor education, particularly in high schools. Many colleges require every student to take some science, but most Americans do not graduate from college. And science education in high school can be spotty, he said.

“Our best university graduates are world-class by any definition,” he said. “But the second half of our high school population - it's an embarrassment. We have left behind a lot of people....”

Lately, people who advocate the teaching of evolution have been citing Dr. Miller's ideas on what factors are correlated with adherence to creationism and rejection of Darwinian theories. In general, he says, these fundamentalist views are most common among people who are not well educated and who “work in jobs that are evaporating fast with competition around the world.”

But not everyone is happy when he says things like that. Every time he goes on the radio to talk about his findings, he said, “I get people sending me cards saying they will pray for me a lot.”

There's no doubt that science education could be far better than it is in this country. But it is naive to think that improvements in public education by themselves will put much of a dent in the seemingless endless tide of ignroance that has swept the nation in recent years.

Everything mentioned at the start of this excerpt is taught in science classes. Everyone learns in school what molecules are, that the Earth orbits the Sun, that DNA is the key to heredity and what radiation is. That's not the problem.

The problem is that for many kids in this country, the things they learn in school are not reinforced outside of school. If you never hear anything about science outside of school the facts you learn in the classroom will quickly slip your mind. The same goes for any other subject.

And when it comes to science specifically, a lot of kids are leanring things outside of school that are completely wrong. The typical child in a fundamentalist home hears, from the time he is little, a huge amount of false information about what science is and what it's findings are. The best public education system in the world could not fight that.

This is an anti-intellectual society that values neither teaching nor learning. Between public libraries and the internet it is easier to obtain information than ever before, but too many people refuse to make use of these resources. The article complains that we are leaving many people behind. Well, a lot of people are perfectly happy to be left there. At some point, they are responsible for their own ignorance.


At 1:04 PM, Anonymous Argy said...

Unfortunately, it's the ignorant (ie the majority) that have political power (well, and those with money). Policy in our fair democracy is highly fueled by ignorance, and I can't think of any good way to change that.

At 2:31 PM, Anonymous Duane said...

I think you are right on target with this. Things learned in school must be reinforced at home, among peers and in the culture at large for them to have lasting value. We need a cultural change as well as better education. That cultural change must start in the President's office. But it can't end there.

At 3:30 PM, Blogger RLC said...

Dr. Rosenhouse,

(One of the few times I find myself in some disagreement with you, however insubstantial.)

Don't you think nearly all of the problems you mention, even willful ignorance, will find their reversal in more and better education? I agree with you, of course, that the lessons need to be reinforced at home, but I suspect the seeds of that happy situation will be sown with effective science teaching. Despite your conclusion that "Everyone learns in school what molecules are, that the Earth orbits the Sun, that DNA is the key to heredity and what radiation is," I think the evidence indicates that this is not at all as assured as you indicate.

I don't mean to imply that blame lies with educators. There is no doubt that many of the ignorant choose their lot. But we've got to believe that we can reach their children, and if not them then their children's children. The cure for an "anti-intellectual society that values neither teaching nor learning" must, it seems to me, lie in redoubled efforts at teaching and learning.

Perhaps I'm approaching this with a bit of naivete (or maybe it's just the fact that the sun is out and my disposition is positive) but I think, at least I hope, that more and better science education is the beginning of the end for many of the prevalent anti-scientific attitudes we see.



At 4:27 PM, Anonymous BKS said...

Unfortunately, much of the problem is societal, I believe. For example, a major hurdle to effective education is that few students today are rewarded for learning. Instead, they are rewarded for getting good grades, which is often independent of learning (Question: How many students can cram for a test, get good grades, and not retain a thing? Answer: Many). Their goal is not to learn information and retain it; instead, their goal is to memorize information long enough so that they can do well on the next test. Once they've finished the test, they walk out the door and forget it. I've actually had college students tell me that they don't care if they remember anything; they only want a good grade so they can get a job, at which time their employers will teach them what they need to know. Yes, educators (of which I am one) can re-double their efforts, choose the most effective teaching methods, and focus on science education; but until society realizes that education is about learning and not simply about getting a grade, our efforts might be for naught...

At 10:49 PM, Blogger Doran said...

To segue to an observation I have had recently. Even though the US still churns out quality college graduates, many who do obtain degrees still have a very poor comprehension of science. Would anyone think, from this fact, that forums and "debates" on evolution do serve to educate the public, especially those college students who still don't have a clue?

At 7:58 AM, Blogger LiberPaul said...

I do think education is sorely lacking in science. I went to a liberal arts College and they only required non-science majors to take 1, yes 1, science class to graduate. What are you going to learn in Physics 101, Energy and Future, about Evolution, atomic theory etc? Not much....

At 8:49 AM, Blogger bmk md said...

Exposure is the key. We as a society need good quality science educators/education in our schools. We need higher minimal science requirements for high school and college.
And how about required evolution lectures at all churches on a regular basis.
Well, we have to have ID at science classes don't we?

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Gumby said...

I disagree that this is an anti-intellectual society. I believe that certain idiots are loud enough that they garner a disproportionate amount of attention. School boards are too afraid of litigation to stand up to the "flat earthers". Check out this article about a creationist that is leading biblically correct museum tours.

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