To Meekly Stay Home


Forty years ago this week the world was watching a little point of land in central Florida as this country prepared to launch Apollo 11 on its mission to the moon. For some, it was to be the first voyage to the stars, a voyage that would take us beyond the moon, to Mars, and then ultimately beyond the planets and on to the stars. But for too many others, it was the culmination of a race that began some eight years ago when President John Kennedy challenged this country to use it resources, its abilities and its capabilities to place a man on the moon and return him safely before the end of the decade.

And while there were six more missions to the moon after Apollo 11 and ten more men would walk on the surface of the moon after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, we have not been to the moon since 1972 and it doesn’t appear that we are going back there any time soon. Whatever interests we might have in finding out what is “out there” lies deep within our imagination. And the imagination of too many people today is very limited.

If you will, our imagination is very limited because we have not done much to encourage imagination and creativity in our schools. When the Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik in 1957, there was a great outcry in this country to upgrade the science and math education of our students so that we could compete with the “communist menace”.

So, when we won the race to put a man on the moon in 1969, we gave up that effort. We are still trying to upgrade our science and math education programs (as I noted previously in “Have We Learned Anything?”). And one of the points that I stressed in that earlier piece was that our general scientific literacy had not improved either.

This was brought home by an article on Salon.com about America’s scientific illiteracy (see “Why America is flunking science”). It seems to me that the majority of the article is a gentle diatribe against Michael Crichton and his writings but the authors (or rather Michael Crichton) make a valid point about how science is viewed by the public today.

What Crichton pointed out is that scientific research can be very boring, very tedious, and take a very long time to complete. None of those points are qualifiers for good quality science-based films today. In addition, the authors point out that the public sees scientists as male, mean, mad, and old, qualities that don’t match many of the chemists that I know (I may be male and old but I am not certain about the mad or mean part, though many of my students might say that I was one or both).

This is not to say that we need to “liven” up our science courses. But we do need to spend more time working on getting people to see what is happening in their world and where science will have a role in the outcome. First, consider the following three topics (in no particular order of importance):

  • Intelligent design
  • Global warming
  • The role of vaccines in autism

There is a great deal of controversy with each of these topics and there is a great deal of research that shows the validity or invalidity of each topic. For the record, I would say that the arguments for intelligent design, against global warming, and for the role of vaccines in autism are essentially pseudo-scientific at best; they don’t fit within most accepted scientific themes. The only reason many people argue for intelligent design, against global warming, and for the role of vaccines in autism is that they aren’t willing to delve into the science themselves.

But why should they? The science itself requires many years of study and evaluation and those are not easy points to accept in a society that wants things quick and simple. Tell me what I want to know right now and test me over it right now so that I can get on to other things that are more important in my life.

One of the things re-discovered in the development of the post-Sputnik chemistry curriculum projects was research first done by Jean Piaget in post-war Europe. There are stages in an individual’s learning:

  1. Sensorimotor (from birth to age 2)
  2. Pre-operational (from 2 to 7)
  3. Concrete operational (from 7 to 12), and
  4. Formal operational (from 12 onwards)

It was discovered that it is entirely possible for high school and college students (who Piaget suggested should be at the formal operational stage) were actually at the concrete operational stage. And it is entirely possible that one could be at the formal operational stage in one area (such as chemistry) while at a concrete operational stage in other areas.

But one is not going to move from the concrete operational stage in thinking to a more formal and abstract operational stage if not presented with challenges and thought-provoking ideas, neither of which dominate our educational process. If you do not have the ability or the wherewithal to look beyond the moment, then you will willingly accept the words and thoughts of others if they mirror your own thoughts and you will not accept the thoughts and words of others that do not.

From the words of President Kennedy, forty years we chose to go to the moon, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. And in doing so, we would utilize the best of our energies and skills. And we boldly went even though we knew that there was danger in what we proposed.

But now, some forty years later, as we still stand at the beginning of a new century and faced with problems that threaten the safety of this planet and all of its inhabitants, we are unwilling to venture beyond the limitations of our own creativity. Instead of boldly seeking the answers we have chosen to meekly stay home and wonder what happened to the world in which we live.

 

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