Feedback Friday: Science Illiteracy

A study was published this week by the National Science Foundation that made my blood cold, and judging from the three people who emailed it to me, you felt the same way.  The study, called Science & Engineering Indicators 2014, is available online for free at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/index.cfm/digest, and is worth a read.  Though you might want to sit down first.

The part that peeves me the most is Chapter 7, Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding.  This also marked the first release of the 2012 NSF Science Literacy survey, and oh boy.  This one was bad.  Just so you get a taste of how incredibly egregious it was, here are some highlights.

Question 3: Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?

Correct Answer: Earth around Sun.

Percentage of respondents answering correctly: 74%

Question 4: How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun: one day, one month, or one year?

Correct Answer: One year

Percentage of respondents answering correctly: 55%

There are others—for example, a majority of respondents believe that lasers work by focusing sound waves, a fact that is completely and utterly untrue—but I’m going to stop here because it is honestly painful, and you get the idea.  Americans know very little about science.  Why is that?  The answer comes from our deeply broken educational system.

Education in America has a very strange history.  Since the Revolution in 1776, education has been a priority… in some places.  Namely, New England.  In Massachusetts, the imperative of education stretches back to a century before the first shots were fired at Lexington Green, with the founding of the Dedham  School in 1643.  The Dedham School was something new—a taxpayer funded school that was free to attend.  This was a new idea!  Never before in history had there been a school that was free.  The citizens of Dedham had sparked their own revolution a century before Washington’s.

Over the next hundred years, education in America continued to flourish… in the North.  After the Revolution, the founders placed a high imperative on education.  Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, Benjamin Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania, and George Washington gave Washington and Lee University, then Washington College, a generous endowment.  For the founders, education was a primary concern.

By the mid-19th century, education in the Northern states was robust.  According to the 1840 Census,  approximately 75% of children in New England were attending school.  Literacy rates were high, and the United States was one of the best educated countries in the world… if you looked at the North.  The South, on the other hand, was a mess.  Education in the United States was fairly good overall, but quite uneven.

I bring up this history to explain why this study was sadly unsurprising to me.  Many people responded with shock or disbelief, and I wish I could respond that way too, but I cannot.  Do not get me wrong, there are some places in the US—such as my home of Montgomery County, Maryland— where education is top notch.  I was lucky enough to attend one of the top 150 high schools in the United States by The Washington Post’s count.  But lots of people aren’t that lucky.  For the entire history of this country, education has been uneven across this great land of ours.  While some schools flourish, others flounder.

This, I believe, is one of the greatest social problems of our age.  Because schools in wealthy areas are generally quite good, and schools in disadvantaged areas are generally not as good, it is harder to get in to a good college if you come from these areas.  A good education is one of the best tools ever devised for social mobility, and by denying it to those who need it most, we ensure the continuation of the rift between rich and poor and the perpetuation of a bifurcated class structure.  Rather than trying to make every school better, I think we should start with working on making all of our schools as good as my high school.  It will take time, it will take money, and it will take sacrifice.  Your taxes will probably go up.  But the reward for the price we pay will be a better chance for future generations.  The American dream is one of upward mobility, and a good public education for everyone, not just those who can afford it, is the engine that drives the train.  In the meantime, keep educating yourself by wondering endlessly about the endless wonder that is life.

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