Science Education: Prometheus and the Pied Piper

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by John Dentinger

There is little a politician likes more than to appear bold and forward-looking while riding the safest bandwagon in town. Hence the attention recently directed to schooling in science.

One political candidate has said he wants to ``encourage people to pursue careers that create wealth.'' (He gave several examples; ``politician'' was not one of them.) He recommended that government meet with ``labor, business and the academic community. To predict our needs in the labor market and make sure our curriculum reflects our needs.'' No wonder one professor of education has written, ``It is through [compulsory schooling] that an elite can channel the manpower of the nation into selected occupations as if [it] were dealing with so many pieces of lumber or tons of coals.''

For several years, I taught science and mathematics (at Caltech, Wisconsin and USC, among others), and I recall only one unsavory experience: a semester spent teaching algebra and chemistry in a Los Angeles high school. The reason? Most students did not want to be there.

The medium of compulsory schooling is the message. The message is that learning is so odious and unproductive that students must be delivered to their teachers by threat of force. If an experience is not regulated, certified and graded in a classroom, then no learning is deemed to have occurred; the experience counts for nothing.

Learning is something one does; schooling is something one undergoes, like passing through a cookie cutter. Students are taught not to do, but to undergo; not to choose, but to put up with. Articulating a time-honored notion, the founder of North Carolina's public school system wrote in 1816: ``The state, in the warmth of her affection must take charge of [all] children and place them in a school where habits of subordination and obedience [can] be formed...''

You may be certain that such a quote won't appear in any high school history book. But if the history courses are the memory hole of politics, the science courses are Prometheus and the Pied Piper rolled into one, bringing knowledge and illusion all at once. The best students, blinded by the gold stars before their eyes, are left to imagine that what awaits them is respect, high pay and security.

During the 1960's and early '70's, National Science

Foundation money beckoned to science majors; for dropouts, there was Vietnam. Understandably, many stuck with science. On graduation, most science majors found employment virtually a monopoly of the government, mainly by way of the defense industry.

As the war wound down, they discovered the trap door in the gilded cage in the form of massive layoffs. The state had prepared hundreds of thousands of men and women to live only in an artificial world which suddenly and shatteringly shrank. Now, instead of rehiring scientists and engineers laid off in the early '70's, science-related industries are clamoring for the government to pay for educating new prospective workers. Are these subsidies to be temporary, thus ensuring more career-broken tragedies? Or are we to have a permanent scientific welfare class, beholden to those politicians who used the taxes of all workers to pave the road to scientists' dependence?

The idea of schooling-as-panacea reminds one of the Wizard of Oz telling the Scarecrow, ``I can't give you a brain, but I can give you a diploma.'' The two young men who started Apple Computer Inc. had the opposite problem. They tried to market their idea to established firms first, and ``Hewlett-Packard made it very clear that the fact that neither of us had degrees meant we probably didn't know that much.'' Within four years, Apple had sales of $117 million.

Why should taxpayers subsidize training programs for aspiring corporate dinosaurs? What people learn -- in school or on their own -- should be determined by free markets and free minds. If we are to retain either, we must join in the cry, ``Government, leave those kids alone!''

Private schools, by contrast, generally resolve differences without recourse to courts or press conferences. Dissatisfied parents may transfer their children, and in some jurisdictions may with little fanfare elect for their children to learn at home. Thus the market provides private schools an incentive to accommodate diverse preferences.

The First Amendment argument against public schooling -- presented forcefully by attorney Stephen Arons in Compelling Belief -- is against the compulsory nature of schooling. Of what value is your freedom of speech if a state-patterned education has inculcated into you beliefs and habits convenient primarily to government? If twelve years of ``Sit down, be quiet, do as you're told, the government is your friend and the check is in the mail'' have had their intended effect? If the government has established itself as a religion?

I've been on both sides of the teacher's desk: I've taught mathematics at Caltech, physics at two other universities; even algebra and chemistry in a high school. When I've worked in the real world, however -- scientific consulting in industry -- I've found I use only a small fraction of what I was taught in grade school through graduate school. For people outside of technical areas, the fraction is generally smaller.


Does it really take twelve years or more to learn what school teaches us that is really worth knowing? Of course not. We spend those years not mainly to acquire knowledge, but to acquire a credential, to secure better employment than the next guy. But when the next guy gets the credential, we need to go out and get another one. And when we get it, we don't know much more; we can't do much more; but, as the lemmings of academe, we've had to throw four more years off the cliff.

Another consequence of lengthening schooling is that a larger proportion of the workforce is employed as teachers. The more teachers we need, the farther down in the barrel we must reach. And who gets the worst? Minorities -- to whom illiterate teachers pass on their illiteracy.

Schools teach us more than the subject matter, though. They teach us habits -- some good, like punctuality; and some not so good, like reflexive deference to authority, and a habit of uncritically obeying orders, which have ominous implications for a supposedly free society.

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