Letters at 3AM
Statistics on American education tell a dreadful story, the story of an advanced technological society slipping back to a state of ignorance and superstition. If that sentence seems extreme, consider these facts:
The United States once ranked first in the world in high school graduation rates. We have slipped to 17th (The New York Times, Feb. 1).
Respect for the free exchange of ideas is dimming among our young. USA Today, Jan. 31: "1 in 3 United States high school students say the press ought to be more restricted, and even more thought the government should approve newspaper stories before people read them." Which means that our Bill of Rights often is taught poorly or not at all a very dangerous sign for the future of our liberties.
The United States is 49th in the world in literacy (NYT, Dec. 12, 2004).
We rank 28th out of 40 countries in mathematical literacy (NYT, Dec. 12, 2004).
"Our students, a new report has found, are lagging far behind the pace set by scientific whiz kids in Europe and Asia, and the number of Americans choosing science as a career continues to dwindle" (Los Angeles Times, quoted in The Week, Jan. 14).
Thomas L. Friedman reports "a mounting crisis" (NYT, Dec. 5, 2004). "Because of the steady erosion of science, math and engineering education in U.S. high schools, our cold war generation of American scientists is not being fully replenished. We've [been filling] the gap with Indian, Chinese and other immigrating brain-power. But ... many of those foreign engineers are not coming here anymore." He adds that many who had emigrated here have recently chosen to leave, and there aren't enough Americans with sufficient knowledge to replace them.
One-third of our biology teachers support the teaching of creationism or "intelligent design" (NYT, Feb. 1). Creationism is religious dogma, contradicting literally tons of data. "Intelligent design" claims that the universe was created or designed by a higher order of intelligence a claim that cannot be tested, and therefore is not science and doesn't belong in a science class. When scientists use the word "theory," they don't mean a hunch or supposition; the scientific use of the word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation and experiment ... accounting for the known facts." All science is incomplete because "the known facts" are incomplete. (Google a brilliant paper by Jolly Mathen, "On the Inherent Incompleteness of Scientific Theories.") There nevertheless are many known facts, millions of them, that demonstrate the evolution of life from simple to complex organisms over eons of time. Yet one-third of our biology teachers don't accept this a willful ignorance among educators found nowhere else in the developed world. The result:
"Only 35% of Americans accept Darwin's theory of evolution, while 45% prefer the creationist view" (NYT, Dec. 12, 2004).
"In other industrialized countries ... 80% or more typically accept evolution, most of the others say they are not sure and very few people reject the idea outright" (NYT, Feb. 1).
Sixty-one percent of Americans "believe the Biblical story of creation is literal truth" (ABC, World News Tonight With Peter Jennings, Jan. 18).
Forty-three states have debated teaching evolution in the last three years (ABC, World News Tonight With Peter Jennings, Jan. 18).
Surveys show that many high school science teachers simply skip lessons on evolution, even when the material is in their textbooks, for fear of controversy. This self-censorship is widespread, especially in the South, Midwest, and West (NYT, Feb. 1). An interesting note: Two popes, Pius XII and John Paul II, have stated that evolution and religion are compatible; the surveys found no dodging of evolution in Catholic schools.
"Scriptural literalists are moving beyond evolution to challenge the teaching of geology and physics" (NYT, Feb. 1).
Bill Moyers reports "nearly half the U.S. Congress ... 231 legislators in total ... are backed by the religious right. Forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th Congress earned 80-100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian rights advocacy groups" (AlterNet.org, Dec. 8, 2004). Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, in a statement supporting "intelligent design," stated that evolution is one of the "big social issues of our time," equal to abortion and gay marriage (Newsweek, Feb. 7).
The Christian right's influence in Congress is no doubt the source of headlines like this: "Money to Fix Space Telescope May Be Cut by House" (NYT, Jan. 23). The Hubble is our most successful space project to date. Many of its findings contradict biblical myth. The Hubble "established the age of the universe at 13 billion years. ... Every week, [the Hubble transmits] about 120 gigabytes of data. ... the equivalent of 36,500 feet of books on a shelf. More than 2,600 scientific papers based on these findings have been published so far" (The Week, Jan. 21). The Hubble will fall in 2006 if not repaired. That won't sadden the Christian right.
Hostility to science exists at the highest levels of our government. "With rising intensity, scientists in and out of government have criticized the Bush administration, saying it has selected or suppressed research findings to suit preset policies, skewed advisory panels or ignored unwelcome advice, and quashed discussion within federal research agencies" (NYT, Oct. 19, 2004).
These stats combine to paint the portrait of a poorly educated people seeking to compensate for their ignorance with beliefs that spread such ignorance further while the rest of the developed world laughs in pity or contempt, and leaves us behind.
For the record: I am deeply religious. I pray a lot. I believe one cannot claim to be a cultured human being without knowledge of the great religions, their histories, and scriptures. The Bible hit America's shores 300 years before the Constitution and no one unfamiliar with the Bible can claim to understand America (which disqualifies many so-called intellectuals). The great religions should be required study in every high school and college, if only because there is no greater historical force than religious passion. But religion should be taught as religion, not as science. To take the Bible literally, in opposition to confirmed scientific data, is mere superstition.
Hostility to science is spreading, like an infection, to history. The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, by Thomas Woods Jr., "is being snapped up on college campuses and helped along by plugs on Fox News ... [soaring] to No. 8 on The New York Times paperback non-fiction bestseller list." The book features far-right revisions of the Civil War, the Marshall Plan, Jim Crow, and the New Deal (NYT, Jan. 26). It is "one of a wave of books like this." They include Michelle Malkin's In Defense of Internment, which claims that the World War II internment of California's Japanese-Americans was justified and benign; also, a booklet used in a North Carolina school called Southern Slavery: As It Was, claiming slavery to have been "a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence." This isn't history. This is propaganda. (You don't justify old internment camps unless you hope to build new ones.)
The teaching of history is usually slanted one way or another, but not long ago the blatant distortion of science would have been unimaginable. The Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Maoist China excluded or distorted whole branches of science that conflicted with their ideologies; not long ago no thinking person imagined it could happen here. But it is happening. On a massive scale. From the highest levels of government to the littlest rural school. Power-savvy factions are spreading an easy-to-digest but ultimately fatal ignorance. Poorly educated, well-intentioned, fearful people, craving order in a chaotic world, are eating it up. They're no more or less stupid than the well-informed, but they haven't the resources for research and they've no body of knowledge by which to weigh what they're told. The poorly skilled and scantily educated have nothing to judge information by except whether it satisfies their emotions. If it makes them less afraid, it must be right.
Sam Adams, like many of our founders, believed democracy would flourish "as long as education was extended to the masses." An ignorant people cannot remain a free people.