I’ve been doing a lot of research for the oh-my-god-all-encompassing-incredibly-brilliant-thesis, and the book that’s given me the most to chew on so far is Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.
I can’t pretend that I think this book is the most fascinating read of our age. It’s pretty shallow, coming to a conclusion that seems too obvious and simple to be of much help. It was a valuable read for me, as a student planning a thesis on science writing and scientific literacy, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it to my friends.
The main thing it’s got me thinking about is the rise and fall of scientific literacy in America throughout the 20th century. It goes a little something like this:
Exit WWII, enter Cold War. If the USSR has one, we need one too. Nuclear weapons are just one example of many. For another, think about those vials of smallpox that exist in Russia and the US. Our international pissing contest was such that we required a test tube full of an incredibly deadly, eradicated disease. The Reds shot Sputnik into the atmosphere, and that was our cue to hop on the science bandwagon.
When people ask about this period of American education, I always point them towards October Sky. High schools opened up accelerated math classes. Children shot rockets out of their backyards after school. Everyone wanted to be an astronaut, and anyone could become one. This is not to say that jocks suddenly relinquished their varsity jackets to the local nerds, but intelligence gained a newfound respect. More importantly, a child with gifts in the maths and sciences could excel within the public school system.
In 1969, we got to the moon. First.
It’s all gone downhill from there.
Even in my short lifetime, science has lost ground. The most scientific thing I’ve heard in the primaries has been Newt’s call for a moon base.
After writing that last sentence, I had to take a break to eat some girl scout cookies and cry a little. Back to business.
Bill Nye was a household name just a decade ago, and his show wasn’t the only one on TV that pushed science education. These days, my equally nerdy baby sister watches Animal Planet, getting her science fix from shows geared towards adults. Even that genre is sparse.
How do we bring science back to America?
More on that to follow.