Wednesday, February 19, 2014

As Copernicus Spins In His Grave

Because it was released on a Friday afternoon, in the middle of the Olympics, before a holiday weekend--the latest survey results from the National Science Foundation on what Americans know about how the world works received very little media attention.  Perhaps that is why there hasn't been that much outrage about the study that finds 26% of Americans don't know that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Maybe those 26% represent all of the Catholics old enough to have gone to school before Vatican II saw the Church accept the basic scientific principals that had been held by the rest of society since the time of Copernicus back in the early 1500's!

Or perhaps they are the 26% of recent college and high school graduates who--I can tell you from experience in dealing with some of them--seem to come out of school with less and less knowledge of how thinks work.  Among the "concepts" that I have had to explain to people with Bachelors Degrees in the last ten years are: The difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives, the separation of powers spelled out by the Constitution, what a 401(k) retirement account is, when the last Ice Age occurred, the difference between a School Board, a County Board and a City Council, what a present tense verb is, what is taxed by a property tax, who the US fought in World War II and the difference between a primary election and a general election.

I was apparently at the tail end of the "old way" of learning things in school.  We used rote memorization to learn and remember important things like the order of the planets, the order of the Presidents, multiplication tables, the table of elements, the amendments to the Constitution and even propositions.  Was it "tedious and boring"--yes.  But 20+ years out of school, I still remember all of that stuff.

Compare that to the way children are "taught to learn" today.  One of the few articles I found about the NSF survey came from University of Texas Professor Sheril Kirschenbaum for  In it he writes that "Science literacy isn't remembering a bunch of facts. It's an appreciation and understanding of the scientific process and the ability to think critically."  In other words, it's OK to think that the Sun revolves around the Earth--so long as you understand that there are people working to figure out what is actually going on and that you trust what they say is "fact".

I'm actually surprised that Professor Kirschenbaum didn't roll out the tired excuse of "This is the result of continued cuts to education funding" for America's lack of basic knowledge.  We all know that an extra TRILLION DOLLARS a year would turn all of us into Albert Einsteins.

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