Obama to America: “We’re going to show young people how cool science can be”


Obama gave a fairly impressive speech as part of the presidential “Education To Innovate” campaign, including this gem:

Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we’re going to lead by example.  We’re going to show young people how cool science can be.

Surprised? It goes on:

It’s about an informed citizenry in an era where many of the problems we face as a nation are, at root, scientific problems.  And it’s about the power of science to not only unlock new discoveries, but to unlock in the minds of our young people a sense of promise, a sense that with some hard work — with effort — they have the potential to achieve extraordinary things.

Why is this so important? Read this posting to the ‘coral list’ earlier this month by Professor Pam Hallock Muller for a little context:

Americans have long been schizophrenic about education and intellectual issues in general (read Wallace Stegner), and science in particular (think Scopes Trial). As a child in rural America, I recall neighbors discussing higher education as something only men who were disabled (e.g., polio victims) or inept would pursue; a “real man” worked with  his hands. School was for the 3 Rs.

The anti-intellectual/anti-science  undercurrent in America was reinforced in the late 1940s into the 1960s, with the government-sponsored campaigns and regulations aimed at getting women out of the workforce (where they were encouraged to go during  WWII) and into the “consumer force”. Women who sought higher education were tracked into elementary education, where they were told not to worry their pretty little heads about science and math because it was “too hard”. Public university degree programs were legally allowed to reject women until 1972 (I was rejected from at least one graduate program specifically because they did not accept women – they told me that in the rejection letter). Thus, despite the “space race” and an emphasis on science and math in the 1960s, education programs were turning out eager young elementary teachers who had been taught that science and math were “too hard”, which too many promptly taught their students, both boys and girls. Combine that with the reluctance of teachers to even mention anything related to evolution or reproduction to avoid the wrath of parents and administrators, and we now have a largely science-illiterate nation.

By the 1980s, the anti-education undercurrent was greatly reinforced by an ever growing portion of the American population with minimal education in science and math. That “upwelled” into the election of a leader whose attitude towards the environment was “if you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all”. For much of the past 30 years, anti-intellectual, anti-science attitudes have been mainstream nationwide. This has been especially true the past 8 years, when beliefs and “gut-feelings” consistently trumped evidence and expertise.

Scientists are “voices crying in the wilderness”, except the wilderness is now urban.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *