Coping with the Consequences of our Own Ingenuity

After September 11, 2001, ordinary activities have taken on new meaning and new significance. Terrorism so blatant and so meaningless has affected even those populations who live with terrorism daily - in Ireland, in the middle east, in so many of the anguished regions of our riven world. We are living through a time of profound change, great tension, and general foreboding. One of the activities which is touched deeply by this challenge to civilization is learning. Among populations there is a profound ignorance of how science works. Do they understand that science proceeds by trial and error, by the passions of talented young people who have been advantaged by good education and by an infrastructure that has taken generations to construct? Are they - indeed is the educated public, including the media and policymakers - aware of the complex effect of rapidly expanding new knowledge and innovation, whose consequences are often unexpected and even disorienting? And does science offer any consolation for the bleak prospects that humanity faces in this seemingly cold, still, vast and empty universe?

We also live in an age of paradox. Our scientific understanding is immense and continues to grow exponentially. We can sketch the origin and evolution of the universe, sketch an astonishingly simple code underlying the organization of all of matter, energy, space and time, grow our knowledge of living matter to the frontiers of human consciousness. The seemingly cold, still, vast and empty universe has been revealed by earth and space based observations as an incredibly complex array of astronomical phenomena; our solar system is a tiny piece of the sweeping arm of a spiral galaxy of a billion suns, part of a local cluster of a billion galaxies. Vast clouds of dust and debris of exploded stars continue to swirl and condense to form new stars, new planets and, perhaps, new life. Supernovas explode; quasars radiate unimaginable quantities of energy and give evidence of their own creation in a very young universe. And our skies are full of mystery: dark matter, dark energy that seems to provide fuel for continuous expansion. How tragic that so much of this is unknown. Cold, still, vast and empty?

The scientific revolution in the 20th century entered a new phase; it became universal, the unique world culture, laced with optimism, adventure and passion. The associated technologies - advancing hand-in-hand - can make us comfortable, immortal, enabling access to a vast ocean of knowledge and bringing us, in our living room and at the squeak of a mouse, all the works of literature (soon in any language); also all of the art, music, philosophy, all the summaries and analyses of history, the values weighed and accumulated in every epoch, in every place on the globe.

The paradox lies in the indifference of our populations to so much of this. A part of the blame stems from the inequities in the distribution of these comforts and capabilities. But even in the populations of industrial nations, the glories of humanity's achievements are drowned in a sea of trivialities, of mindless and passive entertainment. We are inundated by a tide of unsustainable consumerism. The wonders of nature revealed pass us by. Thus we lose the value of the heritage of older experiences, we lose the exposure to the spiritual beauty of nature, but we also lose the personal empowerment that comes from scientific thinking.

That ignorance and hostility towards the use of intellect and reason, and this is the most chilling of all paradox, is vested in our leadership at a time in our history when need for marshalling vast thinking skills is most required. This is the best yet evidence of the failure of education.

So we must teach; and we must learn.

My concern is with all students - work bound, college bound. All students become all ordinary people - a crucial class to go after. Ordinary people manage their own lives in this complex 21st century world; they have families and arrive at consensual decisions, they pay taxes, they worry about schools, they vote and write letters to the editor. Some become politicians and leaders. Their expectations must be respected.

The learning of science must then serve in helping ordinary people to understand the competing claims of the new information society. We have a choice. We can work to enhance cultural understanding, democratic openness and informed decision making; or, we can drown in information which radiates effortlessly from cyberspace - it reduces our attention span, erodes our communities and supports universal commodification. We can choose to motivate students with the virtues and eventually the joys of creative engagement of care of our environment and the profitability of rational discussion, or we can surrender, uncritically to demagogues, charlatans, TV commercialization, and other hijackers of the spirit of enlightenment.

The scientists and educators, in a new and essential collaboration, must play a role in shaping our education, and then our policies.

The question we must set ourselves and our students to thinking about is how will our society, in full view of the rest of the world, adequately cope with the consequences of our own ingenuity?

It is among ordinary people that we note the increasing schism between those who have comfortable access to quality information and those who are not comfortable and even have no such access. Whereas the famous gap between two cultures was fairly static, the digital divide is dynamic and, if allowed, only increases.

This then is the task of education. Our war is a war on ignorance and on the noise and anti-thinking that fills the bandwidths. We must prepare all of our students to thrive in the 21st century and this is a new stage in the history of education. This must be the paramount mission for general education. It must be strong in language and communications, in science and mathematics and in literature, art, music and history. In the sciences, explanation resides in atoms and molecules. Very early exposure to languages and mathematics, to the hands-on science process, will greatly aid in preparing the student for ideas that used to be abstract. The goal of the science curriculum is to inculcate a way of thinking, an influence that affects personality, judgment and taste. This influence should last a lifetime. And just as we embed mathematics into the sciences, we must teach that our knowledge of the physical and biological universes must be tempered by the "wisdom of the humanities".

So we have recreated the venerable liberal arts curriculum - but now for all students, ordinary people, living in a new age which requires the power of science to explain, but also to infect the way of thinking, blending, embedded and connected with history and the literary arts to provide guidance from "our great heritage of the past."

By stressing concepts and connections, we can relax the mathematical mystique that so often provides excuses. The new curriculum must weigh the criteria of "what do we want them to remember ten years from now" as well as the need to master, at the appropriate level, the discipline and, of course, to pass the test.

To achieve a K-12 curriculum, it must be designed coherently and it must leave room for change. The science of learning will continue to influence the learning of science. Teacher training, recruitment and retention become a priority. Wherever possible, we must make use of new educational technologies, of the power of the Internet to spread the best practices.

Teachers need enough time for collegial development of their skills and the connections of their various disciplines. We must study grammar and vocabulary before Shakespeare. Then we must study physics before chemistry and physics and chemistry before modern biology. And, as I have already stressed, each discipline must pay a tithe towards the process of science - its history, evolution and connections. We connect math to science, physics to biology and science to literature and the arts.

The new education will (like good medicine) be very expensive. It is a war and we pay what we must to win.

There is too much to know. There was too much to know 100 years ago. The curriculum designers must select, focus and defocus appropriately, but also enable the student to continue to learn outside of the school.

My final thought is that this kind of reform that seems trivial but that is really profound, requires that scientists, problem solvers who are trained within the one universal culture, take an active leadership role in the realization of a 21st century educational system.

One reward will be a bonanza of scientific genius, which will appear out of a population from which the gifted may very likely already have been filtered. We have rarely paid enough attention to the ordinary student. We may be in for wonderful surprises.

Why is this kind of curriculum different? It clearly differs from US schools today. The proposed curriculum for all students has a strong 3-4 year core science curriculum, which organizes the disciplines in the hierarchy of physics before chemistry and biology after chemistry, that is clearly recognized in the practice of science. The stress is on connections. The last year could well be project-based, e.g. students designing a habitable dome on Mars. Complete with governance, leisure activities, and even a cost estimate. In the UK, the education specializes at an early age. The old Soviet Union had a superb science educational system, but graduated students without a sense of how science really works into an impossible political system.

Finally, returning to the dark mood of the times, there has never been a greater need for all students to appreciate the empowerment given by critical thinking, rationality and by the attributes of freedom, democracy and open-mindedness.

Nobel Prize in Physics, 1988
Resident Scholar, Illnois Mathematics and Science Academy
Director Emeritus, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

November 26, 2001

Bulletin Interactif du Centre International de Recherches et Études Transdisciplinaires n° 16 - Février 2002

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