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Ignorance About Science May Have 'Tragic' Results; Citing Dangers for Blacks Of 'Racial Anonymity';On Elimination of Busing For Nonpublic Students

Ignorance About Science May Have 'Tragic' Results

To the Editor:

Morris Shamos's view that only a small percentage of elementary- and secondary-school students need in-depth science education ("The Flawed Rationale of Calls for 'Literacy,"' Commentary, Nov. 23, 1988) ignores the fact that a lack of scientific understanding undermines the quality of life for those who do not receive adequate instruction.

Cases documented recently in American Scientist illustrate the degree to which a science-stupid United States is running out of competent workers, losing ground in the global marketplace, suffering consumer fraud, delivering silly jury verdicts, and failing to respond intelligently to pressing environmental issues.

Stupidity about science can also have tragic results: Every physician can list patients who died of ignorance of their own physiology--who simply waited too long to report problems that were treatable at an early stage.

Even more tragic is the failure to recognize that extensive science education is critical to everyone's intellectual life--or indeed, that a life of the mind is desirable at all. Such wisdom is given no legitimacy by Mr. Shamos, who would grant students a taste but no minimal nutritional allotment.

I teach preservice biology teachers; the best of these students are entering teaching precisely because it allows them to continue to grow as science intellectuals and to promote similar growth in young people. Numerous courses in biology and physical sciences help them develop intellectual depth.

But you cannot save people's lives or expand their intellectual life with "anatomy appreciation."

The countries of Europe and developed Asia recognize that an increasing science-literacy base for the citizenry is critical for the next century: They provide more science classtime for their students through their equivalents of high school than many American elementary-school teachers receive by their graduation from college.

These nations are sending some of their best students to the U.S. for graduate training. This enrollment makes up for the decline in U.S.-born students who choose to enter science. The result is that a majority of engineering doctorates recently awarded by American universities went to foreign-born students; the same will soon be true in biology, chemistry, and physics.

We can buy a fraction of these foreign-born scientists--American science is rapidly regaining an accent--and can carry on the momentum of past Nobel laureates in some disciplines.

But the fact that the American public values the National Enquirer more highly than the Skeptical Inquirer and pours more money into astrology than astronomy has already condemned us to second-nation status in most fields.

If we could instantly set in place intellectually valid reforms, it would still take time to slow our rate of decline. Such measures would include:

Canceling about one-third of science-teacher training programs for woefully low science-content preparation.

Immediately converting to metric-system units on road signs, weather forecasts, and so on.

Eliminating all time-on-task regulations that in effect prohibit science field trips.

Dismissing or reassigning uncertified teachers of science courses.

Requiring four years of science (covering the full spectrum of the sciences) to graduate from high school and providing opportunities for students to continue into advanced sciences earlier.

Setting new priorities in school funding and rules so that science labs are as well funded as sports and students are pulled from gym to work on science projects rather than vice versa.

Increasing pay for teachers in areas of shortage to the degree necessary to replace uncertified and incompetent instructors, and to double the content--including labs--of science courses.

Prohibiting the replacement of real labs with computer simulations.

Reducing the role of school administrators to that of hospital administrators and elevating teachers' role to that of physicians: no performance checklists, no public-relations functions. The responsibility of teachers should be knowing the content of their field and communicating it well.

The American Scientist notes that making high-school students scientifically literate "would cost twice as much and probably take twice as long as the Apollo program." Yet the only intelligent answer is to try.

Or we can adopt "science appreciation" courses as proposed by Mr. Shamos--and virtually guarantee our headlong rush to third-world status.


John Richard Schrock Assistant Professor of Biology Emporia State University Emporia, Kan.


Citing Dangers for Blacks of 'Racial Anonymity

To the Editor:

Your excerpt from James P. Comer's new book ("Teaching Social Skills to At-Risk Children," Commentary, Nov. 30, 1988) was intriguing for a number of reasons.

First, there was your reference to "minorities" in the introduction to his piece, when it seems pretty obvious that Dr. Comer was referring to African Americans.

When I see educators and other professionals consistently putting blacks in the category "minority," even when referring to situations where they are in the majority, I understand better why more than the lack of "social skills" is a key deficiency in the education of African-American children.

I would suggest that a reluctance on the part of those who run educational systems and all other civic processes to use "African American'' or "black" in favor of "minority" is as much a cause of the inadequate education of African Americans as the standard apologetics offered.

For the proclivity not to use these terms extends to omission from the curriculum of African and African-American contributions to the progress of civilization, exclusion of blacks from staffs and administrations, and lack of African-American school-board members.

One senses the unspoken resistance to giving currency to terms that might bolster self-esteem to the point that African Americans will actually exhibit that discipline, ambition, and confidence that largely spell the difference between those who dominate and those who act almost always in subordinate roles.

Dr. Comer--and those who share his point of view--kowtows to the white supremacy that envelopes our whole society when he argues that "the school can and should teach students to present themselves as well-behaved, bright, and able. This, in turn, would permit the teachers to care about, believe in, and have hope for them."

The time has passed for African Americans to blur themselves in the racial anonymity of "minority" and curry the favor of white preference masquerading as sincere interest in their freedom.


William Simpson Park Forest, Ill.

On Elimination of Busing For Nonpublic Students

To the Editor:

After reading your article "Busing Costs for Nonpublic Pupils Under Scrutiny" (Dec. 14, 1988), I wondered if the thinking of some people had hit an all-time low.

The health and safety of all children was one of the primary reasons that busing of students to and from school was initiated in many states.

But with the coming of budget crunches in some states, it is being proposed that the busing of nonpublic-school children be eliminated. That sort of sick thinking suggests that some children are expendable.

Admittedly, busing is expensive, and budgets are tight. But in my experience, decisionmakers find money for the projects they want to support.

Placing the blame for tight budgets on nonpublic-school children hardly seems moral.

And we know that the stated reason for pursuing a goal is not always the real reason. What do these decisionmakers really have in mind by wanting to wipe out transportation for nonpublic-school students?


Brother William Rhody, F.S.C. Education Director Minnesota Catholic Conference St. Paul, Minn.

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