Education Opinion

Assessing the Need for Science Education: The Flawed Rationale Of Calls for ‘Literacy’

By Morris Shamos — November 23, 1988 9 min read

In his best seller, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, E.D. Hirsch Jr. suggested that an acquaintance with certain names, ideas, and events is the key to effective communication, and hence to full participation in American society. In his listing of such information, he included several hundred scientific terms.

As Mr. Hirsch’s entries suggest, many educators see scientific literacy as an indispensable element in, if not actual partner to, cultural literacy as a whole.

The current push for scientific literacy dates back to the drive for reindustrialization immediately following World War II and the federal government’s increased support for science education in the wake of the Sputnik launching in 1957.

As a result of such efforts, science became a major feature of the precollegiate curriculum in the United States and other highly industrialized nations. But notwithstanding the sincerity and hard work of teachers and administrators, these education reforms have proved ineffective.

While the public may be more sensitive today than it was 40 years ago to some science-based issues--nuclear weapons, the war on cancer, computers--its understanding of the principles that underlie such issues is no better than it was just after the war. As measured by any reasonable benchmark, even by Mr. Hirsch’s simple vocabulary test, we are still a nation of scientific illiterates.

Such a conclusion has led some educators and business leaders to suggest that shortages of professional scientists and engineers are in store. An even greater threat, say the critics, is the prospect that unless all citizens become scientifically literate, they will be unable to participate intelligently in a technological society and to perform competently in the workplace--with the result that we may soon become a second-rate nation.

The critics are wrong. Requiring science courses-no matter how thoughtfully designed of all students in elementary school, secondary school, and college will not produce a scientifically literate society.

And the rationale for seeking such literacy is ill-conceived: Widespread scientific literacy is not essential to develop an intelligent electorate, to maintain a science and engineering workforce, or to prepare people for life in an increasingly technological society.

Science should, of course, be taught in our schools, and taught with the best methods and facilities at our disposal, but for reasons other than these.

What, in fact, does “scientific literacy” mean? In the absence of a clear, widely accepted definition, it is probably fair to say that the scientifically literate individual falls somewhere between two extremes.

At one extreme is the person who understands the foundations, current status, and most of the important problems of several of the life and physical sciences. This understanding need not be operational; one need not be able to conduct research or solve problems in the field.

But such an individual should be able to participate in discussions and read intelligently--including some technical literature--about topics in these disciplines.

Judged by this standard, few of us, even among scientists and engineers, could be considered literates--which means only that this criterion is too demanding, not that such literacy would be undesirable.

At the other extreme is the sort of person envisioned by Mr. Hirsch-the individual who has acquired, perhaps by rote, a large glossary of technical terms with brief definitions.

Here the notion of literacy becomes rather fuzzy. It is one thing to nod in recognition of technical terms when reading or listening to accounts of scientific matters and perhaps in this way to feel less estranged from science.

But it is quite another to appreciate the significance of such terms and be able to use them in meaningful discourse.

Recognition alone cannot be equated with understanding. Having a vocabulary may be a necessary condition for scientific literacy, but it is certainly not a sufficient condition, for in science there is far more to most idea than can be conveyed by a Simple definition.

Science is difficult to master for two reasons. First, its cumulative nature makes it necessary to build one’s understanding like a tall edifice, layer by layer. Indeed, in the view of many scientists and educators, it is this property that most distinguishes science from other forms of intellectual activity.

Second, it relies on descriptions that seem to run counter to common sense. While scientific inquiry usually begins with observations of the everyday world and in the end returns to that world in the form of technology, the steps between these two stages, where the real scientific work is done, are largely unfathomable to all but specialists.

We have no common-sense counterparts for photons, genes, novas, or black holes. When scientists talk about these things, they reason by means of models--abstractions that agree with what is known about certain phenomena (or, more often, about their effects) but that are not meant to be accurate pictures of these phenomena.

Together, the cumulative nature of science and its reliance on non-common-sense descriptions make it necessary to devote extraordinary effort to the task of becoming scientifically literate. Most of us--certainly the vast majority of high school students who do not become scientists--appear to be unwilling to make this effort.

Even if widespread scientific literacy were possible to achieve, it is not nearly as essential to success in the 20th century as many people believe. Consider the argument most frequently cited: We live in a scientific age, a time in which we are all touched by the discoveries of science--if not directly, then at least by the technologies that result from those discoveries.

Many issues and problems facing society-d-windling world food supplies, pollution, nuclear testing, genetic engineering, the Strategic Defense Initiative--have technological bases. According to this view, an informed electorate--one that is scientifically literate--would be best able to deal with such issues; it would be prepared to reach independent judgments and elect public officials who reflect those judgments.

Such a rationale is difficult to quarrel with; it is an ideal devoutly to be wished. In fact, however, no reasonable amount of scientific training could possibly prepare one to form sound judgments on the wide variety of issues that the country faces.

What’s more, being scientifically trained is no guarantee of certainty. Even professional scientists frequently disagree on science-based public policy issues--and for reasons that can be equally convincing.

Another popular argument for scientific literacy is that it better prepares a nonscientist to function in business or professional life. If there is any truth to this proposition, students fail to perceive it, and small wonder: They need only look at their own professional family members and friends, at wealthy business men and powerful public officials, at people in the arts and humanities--all successful and respected members of society and most, if not all, illiterate in science.

The need to increase the nation’s pool of scientific manpower and avoid future shortages is a third argument frequently advanced in behalf of scientific literacy.

Many educators feel that students must decide to go into science before graduating from high school, since few choose to do so afterward. Hence, the rationale for developing scientific literacy among all students: the expectation that more will then choose careers in science and engineering. This argument fails on two counts.

First, roughly 10 percent of our high-school students profess a serious desire to become scientists or engineers, and about half of these actually go on to fulfill that desire. The other 90 percent are not bound for science careers, nor are they likely to have any direct involvement with science after their formal schooling.

Requiring science of all students in the hope that one in 20 or 30 will choose it as a career is hardly an efficient means to this end. And no one has ever demonstrated that a compulsory science curriculum produces more professional scientists than a voluntary course of study. Surely there are more effective and less costly ways of attracting students into the sciences, should this be necessary.

Second, there is no hard evidence of impending manpower shortages. If shortages were certain--say in technical areas in which the United States might be falling behind such countries as Japan--improving the precollegiate education of only science- bound students would be a far easier and more appropriate goal to meet.

The fourth argument for scientific literacy--the only one with a ring of truth to it--concerns the future needs of America’s technology- oriented economy. Will office workers who can handle computers be in greater demand than those who cannot? Will manufacturers be looking for factory workers who can operate the robots that will displace much of the human labor force? The answer to such questions is “yes.”

But will general literacy in science therefore be required? Probably not. Americans learned to use electronic typewriters, office copiers, video equipment, electronic machine tools, and many other “high tech” devices through specific on-the-job training based on simple written instructions. Because such devices are specifically designed for use by nonexperts, their operation requires no knowledge of the machine’s inner workings.

It is specious, then, to contend that achieving scientific-or even technological-literacy will better prepare students for tomorrow’s job market. The workplace may come to demand a higher degree of technical sophistication from nonscientists than it now requires. But the way to meet this demand is not to attempt to make all students technically proficient but to enhance technical education programs for those who choose them.

If widespread scientific literacy is not essential for responsible citizenship, economic success, maintaining a pool of scientists and engineers, or using machines, is there anything that can be said in its favor? There is, and it can be traced to ideas espoused by such 19th-century scientists as the biologist Thomas Huxley and the mathematician Jules-Henri Poincare.

Students have the most to gain, these scientists said, if they study science chiefly for the esthetic and intellectual values it bestows.

During early encounters with science--observing fire, magnetism, light, chemical changes, small animals--children are nearly always fascinated and curious. Then, as they grow older and as science courses increasingly stress memorization, facts, and the study of objects in which the student has no great personal interest, the magic wears off and is replaced by boredom, or worse, outright rejection. Evidence of this alienation can be found in every high-school science classroom in the United States.

Perhaps there is a lesson here. If the dream of scientific literacy for all lies shattered, it is because it was an impossible dream to begin with. Acknowledging this might allow us to pursue a goal that may appear less ambitious but in the long run holds more promise.

Is it not more desirable to nurture an appreciation of science--and thereby keep open the possibility of full literacy for some individuals--than to force-feed facts and formulas and thereby instill a distaste for science that probably guarantees lifelong ignorance, or may even produce an anti-science attitude among many?

A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 1988 edition of Education Week