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John Richard Schrock may seriously believe that widespread scientific "literacy" is essential to the intellectual life of our nation ("Ignorance About Science May Have 'Tragic' Results," Letters, Jan. 18, 1989), but his tendency to equate ignorance of science with stupidity and his prescription for remedying the problems of science education demonstrate a classic "knee jerk" reaction to a perceived threat to one's lifestyle.

One wonders if the humanists on Mr. Schrock's own university campus would agree with him that their "quality of life" is "undermined" by their ignorance of science or that an understanding of science is the sine qua non of the educated man.

The educational battlefield is littered with the pronouncements of those who were convinced that scientific literacy is a prerequisite to every individual's understanding of life.

But science has managed to thrive, and lacking an absolute yardstick against which to measure the progress of civilization, one can only conclude that society has fared little the worse for its ignorance of science.

Mr. Schrock erroneously takes the position I presented in a recent Commentary as an attack on science in the elementary and secondary schools ("Assessing the Need for Science Education," Nov. 23, 1988), and confuses the preparation of future scientists and science teachers with that of the general student.

On the contrary, in my view the major problem with science in the elementary grades is that there is not enough of it, for practically all elementary-school children are highly receptive to science.

The problem, if there is one, lies in the secondary schools and colleges, where the early excitement of science begins to pall and most students turn away from it.

Mr. Schrock offers the usual simplistic collection of remedies for this state of affairs; all of his recommendations are laudable objectives that, if implemented, would very likely improve the preparation of science-bound students and science teachers, and might even attract more students to teaching.

But where does the general student fit into this scheme? It is foolish to believe that happier and better-prepared teachers would be more adept at force-feeding science to unwilling students.

The problem here is not with the schools, but with society. Better teaching alone will not motivate students to learn science to the extent of being literate in the subject. The incentive is simply not there for the effort required.

Only when society, through the Congress and the executive branch, mandates scientific literacy as a national imperative--and backs up its position with meaningful incentives--is there any hope of a major change in the current state of affairs.

Mr. Schrock falls into the common trap of drawing upon international comparisons of student performance in science to support his position that we are falling behind in some sort of competitive race.

Such comparisons are both invidious and meaningless, for they fail to take into account the inducements in foreign countries for students to do well in science--incentives that are ineffective here mainly because we are the only nation in the world to offer universal higher education.

Even so, the fact is that there is very little difference in the fraction of our society that could be classified as scientifically literate and those of other technologically advanced nations. And there is no hard evidence to support the theory that science education bears some direct relationship to industrial competitiveness.

What is really needed is a serious review of what should be meant by science "literacy" and whether this can be achieved in the educated public--and if so, at what cost, not simply in terms of dollars but also of other intellectual values that may have to be sacrificed.

The first objective, given the willingness of scientists and science educators to forgo their vested interests, should not prove very difficult.

But I predict that the implementation--to the extent that such literacy encompasses hard science--will fail once again in the absence of strong incentives for students to seek it.

Mr. Schrock derogates science appreciation as a lower form of intellectual achievement. It may be--but realistically, the choice is not between literacy and appreciation, but between the latter and total ignorance, or worse, an antiscientific attitude.

Morris H. Shamos
Professor Emeritus of Physics
New York University
New York, N.Y.

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Vol. 08, Issue 21

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