The US isn't winning the science Olympics either
WHAT do Jimmy Swaggart, American-Korean-Finnish science scores, killer bees, the knowledge explosion, and populism have to do with one another? Granted, that's a strange collection of nouns. Few self-respecting SAT test designers or game-show hosts would dare string together such an apparently random list. But stick with it for a few minutes and let's see how they fit.Skip to next paragraph
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Start with the science scores. The National Science Foundation has just announced one of those periodic comparisons of science scores for students in major industrial countries around the world. As has been the case for the past decade and a half, American students (the test covered 5th, 9th, and 12th grades) fared poorly. Generally they ranked in the middle of the pack or lower.
What should be dismaying to the US public is the failure of this ranking to change after years of warnings about the slippage of science education in particular, and education in general.
Educators may argue that it takes time to turn around a decline of such breadth. It does. But not as long as one might think.
The three nations atop the list in science testing at the fifth-grade level - Japan, South Korea, and Finland - have all changed their national character dramatically in less than two generations.
None of the three has any appreciable natural resources (with the exception of Finland's timber). And yet, since World War II, Finland has converted itself from a largely rural agrarian nation, beset by wars, into a modern high-tech and mid-tech industrial exporter with top standards of education. Japan's story hardly needs repeating here. And Korea, whose last war ended eight years later than Japan's, is fast following Tokyo's pattern in education as well as management, productivity, discipline, and quality.
Ironically, many of the business and technical leaders who have led the Japanese and South Korean economic miracles were trained in American universities. Over 30 percent of the managers who run Korea's powerful Economic Planning Board are US-educated. Quality education still exists in abundance at American colleges. At the graduate level it is generally unexcelled, even in Japan and Western Europe.
It's no secret that part of the US problem is that too few graduates in science go into teaching at the grade and high school level. The hierarchy of reward in American life is weighted toward (1) corporate financial and legal officers at the top; (2) engineering and research positions in the middle; (3) teachers of financial and legal craft next (aided by lots of consulting fees); (4) teachers of science and engineering further down the pole.
Why should a nation once renowned for its invention, scientific know-how, and engineering skill have abdicated to such a degree?
In part we're dealing with a reaction to this century's knowledge explosion. No one should doubt that there has been one. The statistics keep battering us as if to reassure people that if we aren't having fun yet at least we're learning a lot. And we are. A sizable majority of all the natural scientists who have ever lived have done so in the past half century. More than half the inventions that are part of our daily life have been brought forth since the end of World War II. Globally, we know more about physics, biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and their hyphenated offshoots than ever before.