Benjamin F. Payton sees a critical need for skilled high-tech workers whose vision extends beyond the edge of their computer screen. Dr. Payton, president of Tuskegee Institute, is a leading spokesman for high-quality science and math teaching at all levels of public schooling. In 1979, as a program officer at the Ford Foundation, he and several colleagues were among the first to warn that the United States could fall behind in the race for technological leadership.
He is a member of the National Science Board Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology, whose long-awaited report on improving science and math teaching in the United States was released in September.
Although Tuskegee's curriculum is weighted heavily in favor of the applied sciences, Payton is a strong believer in an education that touches all aspects of a student's development.
''Scientists and people who are involved in new technological developments face critical humanistic and value-laden issues so that, to be able to function well as a scientist, one also has to have the capacity to make not only technological judgments, but to make those kinds of value judgments that are embedded, inherent in the work that they are doing. This calls for people who have some training in philosophical and moral reasoning, and who have some appreciation for vehicles of human expression that show us the kind of complex beings we are.''
He believes that one of the basic problems that students have with understanding science is a comprehension of the concepts and the methods of science, which assumes a capacity to read. To really handle math programs in any kind of design or experiment, he contends, one must be able to express oneself clearly.
''When one talks about science and math, one is not just talking about developing narrow technicians; you are talking about people who have a reading comprehension, who can write clearly; and these are all fundamental elements to being able to think rationally and clearly about the modern world.''
Dr. Payton's hesitancy to promote science and math instruction independent of a broader education extends to the computer and the trend in education to flood the classroom with technological hardware.
''Many people get misled by the computer. The computer is just the symbol of the age. It is a way of making rapid calculations, but it cannot in any sense function to supplant the human being. Computer literacy, computer competency, is very important. It requires an understanding of what this key symbol of the technological era that we are in can do.
''But more fundamental than the computer is an understanding of the procesees of orderly and disciplined inquiry, and if anybody thinks computers alone, without human beings, will be able to handle the more complex issues, many of which are laden with all kinds of ethical questions, then I think that person is mistaken.''
Underlying his concern is the view that a humanistic society is not attainable without citizens who understand how to tame the technology, and not just tame it but to use it effectively.
Predominantly black Tuskegee Institute has a long history of community service, service which Payton sees as an obligation rather than a charitable gesture. ''The responsibility of higher education (to secondary schools) is absolutely critical, and the notion that colleges and universities can simply bleat and complain about the poor job being done by the high schools is a notion that simply has got to go.''
Payton's concern for adequate science and math instruction extends not only to the scientifically and mathematically gifted, but to all Americans.
''The basic assumption that I have operated on is that in a world that is increasingly driven by scientific and technological forces, if we ever hope to gain any rational control of such a world, then it is not enough to have experts who are scientists, technicians, mathematicians. It is very important that the American citizenry deepen its understanding of these subjects.''
His call for universal science and math education naturally extends to minorities as well. ''Its a pernicious notion that if you're poor and black you don't need as much money to be educated.''
Standing 6 feet 3 inches tall, the solidly built Payton is, quite literally, a towering intellectual. After graduating with a PhD from Yale, an MA from Columbia University, and a BD from Harvard, he moved on to become president of Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., in 1967. From Benedict he joined the Ford Foundation, where he spent nine years before being wooed away by Tuskegee.