Repulse the march of the morons

December 21, 2001

Freedom, democracy and open-mindedness must be education's battle cry post-September 11 and our war should be one on ignorance and the anti-thinking that pervades our bandwidths, says Leon Lederman.

We are living through a time of profound change, great tension and general foreboding. After September 11 and its challenge to the very basis of our civilisation, ordinary activities have taken on new meaning and new significance. One of these is education.

Our world is driven by scientific and technological advances, which are strongly linked to global commerce. We are all too familiar with science-based technology's fundamental contributions to society: economic growth, transport, communications, nutrition, healthcare, entertainment and the easy availability of information. In the developed and developing nations, policy-makers and citizens generally appreciate these contributions, but there is a profound ignorance of how science works.

Do they understand, for example, that science proceeds by trial and error, by the passions of talented young people who have been advantaged by good education and by an infrastructure that has taken generations to construct? Are the educated public, including the media and policy-makers, aware of the complex effect of rapidly expanding new knowledge and innovation whose consequences are often unexpected and even disorienting? And does science offer any consolation for the bleak prospects that humanity faces in this seemingly cold, still, vast and empty universe?

We live in an age of paradox. Beyond the contributions of technology, our scientific understanding is immense and continues to grow exponentially. We can sketch the origin and evolution of the universe, outline an astonishingly simple code underlying the organisation of all matter, energy, space and time and grow our knowledge of living matter to the frontiers of human consciousness. In the 20th century, the scientific revolution entered a new phase; it became universal and developed a unique world culture, laced with optimism, adventure and passion.

Associated technologies, which have advanced hand in hand with it, can both increase our sense of comfort and give us a feeling of immortality, enabling access to a vast ocean of knowledge and bringing us, in our living room and at the squeak of a mouse, all the works of literature (soon in any language), all art, music, philosophy, all the summaries and analyses of history and the values weighed and accumulated in every epoch, in every place on the globe.

The paradox lies in the indifference of our populations to so much of this. Part of the blame stems from inequities in the distribution of these comforts and capabilities. But even in the populations of industrial nations, the glories of humanity's achievements are drowned in a sea of trivialities, of mindless and passive entertainment. We are inundated by a tide of unsustainable consumerism. The wonders of nature revealed pass us by. Thus we lose the value of the heritage of older experiences, we lose the exposure to the spiritual beauty of nature, but we also lose the personal empowerment that comes from scientific thinking.

That ignorance and hostility towards the use of intellect and reason is vested in our leadership at a time in our history when the need for marshalling vast thinking skills is most required is the most chilling paradox of all. This is the best evidence yet of the failure of education.

So we must teach. My concern is with all students - whether they be work or college bound. And crucially, with all ordinary people. Ordinary people manage their own lives in this complex 21st-century world; they have families and arrive at consensual decisions, they pay taxes, they worry about schools, they vote and write letters to the editor. Some become politicians and leaders. Their expectations must be respected.

The learning of science must then serve in helping ordinary people to understand the competing claims of the new information society. We have a choice: we can either work to enhance cultural understanding, democratic openness and informed decision-making, or we can drown in information that radiates effortlessly from cyberspace, reduces our attention span, erodes our communities and supports universal commodification.

We can choose to motivate students with the virtues and, eventually, the joys of creative engagement, of care of our environment and the profitability of rational discussion, or we can surrender uncritically to demagogues, charlatans, TV commercialisation, and other hijackers of the spirit of enlightenment. Scientists and educators, in a new and essential collaboration, must play a role in shaping our education and, from there, our policies.

The question we must set ourselves and our students is how will our society, in full view of the rest of the world, adequately cope with the consequences of our own ingenuity?

It is among ordinary people that we note the increasing schism between those who have comfortable access to quality information and those who are not comfortable and may have no such access. Whereas the famous gap between two cultures was fairly static, the digital divide is dynamic and, if allowed to, will only increase.

This then is the task of education. Our war is a war on ignorance and on the noise and anti-thinking that fills the bandwidths. We must prepare all of our students to thrive in the 21st century, a new stage in the history of education. This must be the paramount mission for pre-college education. It must be strong in language and communications, in science and mathematics and in literature, art, music and history.

Very early exposure to languages and mathematics, to hands-on science process - including an understanding of its building bricks, atoms and molecules - will greatly aid in preparing students for ideas that used to be deemed abstract. The goal of the science curriculum is to inculcate a way of thinking and to influence personality, judgement and taste. This influence should last a lifetime. And just as we embed mathematics into the sciences, we must teach that our knowledge of the physical and biological universes must be tempered by the "wisdom of the humanities".

A wise scientist once wrote: "Our literary heritage, spoken or written, forms the basis of the cultural bonds without which civilised society is inconceivable. Only through literature are we conscious of our history and our great heritage of the past. It moulds our speech and sets goals for our deepest aspirations... in this age, however, literature cannot continue to fulfil its high function without assimilating the scientific culture into itself."

So we must recreate the venerable liberal arts curriculum - but for all students, for ordinary people who live in a new age that requires the power of science not only to explain the world but also to infect our way of thinking so that it is embedded and connected with history and the literary arts and can provide guidance from "our great heritage of the past".

By stressing concepts and connections, we can relax the mathematical mystique that so often provides excuses. The new curriculum must answer the question: "What do we want them to remember ten years from now?" as well as reflect the need to master, at the appropriate level, particular disciplines and the need to pass exams.

It must be designed coherently and it must leave room for change. The science of learning will continue to influence the learning of science with teacher training, recruitment and retention being a priority.

Teachers need enough time for their skills to be developed and for them to make connections between their various disciplines. We must study grammar and vocabulary before Shakespeare. We must study physics before chemistry, and physics and chemistry before modern biology. And, as I have stressed, each discipline must pay a tithe towards the process of science, its history, evolution and connections. Thus we must connect maths to science, physics to biology and science to literature and the arts.

The new education should (like good medicine) be very expensive. It is a war and we pay what we must to win.

There is too much to know. There was too much to know 100 years ago. The curriculum designers must select, focus and de-focus appropriately, but also enable the student to continue to learn outside the school gates.

My final thought is that this kind of reform, which may seem trivial but is really profound, requires that scientists, problem-solvers and those trained within the one universal culture take an active leadership role in the realisation of a 21st-century educational system.

One reward will be a bonanza of scientific genius, which will appear out of a population from which the gifted have already been filtered. We have rarely paid enough attention to the ordinary student. We may be in for wonderful surprises.

In the light of September 11, there has never been a greater need for all students to appreciate the empowerment given by critical thinking, rationality and by the attributes of freedom, democracy and open-mindedness.

Leon M. Lederman was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 1988.

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