Puzzle to set brains whirring

March 27, 1998

HOW could we manage without the future? What would happen to the thriving community of prognosticators and scenario spinners? Policy gurus and politicians thrive on the future, journalists are at full employment, and even the most hidebound historians cannot resist the carrot (as Max Beerbohm once slyly noted, they could not resist any volume bound in half-calf morocco).

Surely the public must be perplexed, or does the general public read futurology? Will higher university fees reduce life chances or will improvements in family economy or virtual universities mitigate expected difficulties? Will most university and college teachers be reduced to short-term contracts, no longer drawing life support from ancient values about shared governance and higher learning? Such is already the case in many United States community colleges and market-dependent institutions.

Perhaps the real question is whether there will be a future. Choose your disaster: anthrax, an earth-bound asteroid, a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists or renegade ex-Soviet republics, a mischievous gene inserted into tomatoes ostensibly to prevent frost-bite or, most horrifying, the accidental cloning of used-car salesmen and telemarketers.

But in all this concern for tomorrow, the past keeps breaking in, almost cheerfully as a reminder of long-standing problems with an equally promising future. In mid-February came information that should astound the world's leading high technology and scientific nation, except that it is so familiar.

Test scores of 5,400 senior pupils in 210 public and private high schools were compared with their counterparts in 21 other nations in a quartet of subjects: advanced and general mathematics, physics and general science.

The Netherlands topped the charts in general mathematics, Sweden in general science (with The Netherlands second). The United States was 19th on the first, 16th on the second; in advanced mathematics only Austria ranked lower, and in physics US students were last and below the international average in all tested areas.

The results would have been worse had Japan and other Asian industrial nations participated in the comparison. A few days of excitement soon gave way to calm, as the doings from within the Beltway in Washington, now, sadly, a staple of entertainment, jousted with local traffic news for front-page coverage.

The wretched academic performance of American teenagers raises dilemmas and puzzles about sustaining the nation's inventory of skills in many standard areas of cognitive achievement. Testing in general literacy, geography and history has also revealed amazingly poor acquisition of the education required to function in an advanced democracy and global economy.

A National Academy of Education panel reported that in 1994 testing "only 12 per cent of 12th graders were classified as at or above the proficiency level for US history". Another 29 per cent met expectations for world geography, but the rub is that relatively few students even take the subject.

This may be an old tale, but it was more acceptable when the country was younger, needed large quantities of cheap labour imported from abroad and featured an elementary factory economy of assembly lines.

Taxpayers have been extraordinarily patient. They seem unable, or unwilling, to exert necessary pressure for improvement either locally or in their states, not that concern is wholly absent.

Critics have their favourite villains. For some it is the elected local school boards bedevilled by conflicting political objectives and ethnic in-fighting (eg the so-called "ebonics" flapdoodle in Oakland, California, which no one could quite understand because of a jargon-ridden memorandum that did not, however, wholly conceal an attack on "Eurocentrism").

For others it is either the school district superintendents or teachers' unions and professional associations, intent on protecting seniority and bread-and-butter employment conditions, which continue to deteriorate anyhow. For another group, the fault lies with schools of education, whose standards of training are held to be poor and misguided, too "academic" while not properly academic.

Bilingual education, the latest instalment in the California culture wars to be resolved (but not really) in an upcoming special statewide vote, is yet another culprit. A sober-minded Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a quintet of leading universities, reports that reform efforts are focused on structural changes instead of on high-quality instruction. We can round up the usual suspects: television and all the issues associated with the war between print and digital cultures, and the tendency for serious education to be converted, like news reporting, into entertainment.

While international comparisons in science and mathematics were released, Silicon Valley representatives, taking time off from attacking Microsoft and Bill Gates for monopolistic practices, were testifying before Congress on the need to broaden visa provisions, allowing for a larger number of engineers and other computer-related talent to enter the country.

High-tech, fiercely competitive as reflected in volatile stocks and mergers, has long maintained that their pools of available talent are inadequate. There is corroborating evidence that the nation's output of creative engineers is too low. For ten and more years half of the engineering students registered for higher degrees at leading universities have been foreign born, with many staying afterwards.

The valley is an open environment, providing remarkable opportunities for ambition and ability, for ideas and innovation.

Is this how the US has been "solving" the puzzle of how a nation of low science and mathematics achievers can be so economically successful in leading-edge entrepreneurial activities, buying the talent produced by elite universities and colleges in other parts of the world, or in a ghastly image, draining off the creative minds that other countries might employ? This is all to the nation's credit, but it does not address the other problems of how to shape the critical intelligence and address questions of functional literacy.

As long as the economy is flourishing, taxpayers may not feel the need to express greater anger at what happens during schooling, except to seek alternatives, those who can, in private arrangements.

The future is always simpler to understand than the present. No wonder it is so popular.

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California and STINT professor of history at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.

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