Will Things Get Better?

The other day I wrote a post about my feelings toward pain and suffering, and how we suffer in this life because we’re stupid.  We have sickness and disease because we don’t know how to fix our bodies.  We have poverty and starvation because we don’t know how to control our environment or properly manage the flow and distribution of scarce resources.  We have wars and conflicts because we haven’t learned how to think critically, resolve disputes, and lack an understanding of our evolutionary baggage.

To fix these sorts of problems, we need brilliant scientists and engineers to solve our energy problems, create new medicines, and build new technology.  We need economists and political scientists to break down each and every one of our political and economic institutions, finding out what works and what doesn’t.  We need moral philosophers examining each and every aspect of the way we live, questioning every one of our values, helping us see our own faults and learn from our mistakes.  That’s what needs to happen, but what’s actually happening?

According to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, less than 1 in 4 American high school students can write intelligibly.  These students were asked to compose simple essays to evaluate their abilities, and were even given laptop computers to help them with spell checking and grammar.  Even with these tools, they’re still unable to communicate basic ideas.  They can’t spell, their grammar is terrible, and their thoughts are barely coherent.

Even more worrisome is their grasp on scientific ideas.  According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), less than two percent of students have a firm grasp on important scientific ideas.  They were asked questions about the Earth, life, and space.  They were asked about gravity, what birds eat, and the basics of a nuclear reaction.  They can barely answer any of the questions.  They don’t understand the sun’s motion in the sky or the reason for the seasons.  They don’t understand why plants grow or how their digestive system works.  They don’t understand how species evolve or how an ecosystem works.  These kids obviously aren’t studying, so what are they doing?

According to data from the Nielsen Company in 2010, the average young person spends 55 hours a week watching television, playing video games, listening to music, texting each other, instant messaging, and other things like that.  How much time do they spend reading, on average?  They’ll spend roughly twenty minutes a day reading their school books, about three minutes a day reading the news, and nine minutes flipping through magazines.  Sadly, adults aren’t doing any better.  They don’t read either.

America is falling apart from within.  You don’t have to look hard to see that our culture is in decline.  Nobody is bending their arms, making them watch reality TV shows.  With resources like Youtube, lectures on practically any conceivable subject are available online, but just search for them and look at their view counts.  You can download free textbooks on just about everything, but who’s reading them?  Universities are posting more and more content online, yet our kids still do worse.  Check out sites like Coursera, MIT Opencourseware, Khan Academy, Udemy, and others.  People have access to a world class education for free if they’ll only use it.  But they’re not using it.  It’s hard to understand how so much is available yet so little is being used.

Our schools are obviously a mess though.  When researching this material, I found some of the comments particularly insightful.

“I blame the lawyers. My wife taught high school, and had to plan out where the students would sit so that the gang banger didn’t sit next to the future valedictorian, and the emotionally disturbed student was someplace where his outbursts disrupted class less, etc. We need to establish tracking in the classrooms, so each student is taught according to their interest and aptitude. They get mixed together because the parents of children with mental disabilities sue the schools if their kids aren’t put in the same classes as the brightest students. The teachers get penalized based on failures, not based on whether students reach their potential, so they teach to the slowest/least interested students.”

“1-2% sounds about right to me. I teach high school math and science, and I’d agree that only 1 out of 50 kids or so actually has high aptitude+interest in science. More could probably do decent science, but most just aren’t interested. It’s interesting that kids in suburbs perform better. I’d like to see demographics on their parents’ careers. I don’t know many scientists who live or raise kids in the inner city. If you’ve never met a scientist, it’s probably not something you’d be interested in.”

“I’d put it down to plain and simple laziness , living the “good life” with minimum effort and a dying family support system.”

“In my opinion it is certainly the anti-science, anti-intellectual bent that is taught throughout our western society. If you were keeping track of bullying in highschool who would you see picked on more often, the winning quarterback or the science fair winner? Our society worships youth and ignorance. It has infected every aspect of western culture. It’s time to laud intellect and mental capability. No one should care how far you can throw if you’re unable to do basic math.”

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2011-01-kids-science-class.html#jCp

The other night my friend Greg was in town and as we were sitting in his car, I told him, “I don’t know how we can expect this world to get better with so many stupid people running around.”  I’m not sure what he thought of that, but if you objectively observe what’s going on, it’s undeniable.  Roughly 76% of Americans are functionally illiterate, and 98% of them lack an understanding of science.  In a world increasingly reliant on critical thought and scientific know how, this is a recipe for disaster.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *