Saturday, February 28, 2009

Science can fix anything, and other fantasies

Mission: Scientifically literate students possess the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.

NJ DOE's 2009 Standards Revision Project

The state board of education believes that "a quality science education fosters a population that applies scientific knowledge, and skills to increase economic productivity." (The sentence is not grammatically stable--the comma is theirs, not mine. Committees love commas. )

At least it says as much in the Vision Statement for our proposed state curriculum standards.

I can understand the concern panic. Wall Street needs help, the state's staring down an economic abyss, and, well, if science can put a man on the moon, then this should be easy. We have a knowledge-based economy, science advances knowledge, bada-bing, bada-boom.

Houston, we have a problem.

Let me toss out two premises for discussion:

1) Our economy is not a knowledge-based economy.
So long as we are mammals, our economy remains tied to the land. Getting filthy rich might require knowledge-based data-mining skills, but the overall economy still depends on Earth's blessings.

Food. Water. Fiber. Fuel.
Wheat, rice, corn, pork bellies, cotton, hemp, wool, alpacas, coal, sunlight, oil, wind.

I'd be the first to concede that growing wheat, raising sheep, digging a well, and harnessing wind all involve intricate knowledge, but I doubt that's what is meant by a "knowledge-based economy." A look at the particulars of the curriculum confirm this.

A "growing economy" based on exponential extraction of natural resources cannot last.
The United States agriculture depends on extraction--we put as many calories into farming as we get out of it. Our food is cheap because oil is still cheap. It is also finite.

Capitalism as currently practiced (Adam Smith wouldn't recognize it) depends on economic growth; economic growth depends on increasingly efficient methods of exploiting limited resources.

Exponential growth is unsustainable. Humans, like any other critter borrowing water and oxygen from this land, have a finite carrying capacity.

Acknowledging these premises does not make me a Marxist, but might mark me as a science teacher. It puts a dent in my ability to foist the state's agenda on my kids.

I hope someone at the state level sees the inconsistencies in the proposed standards.
If nothing else, could someone in Trenton be kind enough to fix the grammar?


Louise Maine said...

I wonder if they are prepared for a society that can think critically and understand science and its role in the world. Much of what we have come to believe as the truth would be turned upside down and is counter to what they currently believe. Creating a population that is scientifically literate is especially daunting in light of the fact that the majority of society (including those in charge) are not completely understanding. How do we change not only the students but the rest of the population as well? Economics and science are usually at opposite ends of the spectrum.

doyle said...

"Economics and science are usually at opposite ends of the spectrum."


"Eco" means dwelling, or home. Not sure how we got from there to here, but if we remember why economics matters, we might restore our sanity.

I think a truly literate society (and I don't trust multiple literacies) could not support the current idea of a healthy economy.

"Dismal science" indeed.