David Hoppe

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:: Math and Science crisis

The tip of an education iceberg

By David Hoppe

Have you seen the new ExxonMobil ad about where America ranks in math and science education? The ad shows a series of cut-outs, each one in the shape of a different country, like Finland, Hong Kong or Japan. The cut-outs are brightly colored. As the names of the countries they represent are called out, the cut-outs stream by until finally we come to the familiar shape of the United States, the 25th country in line.

The ad is a textbook example of why showing beats telling. As we watch the line of different countries growing longer and longer, we can see how far from the lead the United States has gotten. We don't have to be told that our country's students have fallen behind in math and science.

ExxonMobil wants us to know that it supports a program called the National Math and Science Initiative. The NMSI is dedicated to improving science and math education in middle and high schools through the recruitment and training of more teachers in these disciplines.

It's great to see a behemoth corporation like ExxonMobil throwing its weight toward the education of our kids. Lord knows, the kids need all the help they can get. According to the NMSI, the United States led the world in high school and college graduation rates a mere 25 years ago. Now we rank 20 th and 16 th in those categories. To make matters worse, the NMSI estimates that only 20 percent of our current workforce possesses the skills required to fill 60 percent of available jobs in the burgeoning 21 st century STEM-based (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math) economy.

In a weird way, ExxonMobil's support for math and science education serves to emphasize just how dire the situation has become. Until recently, ExxonMobil has fought against scientific research demonstrating the effects of human behavior on climate change. As Steve Coll recently pointed out in a New Yorker piece on ExxonMobil's political clout, “In the nineteen-nineties and through the first Bush term, ExxonMobil funded free-market research and communications groups that attacked the emerging science documenting global warming. The Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace, and other environmental and public advocacy groups exposed the corporation's investments in climate-change skeptics and accused executives of adapting science-smearing strategies similar to those employed by the tobacco industry.”

ExxonMobil employs about 18,000 people. It seems that what the corporation is saying is that it would be nice if most of the folks they hire could be Americans. Nice, that is, but not necessary. Welcome to the global marketplace.

The outcry over our country's need to keep up in the fields of science and math recalls a similar moment in the late 1950's, following the launch of Sputnik, a Soviet satellite, in 1957. At that time, the U.S. was locked in cold war with the Soviet Union. Sputnik was Exhibit A that we were losing. In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which developed new ways of teaching high school physics, biology and chemistry, while also providing college scholarships for young scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

But the upgrading of K-12 education during the so-called Space Race between the Soviet Union and the US wasn't limited to math and science. Teaching of the humanities and arts were also enhanced. In fact, more students went on to receive advanced degrees in fields like English, History, and Philosophy in the ‘60s and ‘70s then at any time before, or since.

This was partly due, of course, to the sheer number of school-age kids, products of the Baby Boom, who were moving through our education system. Schools at all levels were a growth industry in those days.

Numbers by themselves, though, don't tell the whole story. Americans saw the Soviet threat in both technological and cultural terms. We were not only in a space race, but a competition for the hearts and minds of people all over the world. This meant being able to convey American ideas and values as surely as the things we made. American education needed to be well-rounded in both the sciences and the liberal arts in order to meet this challenge.

The irony we face today is that, at the same time corporate employers like ExxonMobil are sounding the alarm about America's erosion in the fields of science and math, the same things are being said, albeit with less fanfare, about the arts and humanities. Schools aren't eliminating their math or science courses but, in many places, classes in visual arts, music and branches of the humanities are being drummed out of the curriculum. These cuts not only diminish the educational experience for students, they risk depriving society of the next generation of designers, city planners, journalists, and teachers — those people whose jobs are involved in collecting, saving and presenting the stories that help us understand who we are and how we got here.

Life is complicated. We certainly need scientists and engineers to help us sort it out. But as DH Lawrence once wrote: “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing that makes water, and nobody knows what that is.” Knowing what we don't know: perhaps that's the best education of all.