Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 24, 2009

EDUCATE TO INNOVATE.... Earlier this year, President Obama was showing so much enthusiasm and interest in science and scientific integrity that one observer characterized him as "almost strident" on the issue. The description put a negative spin on what I consider to be one of the president's most endearing qualities -- I can't think of a modern president who speaks as often and as enthusiastically about science as Obama.

This was especially true yesterday, when the president hosted a White House event to unveil a new "Educate to Innovate" initiative, intended to improve the science and math scores of American students. A variety of scientists and inventors were on hand for the event -- including Adam and Jaime from "Mythbusters," who the president called out by name -- and Obama not only talked up administration efforts, he emphasized the importance of changing public attitudes.

I was especially pleased to hear that, starting in 2010, there will be an annual White House Science Fair. The president explained, "Today, I'm announcing that we're going to have an annual science fair at the White House with the winners of national competitions in science and technology. If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you're a young person and you've produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we're going to lead by example. We're going to show young people how cool science can be."

But the part of Obama's remarks that had me thinking long after I'd finished watching was the section on educational efforts overseas.

The president said:

"You know, I was in Asia, I think many of you are aware, for a week, and I was having lunch with the President of South Korea, President Lee. And I was interested in education policy -- they've grown enormously over the last 40 years. And I asked him, what are the biggest challenges in your education policy? He said, 'The biggest challenge that I have is that my parents are too demanding.' (Laughter.) He said, 'Even if somebody is dirt poor, they are insisting that their kids are getting the best education.' He said, 'I've had to import thousands of foreign teachers because they're all insisting that Korean children have to learn English in elementary school.' That was the biggest education challenge that he had, was an insistence, a demand from parents for excellence in the schools.

"And the same thing was true when I went to China. I was talking to the mayor of Shanghai, and I asked him about how he was doing recruiting teachers, given that they've got 25 million people in this one city. He said, 'We don't have problems recruiting teachers because teaching is so revered and the pay scales for teachers are actually comparable to doctors and other professions. '

"That gives you a sense of what's happening around the world. There is a hunger for knowledge, an insistence on excellence, a reverence for science and math and technology and learning. That used to be what we were about. That's what we're going to be about again."

I hope that's true, because our future depends on it.

This also helps set up a helpful juxtaposition. At this point, the nation's leading Democrat is a dynamic president who values science, innovation, and learning. One of the nation's leading Republicans is a half-term governor who rejects evolutionary biology and who disdains elites with "Ivy League educations."

Whether the United States is able to maintain its role as the global leader will depend on which side of this divide wins.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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Maybe if we didn't feel the need to maintain a permanently standing armed force bigger than the rest of the world combined, we could pay for schools.

Posted by: Kevin Ray on November 24, 2009 at 8:48 AM | PERMALINK

Anti-intellectualism has been a staple of the American right wing since the inception of our country I believe. Its a cancer that eats away at our society and is turning us into a nation of dolts that value emotion and tradition over innovation, science, exploration, discovery.

Its as if our aggregate age is about 12; we have short attention spans, expect immediate gratification, want the latest and greatest of everything, yet we don't want to put the effort in to achieve everything we want. We are a nation of spoiled brats. I'm not sure how this came to be, but this is the situation we find ourselves in and we better do something about it before its too late.

First and foremost, we must understand how it is that such a vocal minority can wield so much political and cultural power. We must overcome these 18th and 19th century thinkers. I'm open to suggestions!

Posted by: citizen_pain on November 24, 2009 at 8:55 AM | PERMALINK

You just hafta shake your head in wonder.

If John McCain had been elected to lead this country -- if ACORN hadn't stolen the election -- we wouldn't have to put up with this crap.

Posted by: neill on November 24, 2009 at 8:58 AM | PERMALINK

I guess the White House is cooler than the Letterman show these days;>

And Obama's kids better to really well in math and science or Fox News will do a week long report about the hypocritical president and the waste and fraud in education. They can call the series "Stupid Like Us". Or maybe "Are You Stupider Than A Republican?"

Posted by: martin on November 24, 2009 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

Teachers, smeachers. We need parents who give a damn about their kids. Daily I encounter young parents who don't have time for their children. Millions of grandparents are raising their grandchildren--badly. After all they are the same people who raised the "me" generation. Actually the kids are being raised by television, mostly MTV and the pimp and ho channel.

As for schools, all over red state America the first thing the tea baggers want to cut is education. Ignorance and stupidity are revered. The leisure industry sets school calendars everywhere. Maybe we shouldn't have worked so hard to slow down the Bush depression. Nothing like a slap in the face from reality to change attitudes.

Posted by: Ron Byers on November 24, 2009 at 9:00 AM | PERMALINK

I can't wait for the right-wing reaction to this.

"Our President wants our children to excel in math and science. Do you know who else wanted children to excel in math and science? Hitler! and Stalin! His push for education betray his fascist Nazi communist Islamunist bent! Kids, stay away from school!!!"

Posted by: Domage on November 24, 2009 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

"I can't wait for the right-wing reaction to this"

Oh I'm sure they'll turn him into a Bond villain over this with diabolical motives for perverting the nation's young minds to do evil things...oh, and he's a socialist.

Posted by: SaintZak on November 24, 2009 at 9:08 AM | PERMALINK

The same view of teachers is held in Taiwan. I taught there for a year after college and have never felt more appreciated. Now, teaching in inner-city schools in Des Moines, Iowa (yes they do exsist), I have to put up with parents calling and yelling at ME when their kids get in trouble.

Posted by: John on November 24, 2009 at 9:11 AM | PERMALINK

Science has a known liberal bias.

Posted by: Liam J on November 24, 2009 at 9:19 AM | PERMALINK

"I can't wait for the right-wing reaction to this"

And lets not overlook the teachers unions being rewarded, since China pays them "comparable to Doctors and other professions".

Posted by: Dave on November 24, 2009 at 9:22 AM | PERMALINK

Hey John,
I live in Des Moines - born and raised - and graduated from Lincoln High School 15 years ago. I have a number of friends teaching in city schools and there is no doubt that there are serious issues. The #1 complaint they have is that parents aren't involved. The kids have no support system at home and no one to push them to succeed and excel. Like you, they say the only time they hear anything from a lot of (even most) parents is when they want to bitch out the teacher for the trouble their kids are causing. These are talented teachers who care, but are going to be burnt out by age 30. It's a messed up situation that seems to be spiraling out of control.

Posted by: Giggsisgod on November 24, 2009 at 9:22 AM | PERMALINK

Everyone saw the nice job the Oakton High School kids from Fairfax County did demonstrating their robot, right? Take that, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology!

My wife teaches in the local county public schools. Angry parents regularly smart mouth her, file complaints and threaten her with legal action for giving out D's that their kids well earned.

Anti-intellectualism begins with people who feel entitled to rewards they haven't earned.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on November 24, 2009 at 9:25 AM | PERMALINK

Giggsisgod: I graduated from Lincoln in 2002 :)

As for the being burnt out by 30; I'm 25 and, while I am still teaching, I am on a never-ending job search for something else within the education field that is not as disheartening.

Posted by: John on November 24, 2009 at 9:34 AM | PERMALINK


When a majority of engineering and science majors are doing the work of a clerk- sitting in front of a computer and entering data into a Excel sheet or some other MS Office product - it betrays a lack of understanding of reality on the part of Obama to vax so poetic about producing more science and engineering majors.

Posted by: gregor on November 24, 2009 at 9:37 AM | PERMALINK

I used to live in Hong Kong and had great friends who were teachers being paid almost the same as me (corporate lawyer scum). It's a culture thing.

my wife went to school in england and was always top of her class until she moved the states when she was about 12 - after a couple of years her parents sent her back to england since she was regressing. on re-entry she had falled waaaay behind her class mates. it's an institutional thing as well.

Posted by: homerhk on November 24, 2009 at 9:40 AM | PERMALINK


Posted by: Giggsisgod on November 24, 2009 at 9:41 AM | PERMALINK

What is often missed in these discussions is that the American system is bimodal. There is a huge gap between our best students and the average student. We spend a lot of money and effort cultivating and teaching the best students, and they are on par with the best in any country. Indeed, I am just not impressed with the quality of students I see coming out of China, or even Korea (which is better).

The problem is that our efforts to focus on the best students often come at the expense of the general population. I grew up in a government lab town, and went to a public high school that was nationally recognized. It was well known in that school that if you were not in the top 10%, no one in the administration would pay much attention to you. If you had a meeting with a guidance councilor, and a more advanced student came in, you would get bumped. The best new teachers were always moved into the advanced classes. And so on.

Posted by: Walker on November 24, 2009 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

I have lived overseas for a few years and I find it interesting that just about every country in Europe starts academics at a later age (in the US we push kids to learn to read before they even enter school over here they start to teach reading in first grade) and by the seventh grade every country in Western Europe is ahead of the US in every study of educational achievement. What does that tell you?

Posted by: Kim on November 24, 2009 at 10:02 AM | PERMALINK

Several folks above nailed the three main problems with America's educational system:

1. Parents who don't seem to give a shit.

2. A culture that values vacuous celebrity over real talent.

3. An entire political party dedicated to fighting knowledge, reason, science, and just general intellectual advancement.

It's a combination that will pretty soon help make America just another former superpower, probably in the next 20 years or so (the main reason will be, IMHO, China's ability to buy us into irrelevance as they become the world's top consumer society -- once we lose our purchasing power, we're toast).

Posted by: Mark D on November 24, 2009 at 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

Anti-intellectualism is a right wing problem from the top and a cultural and class problem from the bottom. I used to teach high school in a school of mostly minorities (and had similar experiences to John above), and now I ride the NYC (elevated) subway from a predominately working class Asian immigrant neighborhood. Every day I see things like Chinese parents teaching the alphabet to their five year old with flash cards (and in a fun and interactive way) or pointing at store or subway signs and talking about the words and maybe about how the world works. These are parents for whom English is a second language. Now UC Berkeley (and I assume other similar public universities) and admission by test or (or grades or whatever) public high schools are full of Asian kids. On Styvesant High School test days the subway platforms were wall to wall with Asian kids - and some parents. Meanwhile many (no,not all) in Hispanic and Black communities are indifferent if not hostile to learning, if not every thing else in general. You know, the getting-good-grades-is-white thing. This really huge class and cultural problem in this country is by the way being directly addressed by programs like KIPP. Look it up - they are doing really interesting stuff and it works. I've seen their school groups and talked to some of the kids.

Posted by: emjayay on November 24, 2009 at 10:06 AM | PERMALINK


I think that part of the problem in the US is the idea that science is a career choice. It isn't; it's not just that. Yes, there are people who make their living as professional scientists, but science is not just a job, it is a way of looking at the world, a way of applying knowledge to solve problems, to do a better job at those things we all do, whether it is growing food, tending the sick, educating children, fighting crime, manufacturing, or whatever. In almost every field of human endeavor there are opportunities for using evidence and the scientific method to improve outcomes. And the bigger point is that national discussion of policy is almost a waste of time if the people discussing it are not willing and able to let the facts have a much greater role in decision-making.

Posted by: Daryl McCullough on November 24, 2009 at 10:07 AM | PERMALINK

Walker - I had a different experience. Going to a nationally recognized school in Madison, WI in the 1980s they were so concerned about the masses of students that the students at the top and bottom got ignored. The top students were put in "talented and gifted" classes and the students who fell behind (regardless of the reasons) were put in industrial arts and typing classes. (Side bar: none of the college bound students were encouraged to take typing and a couple of years later all of them were in college hunting and pecking on computers without any typing skills). The "talented and gifted" classes rarely did anything different and seemed more like a reward to the teacher than to the students. The school was set up to move the vast majority of students along.

The only ones who were treated well or given more attention were the athletes.

Posted by: JMM '85 Grad on November 24, 2009 at 10:09 AM | PERMALINK

Language master makes a huge differences in school performance. In my county 113 different languages are spoken in homes.

In many of these high achieving countries, like Finland, Norway, Japan and South Korea, only one language is spoken throughout the country. The massive effort America makes with ESL instruction, including testing and all the extra hours teachers devote after school to non-native speakers who have fallen behind -- this is something to be proud of. When we say America is a melting pot where it really happens is in our public schools.

My impression after decades in business is that kids conming out of Asian school systems are good line workers but tend to be risk-averse. American kids are more innovative and tend to see the whole problem better.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on November 24, 2009 at 10:12 AM | PERMALINK

I love science and math but how about some love for the history teachers (like me). Just think how much better our political debates, and our talk shows, could be if people actually knew some history. The number of times Glen Beck gets history just plain wrong is stunning.

Posted by: Dr. U on November 24, 2009 at 10:13 AM | PERMALINK

This is mostly off-topic, but reading about how teachers are revered in other countries reminds me of a story about Aung San Su Kyi. In the early days of her house arrest she decided that she would teach her captors English. After a while, they began to refer to her with the Burmese honorific for "teacher". This was too much for the junta, which told her to stop teaching English to her guards, and instead do something more lady-like, like baking. So, she and her captors baked a cake. The icing said "Free the political prisoners."

Posted by: Geoff G on November 24, 2009 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

Our country is confused about what education should be.

There are some who want more theocratic influence, and others who want more rigorous intellectualizing.


What explains the Keeling Curve? Is it god's plan, or is it a true sign of global climate change with a serious human taint?

If we can't even have a reasonable discussion about the most important occurrence in all of human history (rising co2) how on earth are we going to embrace science as a society?

It's as if science is a "belief." That's the problem...it ain't, it's the human genius, the way we have evolved into modern society.

Science to some = the devil.

We are going to see a rise in home-schooling over not just theocratic crap, but because of science-phobic neanderthals amongst us!

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on November 24, 2009 at 10:25 AM | PERMALINK

Walker, again it comes down to the parents. If they really gave a shit about their kids they wouldn't tolerate the emphasis on the "good kids." By the way the focus on the "good kids" has always been there. I have been after my Kiwanis club to develop programs for average kids needing help. The strongest resistence to helping average kids comes from the teachers and administrators. They want to focus all our attention on the top students. I wish I knew why.

Posted by: Ron Byers on November 24, 2009 at 10:27 AM | PERMALINK

I just have to say that MythBusters rule.

Posted by: pbg on November 24, 2009 at 10:50 AM | PERMALINK

I laughed when I read that we overcultivate our best students. Both my genius level daughters were taunted by their teachers, told that their boredom with school was a sign of mental retardation, and both had ulcers and migraines in their teens. Part of it may have been that they were girls, but a large part of it is the contempt that intelligent people are subjected to in school and at work here in the US. I grew up in Europe and went to French and Italian schools, and my experience as a bright student was wonderful compared to this. Teachers actually cared about the students. Compare that to the fact that, because I stuttered and stumbled while reading out loud in class when I was in first grade in New Jersey, I was put in the low achiever group. It used to infuriate my mother because she knew I was reading way above grade level and because of what was called underachievement at that time, I was pretty much headed for the poorest education available in the US.

Yes, we do love our idiots, and our pundits and journalists are living proof of it every day. No more Walter Cronkites, or Edward Murrows. Instead we have illiterate gas bags shrieking and laughing hysterically at bad jokes and the suffering of others.

It really upsets me.

Posted by: Carol on November 24, 2009 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK

Our culture doesn't value science or even general education. Whenever "smart" people are portrayed in the media, they shown as functional incompetents that may understand quantum mechanics but can't interact with other people, stare at their computers all day, and can't tie their own shoelaces.

Posted by: qwerty on November 24, 2009 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

Americans never get very far from their anti-intellectual roots. The disdain and resentment of intelligence and those who use it is deeply ingrained in our culture. The bumper sticker, usually on a pickup truck, that proudly proclaims "My son beats up honor students" says it all. The Beavus and Butthead syndrome, dumb and dumber. Hurray for the idiots!

It should be remembered that America didn't lead in science until refugees from fascist Europe populated American Universities in the 1930s. Engineering got a big boost in the late 1950s and 60s after the Soviet Union put the first man-made satellite into orbit in the fall of 1957. That produced the National Defense Education Act. The only way to sell better science and technical education then was by invoking national defense. Just like the interstate highway system was sold as a defense strategy. Nothing has changed in the past 50 years. Obama will have to sell it the same way.

The American public is more scientifically illiterate now than it was a half-century ago. For twenty years I interacted with college-age students, and was bewildered by what they didn't know. High school graduates came to college with nothing more than a 6th grade understanding of science, or the natural world. Having taught high school science in the 1960s, rather challenging courses at that, I had to wonder in the 1990s what happened. Evidently not much in high schools.

We spend a lot of money on schools in this country. Not enough. And too much time and attention is paid to sports activities. The highest paid staff at major universities are in the athletic department. What does that say? College level tenure track positions have largely disappeared, and been replaced by underpaid and overworked adjuncts, often with little supervision or concern for the quality of the courses they teach.

The love affair with standardized testing that has infected the country - No Child Left Behind - has turned classrooms into factories of rote learning, and-teaching-for-the-test. Administrators then cook the books when the results are not sufficiently high, or the standards are lowered to create a phony sense of accomplishment.

It isn't an easy problem, and the pernicious effect of popular culture has a great deal to do with it. One of the myths that must be destroyed is that everyone has to go to college. At least 75% of the college age population sees those years as extended and organized party time. They need vocational training and apprenticeships, not undergraduate degrees. Probably the remaining 25% is engaged intellectually, and benefits from access to the best brains around. But the idea that some people are smarter than others is offensive in America, and consequently we do everything possible to deny that reality.

Posted by: rRk1 on November 24, 2009 at 12:03 PM | PERMALINK

The problem I see here is that 'parental involvement' is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, a child who wants to learn can get so much help from his parents. On the other hand, parental involvement in the schools -- or in education directly as by home-schooling -- can be disastrous. (And yes, home-schooling has the same 'two-edged nature.)

Kids aren't most of the ones arguing against teaching evolution, science, or critical thinking. that's the parents.

If actual science instead of lists of 'scientific facts' to be memorized and vomited back on the exam -- is taught -- see the comment from Daryl above -- it is fun for the kids. But the first time they go "Daddy, that man you listen to in radio is wrong about..." or "Pastor Smith said the Bible said such and such, but I looked it up and he got it wrong. It really says..." or, worst of all, "Daddy, you are wrong about..." that's when the fur flies.

"WHAT sort of sicko perverted Commie nonsense are you teaching my boy?"

And the principal, who has troubles of his own with budgets, other teachers who are idiots, school boards, etc 'doesn't need this.' Especially from a mother who leads the bake sale, a father who fixes the baskets in the gym voluntarily and attends every game.

And the parents who actually know what a good job the teacher is doing never bother to say it. (When's the last time you wrote your kid's principal just to thank him for the job a certain teacher is doing, or got behind that teacher if he was under fire?)

Posted by: Prup (aka Jim Benton) on November 24, 2009 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

You guys are ignorant or naive at best, if not delusional.

Every culture values celebrity over solitary pursuit of knowledge. Science and Mathematics are valued in China and India not because of those cultures' recognition of these things as inherently noble, but because it's the easy way for the people to join the middle class and may be even the wealthy set.

As I have said above, the technical professions are not very attractive in this country because most of the engineers and scientists do not do real science or engineering, and if they do, on the average it's not that lucrative do do so. So it stands to reason that people are not that interested in science.

the cold economic facts and people's self interest cannot be changed by any amount of breast beating, whether it be by the bloggers or by the President himself.

Posted by: gregor on November 24, 2009 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Gregor says: As I have said above, the technical professions are not very attractive in this country because most of the engineers and scientists do not do real science or engineering

Gregor, you are painfully mis-informed. I work at a teaching university hospital that has a vibrant scientific community, and your claims that they are just dolts punching numbers into a spreadsheet is, to use your descriptive tgerm, delusional. You must be from eastern Europe.

Anyway, for the rest, take a look at this video, if you can stand it... this is what is wrong with America:


Posted by: citizen_pain on November 24, 2009 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK


I know and appreciate that there are brilliant scientists and engineers doing significant work. This does not contradict my assertion that a majority of science and engineering graduates do not do real science or engineering, and that those who do are not well rewarded in financial terms.

Posted by: gregor on November 24, 2009 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

Good luck with this. Kansas governor Mark Parkingson just announced another round of cuts to, among other things, education. Public schools have now lost more than $200 million in funding for the current school year, and 3700 education jobs. Class sizes are going up, as is university tuition. It's far more important to our Republican legislature to keep cutting taxes than to fund the things that will make us successful in the long term.

Posted by: Gretchen on November 24, 2009 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

When a majority of engineering and science majors are doing the work of a clerk- sitting in front of a computer and entering data into a Excel sheet or some other MS Office product.

gregor, speaking about bullcrap, you need to get involved in science. The stuff that they are entering into their computers is data that they spent most of their time collecting.

We spend a lot of money and effort cultivating and teaching the best students, and they are on par with the best in any country.

Waker, I need some data on your statement. My own experience is that the GT students are pretty much on their own. My kids went to a school where a group of parents fought for years to get a GT program, and finally we got the school district (CSISD) to budget 35 whole dollars per GT student on a GT program. Then the school principals did everything in their power to shut the program down. I doubt that too many other school districts really care about the bright students to the extent that they are willing to shell out money. After all, the GT students aren't making any trouble. Squeaky wheel and all that.

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