Dear President Bush:
One thing a science advisor should do is attempt to define science. The last definition we had was in 1892 when Charles Eliot, the President of Harvard, led a committee that decided upon the high school curriculum that is still in place today. They defined science as biology, chemistry, and physics (in that order.) These just happened to be the science departments at Harvard in 1892. They defined mathematics as algebra, geometry and trigonometry (— same reason.) But a few things have happened since 1892.
One thing that has happened is that there are new and different science departments at Harvard (and elsewhere.) Another thing that has happened is that nearly everyone goes to high school and half of those kids go on to college. In 1892 those who went to high school (and on to Harvard which probably what President Eliot was worried about) were preparing to become teachers, professors, ministers and statesmen. They were not preparing the bulk of the population to live.
One of your illustrious predecessors, John Adams—he was the father of another President of the same name, a confusion that I am sure you identify with—said that education was about only two things: how to make a living and how to live. Unfortunately our current school system does neither.
Science is a good example. Should people learn science?
I have recently become the academic dean at Grandview Prep in Florida. I am trying to build a realistic high school curriculum there. I will tell you a story that will help you understand my problem:
I helped build an on line physics course for Columbia, so I installed it in the curriculum at Grandview. There were immediate objections that it would be too hard. (It is a college level course, but actually it is intended to replace "Physics for Poets" at Columbia so it isn't that hard.) Nevertheless it was decided that the good students at Grandview could take this course but the bad students would have to take regular physics. (I thought this bizarre but went along.)
So, I asked the physics teacher what he taught in regular physics. The first thing he mentioned was Ohm's Law. Apparently, the bad kids could understand Ohm's Law but not space travel (which is the basis of the Columbia course.)
Now, I don't know about you President Bush, but Ohm's Law simply fails to come up in my life. And, while we are discussing things that come up in one's life, when was the last time you used the quadratic formula? Your father said every graduating senior would know the Pythagorean Theorem by the time his Presidency was finished (I suppose he was counting on another term eh?) I have it on good authority (from your brother Neil) that no adult member of the Bush family knows the Pythagorean theorem, you or dad included. I suppose you never needed it. (Neither did hardly anyone else.)
Our problems in science and in education come from our view that education is about preparing for Harvard in 1892 and not for life in 2003. So, as your science advisor I would propose three things:
• 1) Begin to help change our education policy to create students who prepare for the real world they will inhabit by learning how to wire their houses instead of quoting Ohm's law or how and when to refinance their house rather than learning Euclidean Geometry. I would create more curricula in science and other subjects that emphasized everyday reasoning issues like the use of stem cells or waste cleanup or snow removal or alternative energy sources. Why can't science be about real issues in real people's lives? I'll bet you didn't take a single science course at Yale. Who could blame you? I was a member of the Yale faculty for many years. The science professors are preparing future scientists not future Presidents. The nation suffers as a result.
• 2) We must call for a new curriculum meeting to replace the 1892 curriculum and to reinvent the schools. Stop going on about test scores and making sure every kid studies the same stuff and build hundreds of new curricula and let students choose. We need to teach people how to think not how to memorize information.
• 3) We must consider education (and science) as our most likely product for export. The world needs education more than it needs food. This is the best way to counter terrorism in the long run. We have the best and brightest in this country because a lot of our education system isn't broken. (We have great universities and superb Ph.D. programs for example.) Let's start considering how we export these great educational products with the intent not of taking others country's best minds and making them US citizens, but with the idea that if they cant read in Pakistan this can cause us a great many problems down the road. On line learning is the answer because it is easy to export. Why haven't we spent money on creating high quality on line literacy programs and science reasoning programs that would make the export of education a real possibility? Instead of spending money on making better tests why not spend money on better curricula?
The time has come to make science more accessible and education in it and other subjects more relevant.
Roger C. Schank
Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science
Chief Education Officer
Carnegie Mellon West
Founder of the Institute for the Learning Sciences, Northwestern University
Author of Scrooge Meets Dick and Jane; Coloring Outside the Lines (Raising a Smarter Kid by Breaking all the Rules), Engines for Education