2001 : WHAT NOW?

[ print ]

Psychologist & Computer Scientist; Engines for Education Inc.; Author, Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools
Educating Arabs, Educating Ourselves

Why are these people so angry at us? It is odd, but that question is rarely voiced. It is all too easy to say that they are crazy, but we might wonder, even so, how it is that we incurred their wrath. They don't attack Italy or Sweden. Anyone who has spent significant time abroad can tell you that in most countries there is love-hate relationship with the U.S. Most of our citizens fail to understand why this is the case and instead back mistaken notions of patriotism, waving flags, and talking about bombing people who don't like us. It really isn't all about the U.S. support of Israel. That is too easy an answer. We need to look for more difficult answers and do the very thing the terrorists want us to do, reexamine the role of the U.S. in the international arena. Just because that is what the terrorists want us to do, does not make it the wrong thing to do.

There is a technological answer to the hijacking problem of course. The problem is that the technological answer comes with a price. It is quite feasible to create a national identity card and have that be used to check in at the airport. From that point, no silly security questions need be asked. Computer programs can be created that establish exactly the patterns and likely actions of any passenger and determine what questions if any should be asked by the airline personnel and whether the passenger is a risk of any sort. Airlines could refuse to allow on board people who don't fit their safety profiles. This is easy to do, but it would require installation of foolproof identity software (such as retinal scans) and make available to the government the complete whereabouts and intentions of every citizen. We may not be willing to give up the anonymity that many of us cherish. On the other hand we may have to.

The biggest problem is education. When our citizens chat on the Internet about how badly they feel, they do not become better informed. They still think that killing a Sikh store owner is a patriotic action. They still don't know where Afghanistan is and what its role might be. They believe that killing one man will end our problem. Much of our current problems stem from how badly educated the public is. This, of course is even more of an issue in the poorer Islamic countries. If education were a priority in this country, and by this I do not mean silly attempts to raise meaningless test scores, but real attempts to get people to think long and hard about issues that affect their lives, then maybe this wouldn't have happened. If we created high quality on - line courses, for example, if Harvard and Yale and other universities took seriously their role as world educators, then perhaps what they built could be exported to the rest of the world. If it were not done on a for profit basis, but were offered for very little money, then people in poor countries might qualify for better jobs and might be able to reason more adroitly about the complex issues they face. Instead we leave their education to mullahs or their angry fathers in law. While we, as a nation export television, movies and blue jeans, we do not export quality education. Why not? Because for the most part we aren't even interested in that kind of education for our own citizens. No government agency is concerned with establishing reasonable curricula for students (instead we rely on one that was established in 1892!) or in assessing how well we are doing in creating a nation of employable graduates who can reason critically. Instead we focus on meaningless measures and allow schools to do whatever they like as long as they stay within those measures. The private universities are interested in the education of the elite and no one looks out for the average guy. But it is the average guys who vote, the average guys who fight, and the average guys who sometimes act out bizarre notions of retribution.