26 10 2008

Children start out intellectually curious. Carl Sagan said much on this, and so have many other writers much more eloquent than me. They have disagreed on the extent to which education is responsible compared to the extent to which culture is responsible. I think it’s roughly even between the two, with each making the other worse.

In much of America, culture conveys the message that learning is bad. People who enjoy learning and studying are labeled nerds. If you enjoy reading quietly, you are guilty of unspeakable horrors like introversion. Asking questions too much, whether of parents, teachers, relatives, or other children earns annoyance and sometimes anger. Should you dare to learn more than your peers because you like learning, you are ostracized. This isn’t just very gifted students. Any inquiring child is treated this way, even if she is otherwise completely ordinary.

This shows up very early in childhood. Apart from a few exceptional parents, people who I admire very much for what they do, when a child asks “why?” they are often brushed off, or told “because.” Almost all parents do this routinely rather than explain themselves. Well, I love asking this question, so…why? Even young children are often very smart and, to a large extent, are actually much smarter than they will be when they are older, simply because they haven’t learned to be stupid yet.

I think that many parents just don’t think that explaining themselves is particularly important, but it seems to me that it is one of the most important things for a parent to do. Teaching your kids to always try to understand, to question, and simply to be curious is one of the best things you can do for them. Parents shape their children enormously, and curiosity is one of the most important traits there is. Curiosity drives learning. Questioning protects, because if you do not simply accept what you are told, it is much harder to trick you. The roots of many of our cultural problems, I think, are right there at the start. Parents train their kids not to ask why or how, and so their curiosity fades a little.

If we had to deal with this alone in our culture, I don’t think that we would have such a problem. Unfortunately, I think that is what enables all the rest of it, at least in part. If children were more inquisitive, I think teachers would fall into the habit of accommodating for and even promoting that more often.

Of course, teachers don’t do that. America’s schools are set up in such a way that they at the very best don’t help it, and at worst destroy it. Teachers don’t like overly inquisitive kids because, let’s face it, it’s harder to teach the other twenty kids if one or two are always wanting things explained in detail. Add to that the fact that often the teacher simply doesn’t know the answer (remember, even very young kids are not stupid), and you get a very bad situation. The teacher wants to make sure they can keep the class running for the rest of the students and, unless they are one of the better teachers, they may be a little embarrassed about being asked a question they couldn’t answer.

All this means that the teacher will, often completely unintentionally, treat the more inquisitive children worse than their peers. Like I said, kids aren’t stupid. They will change their behavior to avoid the teacher’s ire. They learn that asking questions makes adults mad at them, and of course they try to avoid that.  Even here, however, the damage in its own right is not fatal. The problem is that it is compounded by the fact that other kids learn to treat questioning and thinking derisively as well. The ones who enjoy thinking are in danger of being ostracized because their teachers have taught their peers to ostracize them. How many 8 year olds will take the principled stance and accept the cost? They aren’t dumb, but they care more about pleasing others, so most conform to fit in. The ones who don’t conform often pay for it throughout their time at school, and often even beyond school.

This chain of problems compounding each other is what shapes our culture. Kids don’t magically change as they get older. The prejudices, sloppy thinking, and incuriosity that they learn in school are still there when they grow up. All that changes is that they become the majority of voters and consumers, the government officials, politicians, and CEOs of America. America has become more and more incurious (not to mention anti intellectual, but that’s another topic in its own right).

Teachers’ problems are made even worse by legislation and district policies. There are tests that must be taught to in order to get high ratings and “maintain a high standard.” The tests do not measure understanding, they measure ability to regurgitate facts.Having delved deeper into a topic won’t help you. The test s only test knowledge of the surface of a subject. A teacher is pushed not to into detail about a topic because they need to give cursory attention to several, always cutting time away from teaching the subject in full. Science is not taught because there isn’t time, only facts are taught. Historical causes aren’t taught, there’s no time! We can only teach the facts! No time for the details, no time for understanding. Facts don’t inspire learning or curiosity.

Science is decaying because of attacks on it, sure, but mostly it is decaying because the drive behind it is fading. Science is done to be applied, yes, but more than anything science is done for its own sake. Scientists didn’t become scientists to make world changing discoveries, although they would love to do that. Mostly, I think, they became scientists simply because they love the understanding that science grants. Through science you may answer so many fundamental questions. How did we come to be? Why do we exist? Where did we come from? Where did anything come from? To be able to answer these, even only in part, is an amazing feeling.

Understanding even a tiny bit of how the universe works is truly awe inspiring. You probably know the feeling I’m talking about. How do you feel when you see the pictures of galaxies hundreds of millions of light years away, or when you see the immense, towering pillars of a nebula? How did you feel when you first understood evolution? That, to my mind, is the root of science.

The love of science and of learning is vanishing. Saving it requires a fundamental shift not just from parents, not just from teachers, not just from schools, and not just from policy makers. It requires all of them to change the way things are done. Parenting in the way most parents do can’t continue, teaching can’t continue to be about the regurgitation of facts, districts can’t mindlessly oppose changes, and policy makers can’t keep trying to measure everything. The changes aren’t easy to decide on, but we need to try something or risk destroying the minds of generations to come.