A few of my posts have been about education, and about starving workers; so I was happy to come across a 1988 interview (by Bill Moyers with the Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg) that brings the two ideas together. In the middle of the interview, Weinberg explains how the nanny state starves high school students intellectually, and the warfare state does the same to research scientists.
MOYERS: Why are we doing so poorly in educating ourselves scientifically? So few kids take math today and so few college students are interested in science.
WEINBERG: Yes, I don’t understand it. Students sometimes manage to get straight A’s in high school mathematics, and then come to college and can’t solve simple word problems. I’m not a professional in the field, and I wouldn’t presume to say what they’re doing wrong. But I can think of a few things that I’d like to see done. One is to open up high school science teaching – and perhaps teaching in general – to scholars who have decided they’re more interested in teaching than in doing research.
MOYERS: Without certification?
WEINBERG: Without teacher’s college certification. Break the grip of the teacher’s college certification in high school education. I remember that when I was on the faculty of MIT, we had a young theoretical physicist who decided he was more interested in teaching than in doing research. He could not get a job teaching physics in the Boston city public high schools because he didn’t have the teacher’s certification. But Andover, a private high school, was willing to hire him, so they had a Ph.D. teaching high school physics, and he did a wonderful job. I think there’s a great pool of potential high school teachers, but they avoid teaching in the public schools. I would advise the society to make the job of the high school teacher more palatable, not only in terms of salary but in terms of independence. Public school teachers should be given a lot more intellectual independence than they have in choosing their course materials, choosing their textbooks, choosing the syllabus so they can feel the same sense of intellectual creativity in teaching that we at the college level are fortunate to feel. If someone has a missionary spirit and wants to help save America, I think it would be a wonderful thing to go teach in high school. But it’s not as satisfying as teaching in college because of the lack of independence.
MOYERS: Unless we can somehow bring a sense of wonder and excitement and passion to science, what’s going to happen to us?
WEINBERG: We may wind up making a living by showing the Grand Canyon to tourists from Germany and Japan. And we can always sell soybeans when the drought ends. I think we’re in terrible trouble, not only because of science education, but because of the general pattern of spending on scientific research. We now spend less on non-defense research as a fraction of our gross national product than Japan or France or Germany. Roughly seventy-five percent of our federal research money goes to defense research. That’s up from fifty percent about a decade ago.
MOYERS: And the implications of that?
WEINBERG: The research scientists are beginning to compete with each other, like castaways competing for the last few crumbs of food. Very, very important scientific projects are going unfunded, or are being spaced out over such long periods that by the time they’re completed, history will have passed them by.
Of course, the brilliant Weinberg hits the nail on the head: “open up,” “break the grip,” “independence,” “intellectual independence,” “choosing,” “intellectual creativity” versus “like castaways competing for the last few crumbs of food.” What a great picture of education under the authoritarian state.