These days I am haunted by a growing mediocrity in our nation’s classrooms. Having just finished more than two decades of teaching science, I am more concerned than I was 20 years ago about adolescent indifference to all the wonders in the cosmos. The atoms and molecules have not changed. Mendel’s principles of inheritance have not been routed. Evolution is not a dead process. In fact, our knowledge (and, hopefully, our wisdom) about such phenomena has increased by orders of magnitude. But something in the educational process seems to have changed. Something is changing now as we live and breathe and muse about the universe.
The students themselves are different. Their habits of mind, their spirits, even their horizons somehow seem narrowed. I use as evidence these foreboding symptoms: increased impulsiveness and decreased reflection; more vertical than horizontal thinking; fragmentary rather than holistic approaches to analysis; expanded dependencies on television, video-games, and social-networking tools and, concurrently, curtailed reading and discussing books and articles; increased telegraphic speech and a decreased practice of using precise, complete sentences in their interpersonal relations; more physical than verbal interactions with their peers; and, finally, waning attention spans that rarely remain focused beyond a few moments. Young people today are wriggling themselves to distraction. Independent learning seems neglected like so much chaff in the wind.
The implications are twofold. Young people respond to societal expectations. If societal esteem for intellectual depth is meager, then our youth will likewise view such a quality as unessential or even distasteful. Our society then bears grave responsibility for this ill-fated turning of our children’s minds. Parents, educational institutions, media services, businesses, and religious organizations are all aspects of our society at-large that may have enormous influence on young people’s views on learning and living. Yet often both parents work, schools package their programs into mind-numbing “standardized” kits, the media are redolent with sterile and coarse vignettes, and businesses and churches are self-serving. Too many young people are left unsupervised and – without adult direction and creativity – respond almost instinctually to their environs. Learning requires work. Where do these aspects come from if the significant adults in a child’s world are preoccupied or negligent about their duties?
The second implication is more insidious than the first. Eminent biologists like Thomas E. Lovejoy and E.O. Wilson have warned us steadily that we have but for a short while a window of opportunity to deal with our plethora of ecological woes. Taking advantage of this limited opening requires creative interaction, analytical and reflective resolve, and scientific literacy. Sadly, these are some of the very traits that seem to have waned so considerably in my two decades of teaching. Recent studies reveal a shocking illiteracy rate among the American public for math and science. If the significant adults in a child’s world do not see, much less understand, the causes and complexities of our ecological conundrums, where will the insights come from in the next decade or so to solve them?
The narrowed horizons of young people, low societal esteem for intellectual pursuits, and a debilitating illiteracy rate for math and science can be a recipe for hopelessness if we do not act unequivocally. This fearsome triumvirate can kill culture, even our species, in the long run because we lose perspective on our role in the economy of nature. Thus, we dismiss the importance of stewardship, cooperation, and interdependence at our own peril.
Tropical deforestation. Acid rain. Toxic and noisy environments. Overexploited natural resources. Our ecological troubles are really signs of our widespread ignorance about connections. Theodosius Dobzhansky, late professor of zoology at Columbia University, argued that the world’s ecological crises stem from a philosophy of exploitation and expansion without which humankind could not have evolved modern civilization. But, he continued, such a philosophy must now be altered into one of stability and common ground if human culture is to survive. Our ethical guide out of this imbroglio might be a unified attempt to achieve cultural and ecological equilibrium. That requires young people enthusiastic about learning, a high societal standard for intellectual activity, and a firm understanding among all citizens of scientific principles operating in our world. Is all this possible?
When working with my students, I am entirely optimistic about the solutions to our troubles. I have to be. They are the inheritors of this mess. They will need a healthy world in which to raise their children. Maybe a sense of immediacy will instill the creativity, the analysis, and the cooperation needed for survival. When I am alone, however, or when I am speaking with colleagues, I am touched sometimes with an ugly hopelessness. Our efforts may not be valiant enough. Our insights and our knowledge may not be equal to the task before us. And perhaps the window of opportunity has already shut without our knowing.
So I give my students a scientific method as a tool for analyzing the problems that confront them. I teach them ecology so that they see local and global interconnections. And I try to imbue a sense of wonder about the natural world to stave off the mediocrity, indifference, and apathy around them. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” He had in mind, of course, the natural wildness of forests, streams, and other remote places. To his meaning, I would add the wildness of a young person’s mind and spirit. Young people are naturally curious and are easily enthused by the world. Only when they are encumbered by the artificiality in our culture do they falter and become apathetic. So maybe my optimism when working with my students is not forced at all. Maybe, just maybe, my teaching instincts recognize the grand potential of these young citizens for changing and sustaining a society that has underestimated them.