The Third Culture Leon M. Lederman

Survival Depends on the Race Between Education and Catastrophe

A greatly underrated crisis looming over us was predicted by the futurist H. G. Wells. In about 1922 he commented that survival would depend on the race between education and catastrophe. The justification for this profound foresight can be seen in the incredible violence of this century we have survived, and the newfound capacity of mankind to obliterate the planet. Today, although political rhetoric extols education, the educational system we have cleverly devised and which is in part a product of the wisdom of our founding fathers defies reform. It is a system incapable of learning from either our successes or our failures.

How many parents and policy makers know that the system for teaching science in 99% of our high schools was installed over 100 years ago?

A National Committee of Ten in 1893 chaired by a Harvard President recommended that high school children be instructed in science in the sequence Biology, then Chemistry, and then Physics. The logic was not wholly alphabetical since Physics was thought to require a more thorough grounding in mathematics.

Then came the 20th century, the most scientifically productive century in the history of mankind. Revolutions in all these and other disciplines have changed the fundamental concepts and have created a kind of hierarchy of sciences; the discovery of the atom, quantum mechanics, nuclear sciences, molecular structures, quantum chemistry, earth sciences and astrophysics, cellular structures and DNA. To all of this, the high school system was unmoved.

These events and pleas to high school authorities from scientists and knowledgeable teachers went unheeded. The system defies change. We still teach the disciplines as unconnected subjects with ninth grade biology as a chore of memorizing more new words than 9th and 10th grade French together!

This is only one dramatic example of the resistance of the system to change. Our well-documented failure in science education is matched by failures in geography, history, literature and so forth.

"So what?" critics say. "Look at our booming economy. If we can do so well economically, our educational system can’t be all that important."

Here is where appeal to H. G. Wells’ insightful vision enters. The trend lines of our work force are ominous. Increasing numbers of our citizens are cut-off from access to technological components of society, are alienated and are condemned to scientific and technological illiteracy. We have by the process, solidified and increased the gap between the two classes of our culture. And the formative elements of culture outside of school: TV, cinema, and radio . . . strongly encourage this partition. Look at the social (as well as economic) status of teachers. Most parents want the best teachers for their children, but would bridle at the suggestion that their children become teachers.

The penalties of continuing to graduate cultural illiterates (in science and the humanities) may not be evident in year 2000 Wall Street, but it is troubling the leaders of our economic success, the CEO’s of major corporations who see a grim future in our workforce. Can we continue to import educated workers? As the low-level service jobs continue to give way to robots and computers, the needs are increasingly for workers who have high level reasoning skills, which a proper education can supply to the vast majority of students.

But what is it that threatens "catastrophe" in the 21st century? Aside from the dark implication of a hardening two-class system, there is a world around us that provides global challenges to society and solutions require large popular consensus. Global climate change, population stabilization, the need for research to understand ourselves and our world, the need for extensive educational reform, support for the arts, preservation of natural resources, clean air and water, clean streets and city beautification, preservation of our wilderness areas and our biodiversity–these and other elements make life worth living, and cannot sensibly be confined to enclaves of the rich.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to construct catastrophes out of a failed educational system.

LEON M. LEDERMAN , the director emeritus of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, has received the Wolf Prize in Physics (1982), and the Nobel Prize in Physics (1988). In 1993 he was awarded the Enrico Fermi Prize by President Clinton. He is the author of several books, including (with David Schramm) From Quarks to the Cosmos : Tools of Discovery, and (with Dick Teresi) The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?

LINKS: The Story of Leon; Leon M. Lederman Science Information Center