Quote of the Week: Biographical history, as taught in our public schools, is still largely a history of boneheads: ridiculous kings and queens, paranoid political leaders, compulsive voyagers, ignorant generals, the flotsam and jetsam of historical currents. The men who radically altered history, the great creative scientists and mathematicians, are seldom mentioned if at all. –Martin Gardner
It is all too easy, as Gardner effectively warns us, to focus (in both history and in current events, especially of a political nature) on specific political actors, or on other individuals who represent a tiny minority of the people who manage to change the world in some way. Mathematicians and scientists are lauded by their own institutional structures, like the Field Prize and Nobel Prizes, and are published in journals read mostly by specialists in the same field. But few people outside the realm of science and mathematics are ever aware of more than a very tiny few leaders of these fields. This, in part, helps to explain the “revolutionary” nature of modern technology. People unaware of what our best minds are thinking only learn about such things when some shiny new toy can be ordered from Amazon that makes use of new science and new knowledge – and even then, we understand the device, but not the science behind it (and we then have detailed but inaccurate debates about our toys during moments like the recent fight between the FBI and Apple over iPhone encryption).
But besides not understanding our devices, our disconnect from everything that makes our modern lives possible also threatens our ability to impact and control our modern lives. For example, conservatives pretend to “debate” on climate change, an issue that is far past the point of debate for those who understand anything at all about the science involved. There is no debate; just people who understand what is happening, and people who do not but think that a coal company’s paid spokesperson “speaks the truth” in calming the voices of alarm about our increasingly obvious damage to our environment. If more people understood science, and knew about more actual scientists and their work, there would not be any pretension to a “debate” between the knowing and the ignorant. We would have produced and implemented policies now only envisioned by those who are close to the subject and cognizant of the basic facts and processes.
Although our schools need a much more diverse program, teaching not just STEM courses, but social sciences, culture, and languages, the focus on STEM does come from a need that is increasingly unfulfilled – the need for a 21st century labor force and citizenry that understand the modern world in which they live. Part of that need involves teaching a greater awareness about the scientists and mathematicians who helped to make that world, and their ideas which are driving the technological revolution. We need to focus our resources on education to a degree far beyond what we are doing now, teach science and math and an appreciation for the processes and pioneers leading our scientific and mathematical progress. Those who have, and are, and will be radically altering our world need far more recognition – as do their ideas, their processes of discovery, and the results of the knowledge that they have given to us.
Headline image from BBC News; “How to stop the brain-teasers set by a top puzzle master,” 24 October 2014 (© 2016 BBC).