Blowing our Sputnik Moment
In the space of six weeks, two major environmental reports were released, first by a UN scientific panel and then by 13 US Federal government agencies, detailing near-term catastrophic consequences of human-caused climate change. And if we, obtuse organisms that we are, need any object lessons as to what this means and what may be in store, the past year has brought us a plague of monster hurricanes and typhoons, 500-year floods, wildfires, red tides and whales washing ashore with mounds of plastic in their poor dead bellies.
Sixty years ago, the US faced a crisis when the Russians launched a series of satellites into space. The US response to Sputnik was not just immediate; it permeated every part of American society, especially our schools. High school students studied Russian. New hands-on science and math programs were developed and adopted. The National Science Foundation gave thousands of scholarships to young people to spend their summers studying physics, chemistry and life sciences. I remember because I was one of those lucky kids, 15 years old, travelling far from home in the heady Kennedy years asking what we could do for our country. By the mid 60’s, the US had passed the Russians in the space race and our colleges and universities were turning out thousands of scientists and mathematicians.
The crisis we’re faced with today is far more serious than Sputnik with potentially life shattering consequences for everything that crawls and breathes on the planet. Yet our collective response scarcely merits the word “paltry.” This time the forces of evil are not an easily objectified foreign adversary but rather our insatiable need to consume and our ability to distract ourselves from inconvenient truths. And this time our education system is not coming to our rescue; it is failing us.
If the principal objective of education is to help our children become productive citizens who can solve the problems of our times, why isn’t every school teaching environmental science every day, every year and at every grade? Why is school “accountability” based solely on narrow ELA and math tests instead of equally on measures correlated to environmental awareness, curiosity for all things science, empathy for all living creatures, problem-based learning skills and civic engagement? Why are we blowing our Sputnik moment?
Political leadership is only partly to blame. We certainly can’t expect a president who tries to hide the findings of his own science panel to point the way forward. But more must be expected from those of us whose life work is education, whether we are teachers, administrators, writers, board members or policy-makers. Educators can and absolutely must grab hold of the wheel and the pulpit. There is nothing more urgent and nothing more germane to their calling. If we raise our collective voice it will be heard just as certainly as it was heard last spring in Arizona.
We can begin by a serious overhaul of our nonsensical and unimaginative test-based accountability practices. This is not to devalue the importance of numeracy and literacy; it is simply a plea for normalcy. Obsessing over test scores is a waste of time and, in the present crisis, probably borders on lunacy. We need to graduate thousands of skilled young people who can dedicate themselves to stewardship of this planet. And in order to do that we need to prioritize earth and climate science, civics, and problem-based learning. After all, what good will it do for students to “rock the tests” if their schools are blown away, burned to the ground or underwater?