Friday, November 25, 2011

Evolving Illiteracies

Recently I was lamenting the state of geographic illiteracy with a colleague. It is an increasingly common condition that was most famously exemplified by Miss Teen South Carolina (above) and Kellie Pickler (below).

The colleague responded that he was beginning to think that discipline-specific illiteracies are proliferating, as people emerge from years of education without rudimentary command of geography, chemistry, math, or even their own religions. This could mean that disciplinary illiteracy is a sign that we overestimate the importance of our own fields and of what constitutes "basic" knowledge. It could also mean that we are generalizing from small samples of unusually ill-informed celebrities. After all, the Miss Teen South Carolina video has had 8 million online views because so many people find it appalling.

Perhaps a simpler explanation is in order, though. Perhaps learning really has declined as decades of "reform" have reduced education to whatever is easiest to measure. Short-term gains in a few narrowly-defined areas of knowledge come with at least three significant kinds of costs. The first is that short-term drills to boost test scores will not be sustainable. No Child Left Behind has elevated "cramming" for a test from something the best students avoid to a blueprint for running entire schools. The second is that educators have to teach in ever-narrow bands of information, some subjects get left out. Third, conveying of that information becomes more important than the art of teaching and the skill of learning, until eventually a school becomes a building full of people simply going through the motions.

But I digress. The impetus for this post is a breath-taking display of scientific literacy at another beauty pageant. As reported on, when the 2011 Miss USA contest included the usual question-and-answer period, it uncovered a wide vein of scientific illiteracy. Relatively affluent young people from each of the United States revealed that they had not learned even very basic things about science and about the meaning of a democracy. Snopes is a web site that evaluates urban legends, and first became involved when its readers asked about the veracity of this video:

Aside from the fact that the actresses in this video appear several times each, with different sashes, it was apparently difficult to discern that this was a parody of the way real pageant contestants responded to a question about the teaching of evolution. Even the very few who exhibit some support for science are surprisingly willing to allow conjecture, opinion, and myth to share equal time in science classrooms:

This is more horrifying than amusing, as contestant after contestant reveals breath-taking scientific illiteracy. Opponents of science education have succeeded in shifting the debate toward some vague notion of fairness, rather than accuracy, as all views of the evidence are seen as somehow equally deserving. It is interesting that this kind of relativism comes from the far right, which in other contexts insists on absolutism in teaching. Most of the contestants also exhibit a lot of confusion between moral and scientific questions. Questions about how the world works are not moral questions, just as questions about how we should treat our neighbors are not scientific questions. I was also reminded of my colleague's concern about multiple illiteracies, since most of the responses fail in several dimensions: science, logic, and grammar.

In the actual interviews, Miss Vermont shows the best understanding of the issues, arguing that our understanding of short-term processes involving bacteria and disease only make sense in the broader context of evolution. In the parody, sadly, Miss Vermont is shown as the least gorgeous contestant, in a flannel-and-glasses stereotype. Of course, one can be both beautiful and capable in science and math, as Danica McKellar teaches young women through Kiss My Math and other books.

It is also too bad that the videos do not show how the non-voluptuous and non-female can be equally illiterate or inumerate. Examples abound, of course: just today a middle-aged man approached our car on his motorcycle, treating the double-yellow line as a lane rather than a divider, as if he and his Harley had zero width.

But I will close this post with one from Harvard University. It is a favorite among geographers, because Harvard closed its geography department in the 1950s and seems not to have recovered. The clip below is part of a longer project about science education known as A Private Universe.

September 25, 2012 Update:

The shuttering of Harvard's geography department deserves some elaboration, especially as the university has moved in recent years to re-fill the void but without reversing its mistake of a half century ago.

Homophobia certainly was part of the equation, which those who see Harvard as a bastion of liberalism might find difficult to believe. It was not the sole cause, of course, but it was a factor in the closing of  departments at Yale, Harvard, and Stanford.

Neil Smith's definitive 1987 article on the Harvard crisis details the demise of the department and its ramifications. The article is cited in a 2006 article in Harvard Magazine that dismisses the role of homophobia and focuses on the vocational value of GIS, mistakenly elevating it as the principle savior of the discipline. Geographic Information Systems and related geospatial industries certainly are important, and it is great to be in a discipline with both academic and practical value. But our friends on the Charles seem to remain resistant to the value of geography as vital discipline that integrates global education and the STEM disciplines.

Returning to the original theme of this post, it should come as no surprise that the failure to teach geography is associated with a failure to learn the subject. Fortunately, the cause of geographic and scientific literacy has been rejoined both in Massachusetts and nationally, and the book Geography for Life provides a clear map of the road ahead.

Photo (c) 2012 by BSU geographer Ashley Costa, opens the new
AAG/NCGE/NGS publication Geography for Life.

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