Science, Jazz, and Education

So I’ve been in New Orleans for the last 5 days for a mini-vacation and for the most part I’m in love with this city.   The food is amazing, there’s live music everywhere, and I haven’t had this much fun in ages.  It got me wishing that there was a way I could be based here for work at least part of the year.

To be fair, there is a startup scene here and by all indications its growing.  So maybe it’s just a matter of time.   Never-mind the summer rain and the oppressive heat, I want to be able to post up in a cafe and listen to the Faux Barrio Billionaires lay down that n’awlins jazz while I write code or work on new technical docs. I mean that sincerely.

I suppose for me the biggest barrier (well ok, second biggest after the hurricanes) to relocating to a place like New Orleans is the anti-science hard-line religious fundamentalism that seems endemic in the south.  Of course in NOLA itself  it seems like most folks understand that the purpose of life is to live and are far too busy cooking amazing food, making music, and generally enjoying themselves to go on witch hunts… but sadly I can’t say the same for the rest of Louisiana.  What do you do with a state that passes laws designed specifically to undermine the teaching of science?   As much as I love jazz and creole music and gumbo I wouldn’t want to send my kids (if I had them, and many of my friends and coworkers do) to school in a state where schools tell students that the Loch Ness Monster is real in a misguided attempt to disprove evolution.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way and I can’t help but think it’s got to be a barrier for the local tech startups as they try to expand and grow.  I’ve been in the startup scene for a while and I can say with some degree of certainty that the folks who dream up new technologies and spend years developing them into tools that can change the world tend to be creative expressive types who are into music and art.  But we also tend to be unusually analytical in our thinking and value science and logic (after all, programming is nothing more or less than the process of writing complex logical arguments).  You need both things – creativity and logic – to be an inventor.  Neither one will suffice on its own.  And that means if we want to teach kids to be innovators we need to teach them to dream and teach them how to build the things they dream about both.*

I know plenty of folks who can balance a solid understanding of scientific principles  and logic with their religious beliefs.  So why can’t State Legislatures do the same?   What will it take to make these folks understand that they’re actively harming the entire country’s economic outlook by promoting an anti-science agenda in schools and leaving our young people without the tools they need to function in the modern world?  Faith didn’t create any of the technologies that have changed our world so radically in the last century, science did.  You cannot have technological innovation without the relentless search for knowledge and willingness to challenge traditional beliefs and ways of doing things that typify scientific pursuit.

Frankly, I think we need a lot more of that as a nation.  It’s not just Louisiana or the south that’s suffering, America as a whole is doing a terrible job teaching science.**  That’s one of the reasons why almost 40% of the people who graduate with Science or Engineering degrees in the US are foreign-born (that’s up from 23% in the 1960’s).   Like so many other immigrants before them, they’re taking the jobs Americans don’t want or aren’t prepared to do.  Except that in this case those jobs are high-paying high-status jobs that power the entire rest of the economy.  It’s one thing to accept the best and the brightest from around the world and welcome them to a land of opportunity, it’s another thing to be essentially outsourcing our innovative class because we’d rather keep our children ignorant and poor than give them the tools they need to compete in a global economy.

We can do better.  We have to do better.  And we can start by finally having a serious national conversation about the role of education and setting some real standards.  All of which is a really long-winded way of saying that NOLA is an absolutely amazing town and I plan to go back as soon as I can get away again, but I don’t think I’ll be moving south of the Mason-Dixon line any time soon.

* I don’t intend to imply that the problem is by any means confined to the South – California has many many schools that are failing to deliver the quality of education our kids need and deserve.   This problem is by no means limited to low-income communities but is particularly acute for them.  Economic disparities tied to the fact that CA uses property taxes to fund its schools mean that poor neighborhoods have poor schools statewide, all you have to do is lay maps of school district funding, economic status, racial composition of the neighborhoods, and academic performance next to each other to see it, it’s hardly a secret.   To varying degrees, this is true in every state in the Union.   The fact is that in 2012 our public schools remain largely separate and unequal and academic acheivement in low-income schools is the exception rather then the rule.

There are two possible explanations for this poor performance – either poor and working class children are inherently inferior or they are being systematically  robbed of the opportunity to reach their full potential.  Despite our public claims as a nation to have moved beyond the racism and classism of our recent past, I think most people quietly believe the first explanation because admitting the possibility of the second would mean acknowledging that a monstrous wrong is being committed.  Social Psychologists call this the “just world” fallacy.  Most people want to believe the world is a fair place despite all evidence to the contrary and the only way to do that is quite often to blame the victims.  Allowing this to continue in the 21st century is simply unacceptable both from a social justice perspective and from an economic one.  There is no way to know how many potentially word-changing innovations we are missing out on because the people who could have invented them did not get the tools they needed to become the people they might have been.  The opportunity costs of underfunding our educational systems in California and across America are incalculable.

** Interestingly, one of the big factors there is that Texas (unlike most States) has standardized textbooks which means that for textbook publishers Texas is the largest market and so they write the books they ship nationally according to Texan sensibilities.  That means Evolution, the age of the planet, and other topics that should not be controversial in 2012 get glossed over and are not covered in depth.  That leaves kids nationwide with deliberately under-developed understandings of these core scientific concepts and makes them susceptible to frauds, which in turn helps perpetuate belief in Creationism and other absurdities and allows the cycle to continue.   If California adopted a state-wide standard for science education the publishers would have to write to our curriculum instead and we could solve this problem for the whole country.