The success of National Geographic’s Cosmos might appear to offer a glimmer of hope that America is ready to break free of the anti-intellectualism movement that has left this country in the wake of other developed nations when it comes to scientific literacy.
But the deep structural and cultural obstacles in American society for attaining intellectual enlightenment will erase any short-term good news moments like popularity of a TV show.
America remains a scientifically ignorant nation for two reasons: the resurgence of fundamentalist religion during the past 40 years, and secondly, the low level of science education in American elementary and secondary schools, as well as many tertiary colleges.
While television ratings for Cosmos may have stunned media critics and your average fundamentalist, “Americans continue to poll more like Iranians or Nigerians than Europeans or Canadians on questions of evolution, scriptural inerrancy, the presence of angels and demons, and so forth.”
This week, Gallup released a poll showing 42 percent of Americans still believe God created human beings in their present form less than 10,000 years ago. Last week, the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire published a study showing only 28 percent of Tea Party Republicans trust scientists.
It gets worse. More than two-thirds of Americans, according to surveys conducted for the National Science Foundation, are unable to identify DNA as the key to heredity. Nine out of 10 don’t understand radiation and what it can do the human body, while one in five adult Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth.
A 2008 University of Texas study found that 25 percent of public school biology teachers believe that humans and dinosaurs inhabited the earth simultaneously.
“This level of scientific illiteracy provides fertile soil for political appeals based on sheer ignorance,” writes Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason.
Christian fundamentalism is based on the conviction that every word in the Bible is literally true and was handed down by God himself. In most Western developed nations, Christian fundamentalists represent a minority, loopy fringe. In America, however, one third believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, while nearly 60 percent believe the Armageddon predictions in the Book of Revelation will come true.
Amusingly, fundamentalist Christians are evidently as ignorant of the Bible as they are of science, given a majority of Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible. “How can citizens understand what creationism means, or make an informed decision about whether it belongs in classrooms, if they cannot even locate the source of the creation story,” asks Jacoby.
The great obstacle to educational and rational enlightenment is America’s disparate educational system. The Constitution asserted no federal power over education. In other words, states are free to spend their own tax revenue as they see fit. The reliance on property taxes to fund public education has produced an ever-widening gap between those educated in the historically more economically prosperous liberal North versus those schooled in the poorer religious South. Jacoby says it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of such regional and local disparities in the formation of American attitudes toward intellect and learning.
Today, for instance, New York spends $19,000 per student per year on elementary and secondary education, whereas Tennessee spends less than half that amount ($8,200). States such as Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana each spend less than $3,000 per student.
“Decentralization was wonderful for the initial diffusion of high schools,” said Lawrence Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard who helped write The Race between Education and Technology, one of the most comprehensive analyses of the spread of the American educational system throughout the 20th century. “But it created big geographic inequality.”
Among OECD nations, America remains an outlier, one of the few advanced nations where schools serving better-off children are afforded more funding than those serving poor students. Among the 34 OECD nations, only in the United States, Israel and Turkey do disadvantaged schools have lower teacher/student ratios than in those serving more privileged students.
Andreas Schleicher, who runs the OECD’s international educational assessments, recently told the New York Times: “The bottom line is that the vast majority of O.E.C.D. countries either invest equally into every student or disproportionately more into disadvantaged students. The U.S. is one of the few countries doing the opposite.”
For generations, the science curriculum in Southern states was “vetted by adults who believed in the innate inferiority of blacks and who also subscribed to fundamentalist creeds at odds with the growing body of secular scientific knowledge.” In other words, the content of education in the most backward states of the country would be determined by the most backward people.
“Suffice to say that in a society based for so long on the supremacy of the planter aristocracy and belief in the innate inferiority of blacks, there was little reason to provide decent public education for poor whites, much less blacks,” writes Jacoby. “Why bother, when just being white—even an illiterate white—made an inhabitant of the South superior to any black?”
Today, the South’s slavish devotion to the Republican Party’s corporate profit motive has ensured a continued devaluation of public education, with GOP-controlled states from North Carolina to Kansas inflicting dramatic spending cuts to education to make way for further tax breaks to the rich and corporations. The far right’s solution to a failing education system is to usher white kids into private schools and Christian academies aka “segregation academies.” The Republican-controlled South is where you see the right’s education strategy in action. “Inspired by home-school superstars such as Creation Museum founder Ken Ham, tens of thousands of other southern families have fled their public-school systems in order to soak their children in the anti-intellectual sitz bath of religious denial,” writes Chuck Thompson in Better Off Without Em.
Absent a national curriculum, and with the defunding of public education, some Southern states are experiencing a 2 to 3 percent annual transfer rate out of public schools into charter schools. Worryingly, we are also seeing this trend in a select number of blue states. “The charter school movement is another big part of the problem,” says Max Brantely, editor-in-chief of the Arkansas Times.
Study after study demonstrates that the claim attesting charter schools perform better than public schools is a myth. Worse, a charter school is free to deliver a curriculum that serves the ideological worldview of its shareholders and founders—a curriculum that may include the teaching of biblical creationism. Follow this trend to its natural conclusion, and you end up with an ever widening intellectual gap between us and the rest of modern civilization.
While charter schools aren’t unique to the South, conservative states tend to respond most enthusiastically to their message, which makes Republican-controlled states ground zero for the further degradation of public education. As such, expect the U.S. to continue to poll like Nigeria and Iran, rather than Japan and Sweden when it comes to understanding science. In other words, we’re dumb and getting dumber.