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The US isn't winning the science Olympics either

WHAT do Jimmy Swaggart, American-Korean-Finnish science scores, killer bees, the knowledge explosion, and populism have to do with one another? Granted, that's a strange collection of nouns. Few self-respecting SAT test designers or game-show hosts would dare string together such an apparently random list. But stick with it for a few minutes and let's see how they fit.

Start with the science scores. The National Science Foundation has just announced one of those periodic comparisons of science scores for students in major industrial countries around the world. As has been the case for the past decade and a half, American students (the test covered 5th, 9th, and 12th grades) fared poorly. Generally they ranked in the middle of the pack or lower.

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What should be dismaying to the US public is the failure of this ranking to change after years of warnings about the slippage of science education in particular, and education in general.

Educators may argue that it takes time to turn around a decline of such breadth. It does. But not as long as one might think.

The three nations atop the list in science testing at the fifth-grade level - Japan, South Korea, and Finland - have all changed their national character dramatically in less than two generations.

None of the three has any appreciable natural resources (with the exception of Finland's timber). And yet, since World War II, Finland has converted itself from a largely rural agrarian nation, beset by wars, into a modern high-tech and mid-tech industrial exporter with top standards of education. Japan's story hardly needs repeating here. And Korea, whose last war ended eight years later than Japan's, is fast following Tokyo's pattern in education as well as management, productivity, discipline, and quality.

Ironically, many of the business and technical leaders who have led the Japanese and South Korean economic miracles were trained in American universities. Over 30 percent of the managers who run Korea's powerful Economic Planning Board are US-educated. Quality education still exists in abundance at American colleges. At the graduate level it is generally unexcelled, even in Japan and Western Europe.

It's no secret that part of the US problem is that too few graduates in science go into teaching at the grade and high school level. The hierarchy of reward in American life is weighted toward (1) corporate financial and legal officers at the top; (2) engineering and research positions in the middle; (3) teachers of financial and legal craft next (aided by lots of consulting fees); (4) teachers of science and engineering further down the pole.


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Why should a nation once renowned for its invention, scientific know-how, and engineering skill have abdicated to such a degree?

In part we're dealing with a reaction to this century's knowledge explosion. No one should doubt that there has been one. The statistics keep battering us as if to reassure people that if we aren't having fun yet at least we're learning a lot. And we are. A sizable majority of all the natural scientists who have ever lived have done so in the past half century. More than half the inventions that are part of our daily life have been brought forth since the end of World War II. Globally, we know more about physics, biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and their hyphenated offshoots than ever before.

Sir Isaac Newton, that one-man knowledge explosion of the 17th century, would hardly have been surprised, though, to discover that this 20th-century fusillade of discovery and invention has provoked an opposite reaction. It might be called the anti-knowledge explosion. That's where Jimmy Swaggart (and that very different fundamentalist, Imam Khomeini) enters the scene. Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Baker, until they fell victim of the sensual hubris that has been the downfall of so many fictional and real evangelists in America, appealed to millions of Americans who had been left out of the fruits of the knowledge explosion. The Ayatollah appealed likewise to a large segment of Iranians. He and his fellow imams gave voice to all the Iranians and other Mideastern underclasses who had been left behind in the modernization and westernization plans by which the Shah sought to establish a new Persian empire.

There seem to be at least two reasons for the strength and persistence of this anti-knowledge reaction. First, as just indicated, a considerable portion of mankind is being left outside with its nose pressed to the window as the power to understand and use the new technical knowledge is distributed. Second, the knowledge explosion itself has been lopsidedly a phenomenon of the sciences (and quasi-sciences like political science, social science, psychology) rather than of the value studies.

The pure searchers for basic knowledge have seldom ignored moral and ethical questions raised by their work. But many of the packagers and sellers of that work have acted as if morality lay on the other side of a great divide - hazy and inexact where their ``hard'' subjects are practical and relevant. They have paid little more than chapped lip-service to moral issues.

This attitude has simply confirmed, for followers of the so-called fundamentalists, a suspicion that the purveyors of the knowledge explosion have little concern for morality.

In the political sphere, populism runs a parallel course. Large numbers of those left behind by technological change fear what they see as ant-like Asian societies. Theirs is like the reaction of many people to the overdramatized threat of ``killer bees.'' Demagogues woo them by painting a picture of the low-wage, long-hour, team-organized Korean or Japanese society as if it were Sparta reborn with technical know-how.

No such killer-bee societies exist in reality. The American answer to Asian success should start with a serious, long-term shift of resources and attention to science education - broad based enough to sweep up those who are now being left out. The US has shuddered at too many alarms since the Sputnik crisis of 1957, without responding in a sustained way.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.