[EAS-I]Ill-Informed Citizenry

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Mon Jul 17 18:21:08 EDT 2000

Mail*Link® SMTP               Ill-Informed Citizenry

Dear Colleagues -

Today's Gary Chapman column reminds us that the information age "diet"
is producing "fast-food junkies" -- fat but not healthy. What some
have called "McDonaldization" can also affect our curricula under the
ever greater pressure to accommodate additional technical facets.
Courses become fat, with little conceptual sinew. 

Although one of my areas of teaching, circuit design, offers what for
many of my readers will be a very specialized example, as much as
possible I try to relate circuit specifics to important general design
principles, such as symmetry, equilibrium and superposition. Late in
the semester I review earlier material with renewed emphasis on the
role of these principles. Practicing thinking in those terms may be
the most durable aspect of the course for many students.

    --Peter Kindlmann


Monday, July 17, 2000

Well-Informed Citizens Increasingly Rare in Information Age

By Gary Chapman

Copyright 2000, The Los Angeles Times, All Rights Reserved

Last month, the National Science Foundation released its report 
"Science and Engineering Indicators 2000" 
(http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind00/), which revealed some data about 
Americans' understanding of the world that are strikingly at odds 
with the ubiquitous hype about our "Age of Information."

"Most Americans," the report says, "know a little, but not a lot, 
about science and technology." Given some of the findings, even that 
may be generous.

While more than 70% of the people the NSF surveyed knew that the 
Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around, and that 
humans and dinosaurs did not coexist, only 16% could define the 
Internet and only 13% could accurately describe a molecule. At least 
those numbers are going up, the report's authors noted diplomatically 
-- five years ago, only 11% could define the Internet and only 9% 
could describe a molecule.

"Science literacy in the United States [and in other countries] is 
fairly low," says the report with typically measured understatement. 
Only about a fifth of the Americans surveyed could describe what it 
means to study something scientifically.

In a classification of the level of interest in science and 
technology among Americans, the NSF study used a category labeled 
"the attentive public," meaning people who "express a high level of 
interest in a particular issue, feel well-informed about that issue, 
and read a newspaper on a daily basis, read a weekly or monthly news 
magazine, or read a magazine relevant to the issue." A mere 10% of 
Americans fit this description, according to the report.

About 40% of the survey population reported being very interested in 
science and technology, but only 17% thought they were personally 
well-informed. About 30% thought they were poorly informed.

These discouraging data fit with other patterns in Americans' 
knowledge about things, like current events. In 1997, researchers at 
the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington 
said, "An analysis of public attentiveness to more than 500 news 
stories over the last 10 years confirms that the American public pays 
relatively little attention to many of the serious news stories of 
the day."

Last month, the Pew Research Center reported that 84% of people 
surveyed "are not paying a lot of attention to the Microsoft 
breakup," perhaps the most important antitrust case of the last 80 
years. Over 70% were unaware that there is a federal budget surplus, 
and 56% had "no idea who Alan Greenspan is." (Greenspan is chairman 
of the Federal Reserve Board.)

Ten years ago, Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center, said, "The 
ultimate irony of [our] findings is that the Information Age [has] 
spawned such an uninformed and uninvolved population." There doesn't 
appear to be sufficient reason to change this assessment even five 
years into the boom of the Internet.

Such surveys of American knowledge seem to paint a picture of us that 
is reflected in many of our more popular political leaders: 
optimistic, generally untroubled by the world's woes, but manifestly 
ill-informed. We have tended to accept this because of our faith in 
native pragmatism and common sense. But with the world getting 
increasingly complex, technologized and competitive, such faith may 
verge on the delusional.

"After a steady series of breakthroughs in information technology," 
wrote David Shenk in his 1997 book "Data Smog," "we are left with a 
citizenry that is certainly no more interested or capable of 
supporting a healthy representative democracy than it was 50 years 
ago, and may well be less capable."

Improving education is the most common knee-jerk plan of action for 
perceived deficits in American understanding and knowledge, 
especially in math and science. No doubt there is vast room for 
improvement in U.S. education. But as political philosopher Benjamin 
Barber of Rutgers University has pointed out, young people tend to 
learn what society teaches them to value.

The simple truth is that deep study of science, math, history, 
literature, art or familiarity with current events cannot compete 
with celebrity gossip and scandals, large calamities, TV and video 
games, voyeurism, consumerism, instant fortunes, advertising and 
popular but ephemeral fascinations.

University educators, like me, are constantly astonished at the depth 
and breadth of students' knowledge about popular culture and consumer 
products and by the weakness of their grasp on valuable and vital 
subjects. They are learning, but not what we usually think of as 
"learning." Too many are learning answers to the questions on the 
runaway hit TV quiz show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," instead of 
the answers to life's most important questions.

Studies have shown that U.S. parents have much lower expectations of 
their children and much higher opinions of their children's 
educational achievements than parents in other countries. It's very 
common for American parents to mistake their child's deep knowledge 
of some idiosyncratic fixation for general educational competence.

This is perhaps the true ultimate irony of the Information Age: As 
high-tech leaders persistently, almost desperately, call for more 
educated workers, the "info-tainment" business that is rapidly 
absorbing the Internet and all other media makes well-informed 
citizens even more rare and unusual. The constant "dumbing-down" and 
vulgarization of the culture industry, driven by mass marketing and 
profits, is clearly at odds with educational excellence, but few 
high-tech leaders can bring themselves to admit their role in this 
depressing decline.

Until we sever education from beeps, clicks, dancing cartoons, games, 
celebrities, ads, trivia and marketing hype, the idea of living in an 
Age of Information will continue to be something of a cruel joke.

Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the 
University of Texas. He can be reached at 
gary.chapman at mail.utexas.edu.


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