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Jewish World Review Nov. 27, 2001 / 12 Kislev, 5762

Marc Berley

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The war against ignorance -- BAD news in the war against bio-terrorism just came in from the home front. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2000 science scores are in, and they show that American students are performing dismally in science. Only 29 percent of the nation's fourth graders are proficient, only 32 percent of eighth graders. As for twelfth graders, the year that counts, only 18 percent are proficient.

The NAEP, known as "The Nation's Report Card," tests America's students in basic subjects every four years, in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. Unfortunately, the 2000 science scores prove scientifically one of the most dismal facts about American education: the longer students stay in school, the less they know.

"If our graduates know less about science than their predecessors four years ago, then our hopes for a strong 21st-century work force are dimming just when we need them most," said U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, commenting on the fact that students performed worse in 2000 than they did in 1996.

The science slide is not only bad news for the 21st-century economy. Our nation is becoming increasingly susceptible to biological terrorism just when the threat of biological terrorism is becoming most real.

The aim of terrorism is to terrorize, and a nation of people lacking basic scientific knowledge is easy to terrorize. Take Anthrax. Only five people have died in two months. But Americans rushed out for Cipro, and many took it without cause, despite the many reasons not to, including the possibility of ruining the healing power of Cipro.

Even before September 11th, Americans, lacking basic knowledge, were daily ruining the most powerful tools of public health. Many Americans take antibiotics for common colds as well as the flu, even though they work for neither, even though misuse decreases their future effectiveness to fight common bacterial infections.

Nothing will further the goals of bio-terrorists like mass ignorance of basic scientific facts.

The greatest threat faced by our healthcare system in the age of terrorism is a wholesale rush on its limited resources by an American public beset by unnecessary panic. Such panic would itself cause deaths, for healthcare workers would have trouble treating those truly in need.

To fight the long war against terrorism, America will not only need more students to go into advanced scientific fields; we will also need the general population to be more science-minded.

The sinking science scores are troubling. What can we do to change things? Well, first we have to consider why the scores so low: Years ago, special interest groups high-jacked the higher cause of educating America's children. In English, grammar went out the window. In math, right answers were abandoned for the good feelings of "fuzzy math." Science education went down the drain too.

The world of education is its own battleground - one where the stakes are nothing less than the future of America. Imagine what America might do if it found the resolve to fight the war against ignorance, if we mustered the will to end our self-induced spiral into non-proficiency and embrace the process of real learning again.

JWR contributor Marc Berley, president of the Foundation for Academic Standards & Tradition, is author of After the Heavenly Tune and co-editor of The Diversity Hoax. Comment by clicking here.


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10/08/01: Clinton still spinning a legacy
10/01/01: A new kind of peace movement
09/25/01: Why Can't Israel Be "With Us"?
09/20/01: Because We're America

© 2001, Marc Berley