Reclaiming our Aspirations for Greatness
“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” – William Shakespeare
What has happened to our nation’s aspirations for greatness?
Since the Apollo moon landings of 1969-1972, our appetite for greatness has undeniably waned. For more than two decades the NASA budget has been in decline in real, inflation-adjusted dollars. Great goals like going from zero to the moon in 10 years have been replaced by lackluster goals like returning to the moon in 20 or 25 years. Even our national security space ambitions have declined from all-out-space superiority to affordable systems that are just “good enough” – the current mantra in the halls of the Pentagon.
Whither goest our greatness? We are well into a new age of global interdependence, where the dollar no longer reigns supreme, where the U.S. is no longer presumed to be the preferred partner in complex undertakings, and where any number of other nations’ space programs are rising to challenge our own.
Is American greatness doomed to serve as a cautionary tale for this new world order?
It doesn’t have to be – if we choose to act.
For the past 15 years, virtually every study or commission report on America’s decline in space, aerospace and high-tech leadership has pointed to our crumbling education system as a prime suspect. As a nation, we must stop using schools as political footballs, and, instead, roll up our sleeves, and commence rebuilding the system – including investing the serious cash that such a renovation will require.
The problem is, of course, that it’s difficult to agree on what the plans for the renovation should look like.
One of the most startling recommendations yet made by President Obama is that American students should spend more time in school. Startling because it’s the plain truth and so few politicians have spoken this plain truth. Startling also because my 7th-grade son agrees with President Obama that the school day isn’t long enough to accomplish everything he’d like.
It’s not a new idea, of course, but one that harks back at least to the age of Shakespeare, when the Renaissance was in full flower. Coincidentally, last month marked the birth date, 445 years ago, of the great Bard, a good excuse to pause and consider the education system that shaped his as well as so many other great intellects.
Young William attended the King’s New School at Stratford-Upon-Avon. Entry to the school was predicated upon the student’s ability to read and write. There were no tutorials, no remedial training and no excuses. You had to be able to read and write before you could even be admitted to study reading and writing. The school day began around 6 or 7 a.m., with lessons until 9 a.m. – at which time a breakfast of bread and ale was served. Lessons then resumed until 11 a.m., students went home for the midday meal, and classes resumed from 1 p.m. until at least 5 p.m., with a single 15-minute “recess” for physical activity. School was in session six days a week, with Sundays off.
That’s at least a 54-hour school week. My own son’s school week, based on hours of 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. Monday-Friday with 30 minutes for lunch and recess amounts to little more than half of Shakespeare’s school week. When one compares the towering intellects produced by the Renaissance period schools of 500 years ago to the plummeting academic performance of most modern American schools – well, it does make “mute wonder lurketh in men's ears.”
It especially gives pause if you reflect upon what’s going on in education on a global basis. An excellent documentary called “2 Million Minutes” compares the four-year (two million minutes) experience of a high school student in the United States to the same two million minutes for a student in India and a student in China. The education regimen in these two nations (which both score higher in science and mathematics performance at the middle-school and high-school levels than does the United States) looks a lot like the academic regimen of Shakespeare’s day. The two million minutes for the U.S. high school student looks like, well, a little bit of study and a lot of fast food and X-Box.
Longer school hours alone won’t fix the problem, of course. Inspiration is as important as perspiration, and it is hard to come by when your teachers are so often teaching subjects they’ve never trained in, using assembly-line pedagogies left over from the industrial age, and absent the emotional and intellectual stimulus of an Apollo-like space program that had Americans glued to their TV sets and enrollments in graduate engineering and science programs skyrocketing.
At the Space Foundation, we’ve based nearly 23 years of educator professional development, curriculum, and student programs upon an educational paradigm that emerged from a national study we conducted with the University of California Annenberg School for Communication back in the 1980s. That study showed that students responded with greater interest and enthusiasm to almost any subject, if the teaching model could be built around space exploration. Student and teacher feedback continues to prove this, as in this recently received note from a Space Foundation Teacher Liaison:
“I just wanted to let you know how much fun I am having with my students because of the resources I now have access to and the ideas I got . . . I teach 4th grade . . . in the past we have plodded through our Systems of the Human Body unit in a fairly hum-drum way. But not this year! This year we are designing spacesuit models based on the seven systems of the body we are studying, and we are having a blast!
“My students are learning so much about the digestive system, the circulatory system, and all of the other systems of the body. Plus, they are really jazzed about any and everything to do with NASA and our space program. Teaching this unit through the context of living and working in space and on the moon has been enormously successful. I am really happy to be a part of this amazing program! Thank you!”
I won’t tout our education programs here, except to say that they range from in-school Pre-K programs to space-specialized Masters Degree programs for teachers, and that demand for our programs exceeds our capability to fund and deliver them. For more information, visit our education web site at www.SpaceFoundation.org/education/index.php.
If we are to “be not afraid of greatness,” then both inspiration (a well-funded, ambitious, exciting space exploration program that all Americans can get excited about) and perspiration (new education systems that emphasize quality rather than rapid output or politically motivated high-stakes testing) are needed.
Although our greatness is threatened, it is not lost – if we act.
As Shakespeare said, “nothing will come of nothing.” If we are to change, we must put our hearts, our minds and our pocketbooks behind reversing these troubling trends. The View From Here is that an American Renaissance is not only possible, but imperative, if we are to solve the global challenges that all humankind faces and boldly earn our greatness among nations in the new interdependent world in which we live.
Elliot Holokauahi Pulham
(This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Space Watch, the newsletter of The Space Foundation)