Space is the Place

I may or may not have made my political preferences clear for this election season, so before I get into any talking, let me be up front.

I’m all over Obama. I’ve already given around $100 to his campaign, which is $100 more than I’ve ever given a political campaign, and I plan to give much more in the coming months.

I’m due some criticism of him, though, on a topic I’ve written too much about already: Education.

In discussing his plan for increasing education funding, Barak Obama suggested delaying NASA’s Constellation program – that’s the one where we return to the moon and build a moon base – by five years so we could spend money on Education instead. His reasoning is:

We’re not going to have the engineers and the scientists to continue space exploration if we don’t have kids who are able to read, write and compute,” Obama said.

Obama is a smart guy, but he’s displaying the same fundamental misunderstanding of how you get kids to learn things as anyone who rises to a sufficiently powerful position. This is a problem best discussed by Neil Postman in his amazing book The End of Education.

The problem with our educational system, he says, is not one of engineering but of motivation. It’s not that we have 40 kids in a class when we should have no more than 20, or that the teachers are overworked or that we need newer textbooks. It’s that we give our children no meaningful reason to care about what our schools are teaching them.

There is enormous educational value in pursuing a space program avidly: if you do it right, it’s going to make kids want to become engineers, and thus make them want to learn to read, write and compute. We can give them all the books and teachers we want, but if the system looks like BS, they’re going to tune out. A public, national space program creates a narrative that we can use to convince people – not just kids, but adults too – that there are things worth striving for.

In other words, Moon Bases Are Cool.

$18 billion is not a magic bullet that will cure our educational ills. Lack of funding is only one reason our schools are failing. The fact is, there are a lot of reasons why kids aren’t learning the lessons we want to teach them. While committing more national resources to help is a very good thing, we cannot pretend that our children exist in some sort of cultural vacuum while in their school years. The kids will be educated in the things they care about. If we don’t give them reasons to care about reading and writing and math and computers, though, they’ll find something else to occupy their time. Even if their schools are well funded super-centers.

Reveling in a bold, adventurous program like lunar colonization gets people to look forward, and when they look forward they start wondering how they can be a part of that shiny new future. But throwing money at our schools with little regard for whose pocket we’re picking while we do it is no better than the parents who substitute a big allowance for the attention they won’t give their children.

Obama, people keep saying you’re like John Kennedy, and in a lot of ways they’re right. But this is one area in which you could use a little education from him.

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2 Responses to Space is the Place

  1. gastrogora says:

    We all need a little something to dream about…that is why and how we learn. I agree. Obama also understands how to dream, he embodies the American dream. We seriously cannot fault him for a statement about securing the fundamental elements in our education system. He understands that to educate our children, they must be motivated. Our children must first learn how to understand and use their basic knowledge so that they CAN dream and explore the world beyond their own.

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