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Apollo 11
Will future generations have the interest and willingness to support human space exploration? (credit: NASA)

Exploring space, finding ourselves

Why we must always have an “Out There” out there

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While wisps of the United States’ meandering space policy still linger over Washington and its acrid vapors coil about NASA field centers and a few centers of industry, yet another anniversary of humankind’s first footfalls upon another celestial body slipped by. This stark contrast between current malaise and past glory prompted numerous advocates to offer heartfelt appeals that define where, how, and why we as a people should go in space. There was not much new in these assorted pleas and I will not pit any one proffered celestial pathway against any others. (Full disclosure: I prefer the building-block route—cogently defended for years by Drs. Krafft Ehricke and Paul Spudis—that would employ lunar test-bedding and in-situ resources to first master cislunar space and then, ultimately, embrace the entire solar system.)

The house that space advocates would like to build would not stand on sand, much less rock; its attempted construction would instead rest on a few grains of dust swirling in a very feeble wind.

I suspect our future in space, if we indeed find one, will likely lie somewhere and somehow among the many components, public and private, of these sometimes competing proposals. Each offers to varying degrees valid insight and viable recommendations that might ultimately serve a coherent strategy that could achieve genuine spacefaring status for our civilization. I fear, however, that all these techno-political recommendations and any wisdom they offer may be urging us to set sail on presumed winds that will never actually carry us to desired shores.

I. Space exploration? Sorry, I can’t find that app

What is the questionable wind behind all these proposals? They assume a future populace who will care about spaceflight and who will step up to help realize the vision it offers. Yet, if what I have observed in the past two years is any indication, the house that space advocates would like to build would not stand on sand, much less rock; its attempted construction would instead rest on a few grains of dust swirling in a very feeble wind.

Just prior to my becoming fully immersed in the world of teaching, I offered my concern that microelectronics (an Apollo legacy) might be harming the intellects of those generations coming up behind us (See “Did space exploration sow the seeds of its own demise?”, The Space Review, July 19, 2011). Two years later this concern remains, strongly reinforced by my direct interaction with a larger pool of teenagers (specifically, middle and high school students.) I have also perceived other trends perhaps even more disturbing.

II. Oh, those kids today…

While admittedly my sampling is relatively small, I am confident that what I am seeing is common (albeit not universal, even in my own classrooms) given what I hear from others both inside and outside the country, as well as the occasional media report (e.g., “How Does Multitasking Change the Way Kids Learn?” and “Generation Z Teens Stereotyped as Lazy and Unaware”). And rest assured I am highlighting these perceived tendencies fully aware (five-children-of-my-own aware) that all teenagers, being teenagers, are each to a certain degree (a) self-absorbed, (b) early in the process of defining themselves and their broader worldview, and (c) lacking in specific knowledge of many items beyond their immediate horizon.

A. Observation 1: This is the Age of Information?

What I have seen, however, is that most students lack almost any substantive knowledge beyond their immediate horizon. While many seem generously aware, the slightest probing frequently reveals that their knowledge only runs as deep as the latest headlines or a few scrappy facts from previous schooling. I almost get the impression they have a text-character limit in their memory registers. (Unless, of course, the subject is sports or entertainment. Then they become encyclopedias of statistics and controversies.) To tweak a metaphor, their knowledge appears miles wide and a millimeter deep.

And spaceflight? Forget it. What we discuss here in the space blogosphere—even our basic common knowledge—does not exist for all but perhaps one or two in a hundred of them. Besides a vague appreciation that “things” have taken place “out there”, there’s a telescope named Hubble, and there is (or recently was) a rover on Mars, the entire realm of space is terra incognita to them.

The ISS program, for better or worse our current flagship of human space flight, remains essentially invisible to them. Regarding the Space Shuttle, most students can only reference Challenger and Columbia while some think it’s still flying. A timeline discussion had some placing Yuri Gagarin’s flight decades before Sputnik, while Apollo 11 is just another vague milestone lost somewhere in history amid Vietnam, the downfall of the Soviet Union, and the World Wars (Apollo 18—the film—they knew about.)

Again, I recognize that this is not a universal phenomenon, these students are still learning, and teenagers tend to stay inside their personal bubbles. My recollection, however, is that back in the day my classmates seemed more aware and knowledgeable of current and historical circumstances. I distinctly recall having halfway-informed arguments about such things even in middle school. And while admittedly I was the one in a hundred back then tuned in to spaceflight, my classmates certainly knew (among other historical events) the significance and timing of Apollo 11 and that satellites had to get into space before people could.

B. Observation 2: Thinking? No thanks

As for how the students process information, it would appear that they rarely do, at least not in the traditional sense of pausing to evaluate content or consider implications. (Again, not all. But many.) When presented with ideas, concepts, or propositions in either classroom or conversational settings, they frequently react instantaneously with an almost conditioned bumper-sticker response composed of whatever fragments of related opinion they’ve picked up recently. It is as if the student’s consciousness does not unfold independently in the time continuum but exists only in the instantaneous presence of external idea transmission, regardless of media.

Worse yet, if you stop the data flow, if you take away their information feed, they simply shut off, waiting for the next input. Like a switch being thrown, if something doesn’t follow within seconds, they immediately jump into side conversations involving other, usually personal, matters. If left alone, out comes a phone or music. With pacifier-sucking intensity “data” must be going in or out at all times.

I feel deep sadness and sense great danger with this lack of intellectual excitement among young teenagers. How can our civilization survive if not even our children are still dreaming?

The notion of taking time to think, of actually pausing to evaluate or consider information—quietly, on their own, with no active data feed—is alien to most of them. The only acceptable alternates to an active influx of data (preferably by phone, computer, iPod, or video game) are athletics, eating, or sleeping. When I once asked my science students to sit quietly and think for a few tens of minutes—something I pointed out good science most certainly requires—Ohhh, the horror!

I also discovered that the written word—at least more than a few dozen together—overwhelms them. Any assignment description longer than two paragraphs (and those paragraphs better be very short) causes them to balk and stop reading. Most proceed after a first-paragraph skim, then suffer the consequences. I know certain kids have been resistant to reading since time began, but now, defeated by less than a single page?

Perhaps the most disturbing tendency in the realm of thinking I have seen, even among upper high school students, is difficulty with sequential problem-solving. If I ask the students a unique single-input/single-output question (If A, then B), most have no difficulty determining the correct answer after related discussion and practice. But when I present them with any question that requires intermediate connections (If C, then D ,which depends first on recognizing and solving E), many become frozen in their tracks with no inkling of how to approach the problem.

I can appreciate that the younger students in my charge might still be mastering such analytical skills, but should juniors in high school be so daunted? Most of my fellow freshmen in high school considered such word problems old hat. A common deficiency in my particular students’ training isn’t likely as a cause since they hail from various backgrounds. Besides, some instructor-friends in college have reported similar deficiencies among their students, even in technical disciplines.

C. Observation 3: The passions of youth to… whatever

Finally, we have their attitude and outlook regarding themselves and life in general. Towards “the world” and its issues we find nothing new: teenagers stay focused mainly on their own activities and angst. But this typical teenage self-centeredness is accompanied by a near-complete absence of any convictions—even developing convictions—about either the bigger picture (events, viewpoints, responsibilities, morals) or their own futures (school, career.) Far too many have seemingly soaked up our modern culture’s isolationist “I’m okay, you’re okay” personal mantra, seasoned it with the collective presumptions of our burgeoning no responsibility/entitlement society, and embraced (or defaulted to) a complete dismissive detachment best summarized with the catch-phrase whatever.

I perceive in many of them a general feeling of muted helplessness, a sense that what they do either today or down the road will not seriously affect their own future or that of others. Life simply goes on in the here and now for them and they don’t see any point to looking forward or backward from their superficial immediacies.

But there is something else. I distribute a survey to my science classes each year asking them their view and understanding of science, what they find interesting or important, and what careers they might be considering. The general tenor I get from these surveys is a small-mindedness: not in terms of thinking ability but in terms of possibilities.

I find their listed career choices telling. Relatively few indicated specific career hopes except for a few future NBA stars, some doctors and veterinarians, a handful of engineers, and a smattering of lawyers. Most were tentative or admitted they weren’t sure. While I find nothing wrong with such answers per se, the collective tone struck me as horizon-limited. They display an almost mundane “life goes on” mindset: 12- to 14-year-olds already thinking in terms of “getting a job” versus “becoming a this or that.” Very, very few listed specific science disciplines; even fewer hopes of becoming writers, actors, or musicians; hardly any described plans to create innovative businesses or seek political office. Such future possibilities would reveal, I think, students with fires in their bellies who were contemplating pursuits bigger than themselves. Yet hardly any students are voicing such expansive hopes.

This strikes me as deeply worrisome. If a significant majority of our kids have already lost their sense of wonder about pursuing grander goals by the time they reach sixth or seventh grade, is it any surprise they don’t care about their own school work or anything of depth in the world around them? I feel deep sadness and sense great danger with this lack of intellectual excitement among young teenagers. How can our civilization survive if not even our children are still dreaming?

And to speak of our parochial interests here, would space exploration stand a chance in a future society of adults who never even dreamed as children?

III. Toward dystopia?

If my observations accurately reflect behaviors typical of the up-and-coming generation, they suggest some seriously worrisome trends: a shallowing of knowledge and understanding, a weakening of intellect and thinking, a lessening of concern for others and self, and the disappearance of hope for a better future. Would such trends inevitably bring forth a stagnant dystopia populated by cyber-addicted near-autonomic uncaring morons?

I do grieve, however, for all that night sky awe we’ve lost and the grand inspiration it might have instilled in countless scientists, engineers, poets, and philosophers during the past century.

Probably not. But I would caution us not to dismiss this frightening vision out of hand. Authors more insightful than I have imagined similarly dark futures before, and many crafted their cautionary nightmares long before the arrival of the microchip. And then there is history itself: once-magnificent societies and civilizations have disappeared under desert, jungle, or the onslaught of “inferior” peoples while others morphed into genuinely evil police states of mechanized genocide. How? Their citizens failed to recognize destructive societal trends or willingly bequeathed harmful attitudes and behaviors to their younger generations. Just because we today consider ourselves superior and wiser doesn’t guarantee that we are.

Worldviews shaped inside the digital domain

The leaders of tomorrow are the children of today, and today’s children are coming of age inside the fixed limits of their plasma-screen portals. “I have access to the universe,” they and their e-mentors might crow. But mere access does not provide understanding or perspective. Even accurate facts removed from their contexts are only impressions—sometimes very misleading impressions. Inside the swirling maelstrom of sound bites and high-definition images, the kids are soaking up claims and opinions touted respectively as facts and wisdom without pausing to assess their validity or to contemplate their broader context across the past, present, and future—in other words, without thinking.

“But it is the job of education to teach them to think!” some will counter. Partly true, or so it used to be. But the psychological template—healthy or not—that shapes a student’s intellectual development gets cast before she arrives at school, if it gets cast at all. And as each student grows up, factors both inside and outside the halls of academia nurture or counter both her learning how to think and the formation of her individual relationship to the greater universe.

Starry, starry night

And what of that oft-touted claim about “access to the universe?” Let’s not fool ourselves with the advertising hype. They do not have access to the real universe; most only have access to a chopped up, pared down, plasma-screen facsimile of that universe. As time passes, technology advances, and our society changes around us, fewer and fewer children are getting the opportunity to experience the real thing unfiltered and in person.

Consider the light-polluted night sky that the majority of our techno-culture children live under today. Then imagine the night sky above the ancient cultures who invented stargazing and the constellations. It is the difference between dropping a few grains of salt on a musty grey tablecloth and tossing an entire handful of glitter across an expansive floor of depthless black marble.

Can we truly grasp how that awe-inspiring horizon-to-horizon vista fired the minds and souls of those who came before us? Aristotle, Homer, Galileo, Shakespeare, Newton, Beethoven—and millions of others—nightly gazed into a vast dome teeming with stars, nebulae, the wandering planets, and the ethereal filament of the Milky Way. Think of the huge leaps of comprehension and innovation that such a frequent spectacle helped bring forth! Is it any wonder that humans mastered astronomy, navigation, and sail? Composed symphonies and sonnets? Harnessed steam? Probed the atom? Conquered the air? Designed, built, and flew spacecraft to the Moon?

Yet how many kids today experience anything remotely similar? Do even tourists on an ocean cruise see the night sky as it was then, back when our forebears were creating the foundations of our civilization? No, I am not condemning the technological progress that trailed light pollution in its wake. I do grieve, however, for all that night sky awe we’ve lost and the grand inspiration it might have instilled in countless scientists, engineers, poets, and philosophers during the past century.

And I worry about the children of today who will become the leaders of tomorrow, those who do not see that limitless expanse every night. In its stead they absorb a universe of compressed tag lines, cropped pictures, and truncated video clips confined by the edges of their viewing screens. It is this digital data stream, combined with myriad other trends of our culture, that will in large part define how they ponder—or don’t—themselves, their accomplishments (if any), and the crises they will face inevitably in their brave new world.

page 2: preventing the death of intellect >>