The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

While NASA makes considerable efforts to encourage students to pursue science and technology careers, that work is often endangered by popular culture. (credit: NASA)

Stanley Crouch and the future of the American space industry

Full disclosure: Stanley Crouch is a friend of mine. That said, his new book The Artificial White Man contains some important clues as to why the efforts of the US government, industry, and educational establishments are failing to inspire and train the next generation of engineers and scientists that the nation will need if it is to keep its place at the top of the technological food chain. The need for a new cohort of highly-educated experts in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has been explained over and over again by any number of blue-ribbon panels, including the Hart Rudman Commission on national security (2001), the Walker Commission on the future of the US aerospace industry (2002), and the Aldridge Commission on the implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration (2004). There is no more room for debate. The US has an urgent need to begin educating thousands of new men and women to replace the superbly-trained people who joined the industry, inspired by Sputnik and the challenge of Apollo to become part of the great adventure.

In the face of this need, there is a counterforce so powerful and so insidious that most commission members and industry leaders prefer to ignore it. Popular culture, in sports and entertainment, is a business that is roughly as big as the aerospace industry. It exerts massive levels of negative energy, especially on young people, which overwhelms the minuscule attempts by the aerospace and high-tech industries to get kids to do the hard work to prepare themselves to become true experts in the STEM area.

Popular culture exerts massive levels of negative energy, especially on young people, which overwhelms the minuscule attempts by the aerospace and high-tech industries.

In his title essay, Crouch writes about a professor of English from the University of Washington for whom “the black Americans’ greatest refinements are expressed not in medicine, science, education, the arts and technology, but in shorts, tennis shows and a sleeveless jersey ‘talking trash.’” Even worse, according to Crouch, is the fact that “…far too many black men have been duped—by rap and by pop culture in general—into remaining children in a time when being and aspiring to be responsible, educated men is as important as it has ever been for any group at any time in the history of the world.” It is important to point out that African Americans are hardly alone in being vulnerable to this onslaught.

The undeniable influence of this culture on the rest of America is now, in the form of rap, driving a wedge between those young people who are influenced by pop culture and those in industry and government who would inflict scientific and technological literacy upon them. A kid of any race who actually takes the whole hip hop lifestyle seriously is unlikely to make the incredibly hard effort needed to qualify for a STEM graduate program. Anyone of any age who believes that it is more important to be cool than to be knowledgeable, to be thuggish rather than studious, or to have street credibility rather than academic credibility, pollutes his or her environment as decisively as an unfiltered coal furnace.

The hip hop culture and its emanations emerge from the big conglomerates of the entertainment industry, driven by the relentless search for an easy source of cash flow, not by any recognizable ideology. These products are packaged and profitably sold by corporations owned and controlled by people of all races. The effects of this effluent on society as a whole is profoundly negative, particularly for the nation’s industrial and scientific prosperity. Some day an entrepreneurial group of lawyers may find a way to treat the entertainment industry the same way others handled the tobacco industry. After all, where there is deep, ongoing, and obvious harm, the tort bar can be counted on to find a way to bring action.

NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration makes the claim that “if engaged effectively and creatively, space inspires children to seek careers in math, science and engineering, careers that are critical to our future national economic competitiveness.” Perfectly true, but once the children become teenagers, they come under intense pressure to be cool, to be “authentic”, or to just fit in. Only the most iron-willed amongst America’s youth can stand up to the pull of commercial pop culture. They should be honored for the strength of character they display.

As for the popular culture itself, any reformation will be the work of decades. One good place to start might be for science and technology policymakers and corporate leaders to read The Artificial White Man and get some idea of what they are up against.