In the quest to define and advance ”scientific literacy,” SEED Magazine has hosted an essay contest for the best answer to the question: ”What does it mean to be scientifically literate in the 21st Century?” Both the first and second place winners are worth a read. Both have relevance for leaders in the arts.
In the winning essay, Thomas Martin untangles the confusion between facts and process. Says he:
We frequently hear the refrain that if our nation simply raised the level of science courses, taught our children more subjects, and/or gave them more hands-on lab work, we could ensure the production of a citizenry capable of understanding an increasingly complex world. They would then be prepared to make the difficult choices of the 21st century, etc.
But Martin, who teaches science and science history at an honors college, routinely engages students with impressive factual knowledge of both science and history, who nonetheless refuse to challenge their own foundational beliefs. To him, therefore, it’s the process of scientific discovery that defines scientific literacy. The foundation of science education, he says, should involve direct student experience in the challenge and clarity of exposing theories to peer review and opposing evidence. Says he, again:
In an era in which we tremble at offending the sensibilities of our neighbors, students must comprehend that it is not only possible but absolutely vital that we criticize each other’s ideas firmly yet civilly. They must do this despite clear cases of prominent scientists falling into petty, acerbic (and therefore counterproductive) exchanges. The responsibility for fostering scientific literacy of this sort–that is, literacy construed as an ongoing commitment to evidence over preconception–falls upon all of us in our discussions both formal and informal, both public and private. When scientific celebrities fail to set a good example for students, it is especially incumbent upon the rest of us to set them back on the proverbial right track, rather than to reflexively hasten their derailment.
I’d suggest that the same debate is vital to the purpose and goals of cultural literacy — also known as ”arts education.” As we ”ask for more” arts education in our public schools, we should also clarify ”more of what?” More factual study of cultural history? More structural knowledge of traditional art forms? More expressive opportunities for students to make art together and on their own? We can certainly ask for more of ”all of the above,” but even then a vision for what ”cultural literacy” looks like would help define our choice.
Perhaps an essay contest on a similar topic might advance the conversation: ”What does it mean to be culturally literate in the 21st Century?”