An Enlightened Society, Where Has It Gone?

December 18, 2022 at 8:39 p.m.


Even at my doddering old age I continue to worry about our country’s future.   

At 90, one would surmise that I have little time remaining  to fret about it.  Consider, however, existential problems with our polarized government, global warming, unprecedented national debt, astronomical illegal immigration, inflation, racial divide, pollution and damage to education caused by remote learning and other factors — all occurring in concert.  

Strangely, current educational methods bother me the most and the pandemic helped to make that problem even worse by wiping out two decades worth of student gains in math and reading.  Moreover, I believe our young people have lost or are losing the ability to do either very well.  Today we have a teacher shortage, reduced class time, curriculum changes and lower standards to deal with – and the problems appear to be worsening.   

I am not proposing to make students rocket scientists, that is too much hope for.  However, we will need highly educated young people more than ever.  Let us consider all that would entail.

Most space missions have three distinct phases: getting the vehicle off the ground, maneuvering it in space and returning it to a planetary surface. While this sequence of events may seem quite straightforward, it is important to remember that the rocket science involved in each phase exists at the very edge of human understanding.

Rocket Science

 Merely to launch a space vehicle, a rocket scientist needs to have at least a graduate-level understanding of propulsion engineering, fluid mechanics, flight dynamics, atmospheric dynamics, the mechanical of materials, control engineering, and avionics – not to mention the math and computer skills necessary to make effective use of this knowledge. That is quite an extensive list for an event lasting only 10 minutes.  

If the objective of the mission requires only Earth orbit, then a rocket scientist can get by with expertise merely in orbital mechanics, ionospheric dynamics and low-temperature plasma dynamics; if the mission required the space vehicle to leave orbit, however, the rocket scientist will also need astrodynamics. If the vehicle is supposed to carry human astronauts, add aerospace physiology; and if it is going to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, add aerothermochemistry, high-temperature plasma dynamics, aeroacoustics and aeroelasticity.  Where will we find all of the people to fill these demanding  high level occupations?   Such workers and scientists will be required to keep us in the forefront of science, technology, mathematics and engineering.  

Why Read?

 I recently watched a travelogue about Iceland and learned that 50% of adults in Iceland read up to eight or more books per year.  I don’t know the number for the United States but I’m sure we read much fewer books here.  Instead, we rely on Siri, social media and the internet to receive quick answers to inquiries without questioning their veracity.  

The internet does not solve our need for continuous learning or about launching a space ship.  I am saddened by the fact that there once was a time when education and knowledge were qualities to be sought after and admired.

Suggestion — Critical Thinking

While I am not an educator, I do have a number of suggestions I will limit to one.  It is to add critical thinking and Socratic methods to the curriculum beginning in the early grades and reinforcing them through college programs.

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following: understand the logical connections between ideas identify, construct and evaluate arguments detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning solve problems systematically identify the relevance and importance of ideas reflect on the justification of one's own beliefs.  

Critical thinking is not a matter of accumulating information or attaining information from the internet. Critical thinking can also play an important role in cooperative reasoning and constructive tasks.  It can help us acquire knowledge, improve our theories and strengthen arguments. Such thinking  requires following the rules of logic and rationality.  

These rules were developed long ago by Socrates, an early Greek philosopher. Socratic methods are the basis for critical thinking.  If anything, critical thinking is an essential part of creativity because we need critical thinking to evaluate and improve our creative ideas.  Thinking rationally is important whatever we choose to do. If you work in education, science, research, finance, management or the legal profession, then critical thinking is obviously important. Critical thinking skills are not restricted to a particular subject area. Being able to think well and solve problems systematically is an asset for any career. Critical thinking also enhances language and presentation skills.

Final Thoughts

One of the best books I read recently on the subject is Ward Farnsworth’s  “The Socratic Method.”

According to the author, the Socratic method is a wonderful technique for teaching. It is that; but the reason the Socratic method is useful in the classroom is that it’s a style of thought better than the one we tend to apply naturally to important things. Socrates didn’t question people in order to teach us how to question people. He did it to teach us how to think.

As a note, Grace College offers a mandatory course in critical thinking that is open for non-students.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  [email protected].

Even at my doddering old age I continue to worry about our country’s future.   

At 90, one would surmise that I have little time remaining  to fret about it.  Consider, however, existential problems with our polarized government, global warming, unprecedented national debt, astronomical illegal immigration, inflation, racial divide, pollution and damage to education caused by remote learning and other factors — all occurring in concert.  

Strangely, current educational methods bother me the most and the pandemic helped to make that problem even worse by wiping out two decades worth of student gains in math and reading.  Moreover, I believe our young people have lost or are losing the ability to do either very well.  Today we have a teacher shortage, reduced class time, curriculum changes and lower standards to deal with – and the problems appear to be worsening.   

I am not proposing to make students rocket scientists, that is too much hope for.  However, we will need highly educated young people more than ever.  Let us consider all that would entail.

Most space missions have three distinct phases: getting the vehicle off the ground, maneuvering it in space and returning it to a planetary surface. While this sequence of events may seem quite straightforward, it is important to remember that the rocket science involved in each phase exists at the very edge of human understanding.

Rocket Science

 Merely to launch a space vehicle, a rocket scientist needs to have at least a graduate-level understanding of propulsion engineering, fluid mechanics, flight dynamics, atmospheric dynamics, the mechanical of materials, control engineering, and avionics – not to mention the math and computer skills necessary to make effective use of this knowledge. That is quite an extensive list for an event lasting only 10 minutes.  

If the objective of the mission requires only Earth orbit, then a rocket scientist can get by with expertise merely in orbital mechanics, ionospheric dynamics and low-temperature plasma dynamics; if the mission required the space vehicle to leave orbit, however, the rocket scientist will also need astrodynamics. If the vehicle is supposed to carry human astronauts, add aerospace physiology; and if it is going to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, add aerothermochemistry, high-temperature plasma dynamics, aeroacoustics and aeroelasticity.  Where will we find all of the people to fill these demanding  high level occupations?   Such workers and scientists will be required to keep us in the forefront of science, technology, mathematics and engineering.  

Why Read?

 I recently watched a travelogue about Iceland and learned that 50% of adults in Iceland read up to eight or more books per year.  I don’t know the number for the United States but I’m sure we read much fewer books here.  Instead, we rely on Siri, social media and the internet to receive quick answers to inquiries without questioning their veracity.  

The internet does not solve our need for continuous learning or about launching a space ship.  I am saddened by the fact that there once was a time when education and knowledge were qualities to be sought after and admired.

Suggestion — Critical Thinking

While I am not an educator, I do have a number of suggestions I will limit to one.  It is to add critical thinking and Socratic methods to the curriculum beginning in the early grades and reinforcing them through college programs.

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following: understand the logical connections between ideas identify, construct and evaluate arguments detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning solve problems systematically identify the relevance and importance of ideas reflect on the justification of one's own beliefs.  

Critical thinking is not a matter of accumulating information or attaining information from the internet. Critical thinking can also play an important role in cooperative reasoning and constructive tasks.  It can help us acquire knowledge, improve our theories and strengthen arguments. Such thinking  requires following the rules of logic and rationality.  

These rules were developed long ago by Socrates, an early Greek philosopher. Socratic methods are the basis for critical thinking.  If anything, critical thinking is an essential part of creativity because we need critical thinking to evaluate and improve our creative ideas.  Thinking rationally is important whatever we choose to do. If you work in education, science, research, finance, management or the legal profession, then critical thinking is obviously important. Critical thinking skills are not restricted to a particular subject area. Being able to think well and solve problems systematically is an asset for any career. Critical thinking also enhances language and presentation skills.

Final Thoughts

One of the best books I read recently on the subject is Ward Farnsworth’s  “The Socratic Method.”

According to the author, the Socratic method is a wonderful technique for teaching. It is that; but the reason the Socratic method is useful in the classroom is that it’s a style of thought better than the one we tend to apply naturally to important things. Socrates didn’t question people in order to teach us how to question people. He did it to teach us how to think.

As a note, Grace College offers a mandatory course in critical thinking that is open for non-students.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  [email protected].

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