Casaubon's Book

Growing Up With Science…and Ethics

A few months ago, in practice for his first standardized testing (my three younger sons are homeschooled), Simon, my 9 year old (then in his last few months of fourth grade) took the New York State Regents 5th grade science exam from the previous year. He aced it. Actually, as long as Simon was taking it, his brothers wanted in too. Isaiah, his 7 year old brother (in second grade at the time) also aced it, missing only one question. Asher, my five year old youngest, in kindergarten, needed a little help sounding out the words, but when he was helped over the hard bits, also passed the exam. He didn’t quite ace it, but still scored above 80%.

My son was a little annoyed that his five year old brother did so well on the exam, and, I think mostly to get said brother’s goat, embarked on a discussion of how the exam was clearly for dummies, and that you’d have to be REALLY stupid not to pass it.

It struck me at that moment that while my son had passed one test with flying colors, in his rant, he was failing another one – the ability to imagine yourself in another person’s shoes. Granted, 9 year olds aren’t famous for their instinctive ability to do so, but it was definitely time for something new to think about.

I asked him to think about why he might be so good at science. He thought it was because he was smart and reads a lot, both of which are certainly true. Still, we considered that perhaps there are other reasons as well. We asked whether every child was the son of an astrophysicist and a science writer, in a house where science is part of nearly every dinner table conversation?

Simon was a precocious reader, and reading fluently by 3 1/2, and given a choice would read 6 hours a day (we try to gently discourage him), including many science books well above the heads of most kids his age. He has always loved to go to work with Dad and sit in on Dad’s classes – when he was 5, he attended “The History of Space Exploration” as part of his birthday present, and was allowed to answer questions (usually not permitted) until my husband had to ask him (to the loud laughter of the class) to give the college students a chance to get one right now and again. He’s a bright, precocious kid who takes his abilities for granted, as though they are natural. And some of them certainly are. Others aren’t.

What might it be like if his parents had different priorities? What if the dinner table conversation was about something else? History or poetry or grandma’s recipes, woodworking, baseball stats, music or finance? Would that necessarily mean that the kids who knew a lot about those things and not so much about science were stupid? What if the conversations were in another language, and he had to spend time translating into english to be able to answer them because he was not yet fully fluent in those languages. What if his parents worked long hours, and there wasn’t any dinner table conversation? What if the only time he ran into the subject was in class – and his teacher wasn’t that good?

What might it be like to grow up in house not overflowing with thousands of books for kids and adults, but without a single book, to not encounter books at all until he went to kindergarten? Would he still be a good reader, even though he’s naturally talented in that direction? What if the only place to find a science book was at the library, and he didn’t even know that that was the kind of book he might like?

What would it be like to have parents who, instead of having multiple advanced degrees had never graduated high school? What about parents who had done poorly in math and science in school, but were good at other things?

Would he want to be considered a dummy if he had to take an exam about baseball history or how houses are constructed, and he didn’t do well? Simon’s not the most coordinated kid – I asked him whether he want to be evaluated by his fine motor coordination to decide if he was smart or not?

Now my son had a point – the expectations for a 10 year old’s science knowledge in New York are not impressive. Several of the questions on the exam were misleading, in a language that could imply multiple possible answers. We know that you can hold 10 year olds in other nations to higher standards than this, and none of this is to imply that wouldn’t be a very good thing.

At the same time, as important as we believe Simon’s science education is, I would not choose to permit him to believe that knowing more about something is necessarily an accurate measure of intelligence. We know, for example, the degrees to which cultural bias taints most examinations – a friend of mine’s 10 year old was recently supposed to know that a picture of a rooster should go with the word “vane” as in “weathervane.” Her urban son has probably never seen one, much less heard it named. It is the convention of our thinking that his unfamiliarity with a physical convention of a very different place makes him less intelligent than someone who would recognize the connection – but in fact, it is more accurately an acknowledgement of the kinds of places we assume smart kids come from.

Indeed, Simon ran into such an example when he was younger. Taking a picture-word test when he was 4, he did extraordinarily well. The examiner came out to talk to me and said that he’d gone all the way up to third grade level, missing only one word. She showed me the one he’d missed – a picture of an ironing board. My sheepish comment was “ummm…that’s because I don’t think he’s ever seen one.” I do own one, but I’m not much of an ironer.

The Amish children in the next town each stop school in 8th grade. Whatever you think of this, it certainly does not make them unintelligent – the ones we know are prolific readers from the local library and interested in a wide range of subjects, and nearly as knowledgeable about stargazing as my husband from watching the stars in their dark, rural backyards. Each of them has a physical intelligence that my children don’t necessarily have – at only a year older than Simon, Amos, the son of an acquaintance of ours, built an elaborate tree-house on a complex design that Eric and I could never have matched. The plan he showed us for it was fully as impressive as any drafted house plan, the structure quite amazing.

That doesn’t mean I would want my son to cease his education at the 8th grade to build full time – but neither do I want my son to believe that certain kinds of knowledge or access to formal education are the same thing as intelligence, or to sit in judgement of those who don’t know what he does and call them stupid. And unfortunately, I know enough adults who do believe that those who know some things are smarter than those who know others that I recognize this as a real danger.

I’m proud of the fact that when Isaiah asked his father if he could buy an “H20” gun, Simon joked “I want an H2S04 gun” – and all my kids laughed and got the joke. I’m also proud of the fact that my son apologized for using the words “stupid” and “dummies” and got the point – that different people know different things, have different strengths, and that it is often not intelligence but exposure to different kinds of knowledge that are being examined. It is one thing to know that everyone should have a wide ranging and in-depth knowledge of a number of subjects, and another thing to achieve it equitably – most of us have areas in which we are “dummies.”

We are living in a world that is paying a high price for inadequate education in the sciences – a world where so many people cannot evaluate the evidence for climate change and resource depletion that people who lie professionally can out-argue the scientists. This is a scandal, and it shouldn’t be, and there’s no question that better science education is necessary.

We also live in a world stratified heavily by race, class, gender and access to power, and it is equally true that we need a better ethical education, one that undermines the naturalizing of fallacious reasoning that categorizes “smart” and “dumb” by “familiarity with material made vastly more accessible to the priveleged.” We just as badly need an education that ceases to devalue manual and domestic skills as fit only for the kids who “have no choice” but to learn to build and farm and cook. I’ve often told the story of how I asked my high school guidance counselor whether I could attend the local agricultural high school, and with horror he responded “No, Sharon, that’s for kids who aren’t going to a good college, not kids like you.” Farming is hands-on-science, and it has proved to demand more intellectually of me than any other work I’ve ever done – the idea that good building, good mechanics, good farming, good cooking, etc.. are unskilled is ridiculous and should be abandoned wholly.

I told him I thought that New York State should require higher standards of science education – and that I’d also like to see them test that students can build a simple structure, cook a palatable meal from scratch ingredients, patch a pair of ripped jeans and nurture a plant through its entire lifestyle. We talked about why certain times and cultures value certain kinds of knowledge, and also about the degree to which the circumstances into which we are born shape our access to knowledge.

Simon was still annoyed that his little brother passed the test, but that I can live with. Later on he asked me if I’d be proud of him if he won the Nobel Prize (he did not specify in what subject ;-)). I noted that I would be, but that I would also be proud of him if he was a good man, and a kind one who did the right thing. Then he laughed and asked if I’d be proud of him if he won an IgNobel, and headed out to play. Fortunately, no answer on my part was really required.



  1. #1 Sarah
    October 6, 2011

    I have an 8 year old son who is also a voracious reader and has a passion for science (electricity, specifically). Do you have any titles you’d recommend for advanced kids who are interested in the sciences?

    I know a few years back you’d recommended some titles that talked about ecology for kids, but it would be great to see that list expanded.

  2. #2 Caitlin S
    October 6, 2011

    A beautifully written essay comprising some very important statements about growing up in America. Brava for being a wonderful parent — and I base that on the inference of your open-mindedness and desire to open your child’s mind, as well.

  3. #3 c
    October 6, 2011

    1980’s rural school in the US. I missed on some exam that used bugs bunny and roadrunner as the example or was somehow a part of the question. I want to say 5th grade give or take.

    Not only did the teacher make that public but I was publicly shamed for missing that. My response “what’s that?”

    We had no TV but I was reading at a 9th or 10 grade level, knew how to cook, can, build, etc. etc. But I had no clue who bugs bunny was.

    People around me joke that I was raised by wolves but now I’d say “well, wolves eat well now don’t they”

  4. #4 et
    October 7, 2011

    nurture a plant through its entire lifestyle?

    My son missed “cupcake” on the picture-word test…

  5. #5 Stephen B.
    October 7, 2011

    This essay makes an excellent point of course.

    Still, it then raises the question: is it even possible to create a standardized test that doesn’t marginalize kids from at least some backgrounds?

    It would seem that the answer is no, but yet our world seems to demand these kinds of tests just the same.

    As for imagining what a kid’s knowledge would be like if he or she didn’t come home to a home with thousands of books, an astrophysicist and a writer, etc., I ask people to go further and wonder what a kid would be like if he came home to a house with no father, with only a mother who *maybe* was home, and maybe was being abused, perhaps sexually, by numerous “boyfriends.” What’s it like if there’s nothing in the house but maybe a bit of junk food, alcohol, and a TV playing the worst that TV has to offer – with people yelling and arguing and swearing *at* each other, constantly (both on the TV and in his/her apartment) ?

    The inequities of all of our back grounds in even this country are so mind boggling – ANYTHING you can do to enrich a young kid’s life as a neighbor, a friend, or a mentor, can be so important to a child living in a marginalized household/family.

  6. #6 Natalie
    October 7, 2011

    I get quite depressed when I think there are homes out there (and probably many of them) without books. I can’t imagine my life, or my kids’ lives, without books everywhere. Think of all the wasted potential in those homes.

  7. #7 Nicole
    October 7, 2011

    I don’t think there is a way to make a totally level playing field for a standardized test, but we don’t need to. The problem is the modern trend to treat these tests as a level of worth for the test taker — instead of using them to indentify their needs so those needs can be addressed.

    It’s become a competition instead of a tool, do the detriment of the kids who do need more help for whatever reason.

  8. #8 mbm
    October 7, 2011

    As of 2010, one person has won *both* an Ignobel and a Nobel Prize. Simon could be next!

  9. #9 deenaclaire
    October 8, 2011

    Many religious groups limit formal education, and for many reasons. Speaking politically, it’s one way to keep the kids down on the farm – “farm” being a metaphor for never being able to leave The Group. I would not confuse this method with anything but the maintenance of The Group, intelligence aside more or less completely.

    I think that it’s true that formal education has little to do with innate intelligence,and that there are many different kinds of intelligence to be sure. When I was a child, I read european history voraciously … but what I missed was an understanding of historiography, as well as the inability to separate out different points of view. That had to come with a more formal (undergrad) education. On other blogs, we see what appear to be intelligent people denying science and scientific method … I think because an inadequate education has not given them the ability to think critically, while at the same time being influenced by people who have an axe to grind. Or an ox to gore. I’m not sure anymore; grinding and goring both sound sinister.

    When my husband was teaching Special Ed in a NYC high school, he found many kids who were relatively uneducated … but certainly not stupid. He was able to separate out what was ignorance and what was (were?) Special Ed needs. Most of it, unfortunately, was ignorance. Many graduates went on to two-year colleges and spent most of their time there in remedial classes.

    Silly me … I think competition – where there’s a winner and a loser – doesn’t serve kids or schools well. At least it never served me well. I just did what I did – read what I read, went to university (being the first female in my family to do that) – because it was the only way for me to survive.

    Good thoughts to you and yours today, Sharon. Go well over the Fast.


  10. #10 Jim Thomerson
    October 8, 2011

    I grew up working on our family ranch. I observed my father’s intellectual abilities (5th grade formal education), and soon realized that I did not have the intellectual ability to be a rancher. So, instead, I got a PhD in zoology and spent my career as a happy university professor.

  11. #11 Terry Cool
    October 9, 2011

    Maybe it‘s not so good

  12. #12 ruben
    October 10, 2011

    Funny, when I was young(er), I would have probably disagreed with the idea that the traditional type of intelligence isn’t the only kind worth talking about, and it took a PhD and having to make some of my own material (granted, cutting a PCB, soldering the cables, and making some flow cells hardly counts as advanced engineering) to understand how doing something with your own hands can help you understand things better. Of course, part of the advantages of moving out during college is having to learn how to do some basic and apparently mindless things on your own, only to find it’s not as simple as that…

  13. #13 Sharon Astyk
    October 10, 2011

    DeenaClaire, I guess what’s suggest is that in fact, in significant measure, all education is about maintenence of the group. Think about the ways that modern industrial education is about maintaining a consumer culture and economy. I don’t love the Amish model, but I think it is complicatd – yes, about maintaining the group and keeping the kids home – but also maintaining the values that the culture and family think are worth preserving. We do that too.

    Stephen, you are of course right, but we kept it at a 9 year old level – some scenarios he doesn’t quite grasp yet, and there’s time for that yet. But yes, of course.

    Ruben, I agree with you – I’ve written before about the way I took my grandmother and aunt’s desire to teach me “women’s work” and rejected it – I was going to live the life of the mind, and everything they imagined about my life seemed crazy – why would I need those skills? Well, it turns out that I do – they were wrong that they belong only to women, of course, but right about their value – there is no life of the mind without someone supporting the physical systems that support the mind. I agree totally that it is good to have your butt kicked by a few physical realities as part of your education.


  14. #14 Diana Smith
    October 10, 2011

    I remember well my parents being horrified when their college prep, AP class taking daughter took typing…little did they envision the computer age!!!Thought I was totally wasting my time/talents. Wonder if they would be impressed at our self-sufficient lifestyle or still think I’m wasting my time. They were both depression babies and higher education was their ticket to future security.

    Homes without books are scary………….

  15. #15 tory
    October 10, 2011

    My urban children realized early on that their so-called intelligence was nothing more than having two parents who value education and have the means to further theirs. Understanding that their minority classmates were not, in fact, dumb, but grossly underserved did wonders for my kids’ compassion.

    In my view, one of the biggest problems in this country stems from the stratification that results from the fact that poor children, by and large, live separate hidden lives from those of middle class/well to do children.

    When it comes time to vote for better services — educational, housing, even school lunches — the ‘haves’ don’t see the very real needs of the have-nots. And, being unaware of the differences in their childhood experiences, the haves find it easy to dismiss the have-nots as ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid’ people who deserve the hideous poverty in which they are mired.

    If all American children went to schools which were truly mixed income, I suspect we would have a far more compassionate society….

  16. #16 Dawn
    October 28, 2011

    “there is no life of the mind without someone supporting the physical systems that support the mind.”

    Further to that, often the distinction made between physical work and the “life of the mind” are false. Knitting a pair of socks from measurements is an intellectual challenge. Understanding what fats you can and can’t substitute in recipes, how to build a nesting box your chickens will use, the way stacking firewood seems to spark thought…None of it is mindless. None of it stands in contrast to the intellect or takes away from intellect.

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