As America emerges from its COVID-19 restrictions, it is time to take measure of what the coronavirus has taught us. One revelation is how many Americans slept through their high school math and science classes. Many still do.
According to the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, American 15-year-olds are ranked 39th in math and 24th in science, among the 72 top performing nations. The pandemic exposed the cost of this deficiency: The highest coronavirus death count in the world, 985,482. According to Johns Hopkins, the United States fares better statistically. But not much. America ranked ninth in number of fatalities from COVID deaths per 100,000 citizens. Seven of the eight nations doing worse are classified as developing countries. Although the virus destroyed America’s mythology of exceptionalism, there has been no hue and cry for overhauling the systems that contributed to this horrendous outcome. Quite the contrary.
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, a long line of critics — from politicians and celebrities to educators and journalists — have complained about health care’s inconsistencies on the best way to treat and prevent the spread of COVID. They have complained that the experts are not competent, or they wouldn’t have changed their advice so often. The grumblers don’t seem to grasp that health care’s thinking changed because that’s how understanding a mutating virus works in real time, when science is evolving hour-by-hour.
About six months ago, Jonathan Rausch published a timely book, “Constitution of Knowledge.” His argument is that the U.S. Constitution had a complementary unwritten constitution of knowledge, a template for creating a knowing process to support a free society. This secondary constitution gave birth to cultural organizations that existed to acquire, scrutinize and systematically organize knowledge, such as universities, professional and licensing associations, public and private research organizations, peer-reviewed academic journals and conferences, professional news outlets and think tanks. These institutions shared a commitment to expand knowledge through research, study and debate, and they relied heavily on those dedicating their lives to the advancement of certain forms of knowing.
In a situation like COVID, this means the privileged voices are virologists, who have expertise on viruses; epidemiologists, who research the patterns and causes of disease; and experts in infectious diseases. Unfortunately, COVID also taught us too many Americans are convinced that Peter Navarro, an economist, is as credible in discussing a pandemic as Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the world’s most prominent infectious disease experts. And, it gets worse. The pandemic has taught us that too many Americans are content with ill-informed, intellectually lazy and politically manipulative citizens framing our public conversations, even if it kills our loved ones.
America’s institutions of knowledge share a commitment to generating the most trustworthy sources of information for discerning the difference between fact and fiction, truth and lies, and accurate understandings of the world versus magical thinking and BS. This other constitution isn’t perfect. Peer-reviewed journals play favorites; scholars get lost in silly arguments; researchers conduct vanity projects; and knowledge important to one generation can silence breakthrough ideas in another. The process of knowing makes errors. It takes time. Something we didn’t have during the pandemic. But, the constitution of knowledge, Rausch argues, makes the written one possible.
So, if nothing else, COVID teaches us that America needs a significant investment in K-12 science. Our children need to understand how science works and dependable knowledge matures. The unwritten constitution is as flawed as the written one. But our ancestors taught us that it is the only way to protect authentic human knowing in a democracy where free speech is sacred, even for those who slept through math and science class.