The 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, results are in, and there's some really good news for those that worry about the U.S. becoming a nation of brainy elitists. Of the 65 countries that participated in the PISA assessment, U.S. students ranked 36th in math, and 28th in science. When it comes to elitism, the U.S. truly has nothing to worry about.
For those relative few Americans who were already elite back when the 2009 PISA assessment was conducted, there's good news for them too: they're even more elite than they were in 2009, when the US ranked 30th in math and 23rd in science. Educated Americans are so elite, they're practically an endangered species.
The only nagging possible shred of bad news from these test scores comes in the form of a question: where will the next Internet come from? Which country will deliver the next great big, landscape-changing, technological innovation that will propel its economy upward? The country of bold, transformative firsts, the one that created the world's first nuclear reactor and landed humans on the moon seems very different than the one we live in today.
Mediocrity in science education has metastasized throughout the American mindset, dumbing down everything in its path, including the choices made by our elected officials. A stinging byproduct of America's war on excellence in science education was the loss of its leadership position in particle physics research. On March 14 of this year, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced that the Higgs Boson, aka the "God particle," had been discovered at the EU's Large Hadron Collider. CERN describes itself as "the world's leading laboratory for particle physics" -- a title previously held by America's Fermilab. Fermilab's Tevatron particle accelerator was the world's largest and most powerful until eclipsed by CERN's Large Hadron Collider. The Tevatron was shut down on September 30th, 2011.
The Tevatron's planned replacement, Texas' Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), would have been three times the size of the EU's Large Hadron Collider. Over one third of the SSC's underground tunnel had been bored at the time of its cancellation by congress in 1993. As Texas Monthly reported in "How Texas Lost the World's Largest Super Collider," "Nobody doubts that the 40 TeV Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Texas would have discovered the Higgs boson a decade before CERN." Fighting to save the SSC in 1993, its director, Dr. Roy Schwitters, said in a New York Times interview, "The SSC is becoming a victim of the revenge of the C students."
Ever wonder about the practical benefits of theoretical physics? Consider this: without Einstein's theory of general relativity, GPS doesn't work. That's because time in those GPS satellites whizzing above us in space is slightly different than time for us terrestrials. Without compensating for the difference, our cars would end up in a ditch instead of Starbucks. GPS would also not have happened without advances in US space technology. Consider that, in 2013, there are two manned spacefaring nations on Earth - the US isn't one of them. GPS alone is estimated to generate $122.4 billion annually in direct and related benefits according to an NDP Consulting Group report. The Superconducting Super Collider would have cost $8.4 billion.
'C' students' revenge doesn't stop with crushing super colliders or grounding our space program. Fox News' Bill O'Reilly famously translated his inability to explain 9th grade astronomy into justification for teaching creationism in public schools, stating that we don't know how tides work, or where the sun or moon comes from, or why the Earth has a moon and Mars doesn't (Mars actually has two moons).
Stephen Colbert summed it up best: "Like all great theologies, Bill's can be boiled down to one sentence: there must be a God, because I don't know how things work."
When it comes to not knowing how things work, Bill O'Reilly has plenty of company, and the PISA scores indicate that he's getting lots more. Misery may love company, but, in America, ignorance loves it even more.