Dr. Ride, Science Avenger

Astronaut Sally Ride—the first American woman to fly in space and the youngest American astronaut—was a trailblazer, an icon, and a larger-than-life inspiration for our nation’s children. She was also a hero to a marginalized and demoralized segment of our population. I am referring, of course, to science educators.

The undeserved media frenzy over Dr. Ride’s reticence to discuss both her lesbianism and her battle with cancer threatens to overshadow her enduring legacy: She was—at her core—a talented scientist who championed the cause of science her entire adult life. Ride will always be remembered as a charismatic astronaut; last week she was hailed as “the Neil Armstrong” of the shuttle era by science journalist Miles O’Brien. But we forget she was no slouch in the science classroom, earning a PhD in astrophysics from Stanford. An excellent obituary by Denise Grady in the New York Times reminds us that after her shuttle career, Ride used her celebrity and celebrated integrity—not to cash in on her fame—but to push for innovation in science education through her educational resource company, Sally Ride Science. Her commitment to science education is even more poignant in this era of No Child Left Behind when public school science education has been utterly decimated. We sure could use a science super hero right about now.

It’s an open secret among educators that students receive much less science instruction today than they did 10 years ago, but many parents are unaware that No Child Left Behind—a law intended to improve the quality of education for all students—has resulted in elementary school teachers being forced to focus almost exclusively on the “tested” subjects, math and literacy. National studies indicate that in many elementary schools, science is hardly being taught at all—and sometimes the meager time allotted each week is shared between science and social studies. Dr. Margaret Honey, president and CEO of the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), argues in a Reuters Op-Ed, that the timing of this deplorable turn away from science education could not be worse. She asks us to consider what is more important to our current economy than science? “Where would we be without Google and Apple, stealth technology, gene-based therapy, and high-tech prosthetics?”

Beyond economic factors, however, teaching only literacy and math will produce a generation of children who are ignorant of science, history and the arts—the subjects that define who we are as a culture. As a nation, we should carefully consider what subjects our children need to explore, and call for elementary education that reflects those deeply held societal values. We must start to make better choices about how precious classroom time is spent and honestly admit that teachers can’t do it all; they never could. When teachers spend a terrific amount of time completing assessments, important core subjects necessarily suffer. One teacher I know spent nearly the equivalent of 20 entire school days last year on required assessments for her students.

In many schools the buzzword is “integration” when discussing the antidote to the lack of science (and social studies) instruction. Every teacher I know believes in attempting to integrate these subjects into the allotted literacy time, but again, we need to be honest. Quality integration takes more time, planning, and resources than these teachers have. Teachers must differentiate the instruction to meet the needs of all learners, and then secure reading materials for each level of learner in their classroom. It is neither easy, nor quick. And more importantly, it sends the message that science is not important enough to be given its own place in our classrooms. This must change.

What is most alarming about the lack of science education in our public schools is that the students most affected are those in schools with higher levels of poverty. Simply put, poor children receive the least amount of science instruction because teachers in these schools are asked to spend the bulk of their time on the tested subjects, math and literacy. These students do not have the resources to take advantage of summer enrichment opportunities that could potentially fill the “black hole” in their science knowledge. As part of a middle class household, Dr. Ride spent her early years in Los Angeles public schools but later was able to attend a private school (where she received an excellent science education) when her parents secured a scholarship. Science education should not be reserved for the elite or the lucky.

Astronauts and astrophysicists aren’t born, they’re created. Dr. Ride’s interest in science was nurtured at an early age, by both her parents and her teachers. Her sister told reporters last week that, “Our parents taught us to explore and we did.” This encouragement of curiosity and exploration was then complemented by her teachers, including one particular high school science teacher—her mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Mommaerts. Without early cultivation of her interest and her natural facility in science, Dr. Ride would not have pursued a career in physics nor become an astronaut. Period.

But by all accounts from those in her inner circle, Dr. Ride never focused on her fame.  As Karen Flammer, a physicist and co-founder of Sally Ride Science, recalls, “Her true passion really was science education, and inspiring young people…to follow a career path in science and technology.”  The most fitting memorial to Dr. Ride is to rededicate ourselves to inspiring science education that once again puts exploration at its core.

Bring back the pillory?

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has been publicly pummeled lately for his bold—some say outlandish and paternalistic—first-in-the-nation initiative to fight obesity in his city. His proposed ban on the sale of excessively large sugary drinks—more than 16 oz.—has elicited strong condemnation and comparison to Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt’s failed attempt to curb New Yorkers’ alcohol consumption a hundred years ago. As one resident remarked in a recent New York Times article, “I’m sorry, but if you want to be obese, you want to be obese.” Although it seems unlikely that anyone truly wants to be obese, I understand the fear and frustration that Bloomberg is inserting himself into the private lives of New Yorkers. Yet I am also sympathetic to Bloomberg’s exasperation.

As some New Yorkers organize protests in which people carry signs that say, “Hands off my bladder!” while clutching vats of fountain beverages, others voice relief that a public official has finally taken an audacious position on obesity. Half of NYC adults (and a third of all American adults) are obese or overweight.  We face an exceedingly costly and dangerous public health epidemic that certainly requires brash and cheeky action. The National Opinion Research Center puts the nation’s medical costs due to the obesity epidemic at $190 billion per year. Eric Finkelstein, a health economist at Duke University, calculates that obesity-related absenteeism costs American employers upwards of $6.4 billion a year. And if you factor in the money lost by less productivity on the job, employers lose an addition $30 billion a year—over $3,000 for each obese employee. But despite all the compelling reasons, banning cask-size drinks only positions the purveyors as martyrs in a struggle over basic American rights. We shouldn’t ban obscenely large beverages. Prohibition won’t work. (I love imaging Big Gulp speakeasies, though.) Instead we should tap into an American tradition dating back to the pilgrims: public shaming. Humiliate the sellers into doing the right thing.

Last month I made a bad bet when I dashed into a supermarket for a few items and got stuck in the wrong express checkout. After several long minutes of impatience at the snail’s pace of my progress, my frustration turned to disgust: I was surrounded by heaping mounds of junk food. To my right was a cart of “grab and go” sugary snacks; to my left was a rack of cloyingly sweet baked goods supposedly baked in error. (Without intended irony, the sign said something like, “Our loss, your gain!”) The displays shunted me into the ubiquitous candy chute. Behind me a child relentlessly pleaded with her mom to buy her a sweet treat. The mom stood firm at first, but after the long wait in the express line, she gave in. I could hear her audible sigh as she reached for a candy bar.

The candy gauntlet has been around for decades. In my adulthood, I’ve perfected my own Jedi Mind Control tricks to withstand the onslaught: “These are not the snacks you’re looking for. Move along.” Perhaps a generation ago we could still chuckle about having to resist its persistent call, but not anymore. Like our thinking about cigarettes and kids, we must transform our notions about food and children. The environment in which we make food choices must change. As Marion Nestle of New York University’s School of Public Health explains, we make our purchases within the context of a vast and formidable “marketing environment that encourages us to eat everywhere, all day long, in very large portions, and at a relatively low cost.” Our “default setting” is constant food consumption.

For many reasons it is almost impossible to change the default setting. We all need to buy food, and that necessitates a trip to the supermarket where—unless we’re at the Co-op—we’re bombarded by cheap snacks at the checkouts and the end caps of the aisles. Companies argue that they are simply giving the customers what they want: “real value.” The value argument has been turned on its head. Where’s the value in materially driving up health care costs and in watching our children suffer from obesity-related problems? We have forgotten our own purchasing power. Amidst the predictable and chronic demands for more personal responsibility and more education, there must a corresponding call for commerce with a conscience. Imagine for a moment if our nation’s children developed lung cancer and emphysema at alarming rates and yet we continued to allow supermarkets to overtly display tobacco products at the checkout.  There would be palpable outrage and disgust. Where’s the anger and repugnance about the increasing numbers of American children who now have “adult-onset” diabetes?

Sally Casswell from the School of Public Health at Massey University in Auckland asks, “Do we really want to continue to live in a world where the oversupply and marketing of…processed foods and soft drinks is tolerated simply to allow continuing profits for the shareholders of the transnational corporations producing and distributing them”—while we pay for the resulting health problems? As parents and educators—and as taxpayers who shudder over our insurance premiums—we should openly and vociferously complain to supermarket chains: Stop contributing to the obesity epidemic. Shopping strategically—at the edges of the store—was once an effective means to purchase real food and avoid cheap food-like products. Not so anymore. Their game has changed. So must ours.


A Diva for the Masses

On many summer weekend nights in the mid-1970s, my parents loaded us into our used VW microbus and drove about an hour north so we could take part in a grand musical spectacle. Volkswagen aside, we were not following the Grateful Dead. With promises of ice cream sandwiches for all during intermission, we set out for the Lake George Opera Festival. You must give my parents a lot of credit—or assume they were highly medicated—to take on such a project. My brother, sister and I were all accomplished eye rollers at this point, far more interested in the promised ice cream than anything that happened on stage. In our defense, how could anyone think that James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans could successfully be adapted to the operatic stage?

In spite of ourselves, we all learned about opera—and even managed to appreciate the art form’s over-the-top, in-your-face, take-no-prisoners posture. I am certain that my parents’ insistence that we attend Puccini’s La Boheme is the reason I now adore Jonathan Larson’s updated version, Rent. And I know it gave me the background I needed to truly value the experience when my high school drama teacher scored dress rehearsal tickets to see Luciano Pavarotti in Verde’s Aida at the Met. Exposure to cultural experiences is always the first thing to go when money is tight, but the value of enrichment cannot be calculated. I understand the world differently because my parents and teachers made the effort to expose me to art, music and theater.

The same year I attended Aida in New York City, my high school friends and I won top honors—and $100 cash—in a lip-sync contest for our outlandish interpretation of the B-52’s “Rock Lobster.” In a seersucker suit and my dad’s wingtips, I strutted and gestured—even writhed on the floor like a convulsing lobster—to capture the prize. It wasn’t opera but it had elements of grandiosity. My performance was a distant cousin to the first Italian opera—Euridice—which wowed guests at a Medici wedding back in 1600. Let’s face it, everyone loves a spectacle.

Although I never became a devotee, opera has always had a tangible, if modest, presence in my life. From my aunt’s opera performances, to my mom’s chorus presenting Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall, to my own Handel solo in high school, opera has been a touchstone to my family’s collective memory. Recently opera has resurfaced in my life through youtube. I’ve rediscovered it through the work of one of today’s opera superstars—41-year-old German soprano Diana Damrau. When you have a moment today, find a Damrau clip of the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. Don’t worry if opera has never been your thing or if you find the art form somewhat off-putting. Set all that aside because Damrau’s soaring voice—and the seeming ease with which she conquers extremely difficult pieces—will remind you of humanity’s great possibilities. I always feel inexplicably better about the world and my place in it after hearing her sing.

Although this aria has become Damrau’s most performed piece, she made history when the Metropolitan Opera hired her to perform two different roles in The Magic Flute in separate performances during the same season. But her mastery of this particular opera does not define her. Tim Ashley of the Guardian calls Damrau the “Meryl Streep” of classical music. He writes, “Her artistry is phenomenal and paradoxical” in that she “achieves a sense of total immersion in her material without quite ever letting you forget the powers of technique, intelligence and calculation that inform her singing.” It is easy to understand why she’s a darling of the opera world. Her dogged pursuit of excellence combines with her charisma and staggering talent to make her, in the words of Opera News, the only opera star today “who conveys the can’t-wait-to-get-started joy of singing.”

It is a shame that opera is a favorite target of the anti-intellectual movement in America. Enjoying opera is tantamount to heresy among those who fashion themselves “true patriots.” Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, argues that this anti-rationalism is rooted not just in a lack of knowledge but in an arrogance about that lack of knowledge. “The problem is not just the things we do not know…it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place.” How revealing it is that anti-intellectuals claim to esteem Enlightenment thinkers John Locke and Thomas Jefferson yet steadfastly refuse to be enlightened themselves.

Anti-intellectualism denies us a world of experiences that push us to be our best selves, and its outdated, hollow criticism of opera’s “elitism” prevents us from learning from someone truly superb. In this era of youtube, opera is accessible to anyone with an internet connection. You need not have facility with language; it doesn’t take mastery of Italian to appreciate virtuosity.  You also don’t have to spend gobs of money, travel far or waste a precious summer evening watching young opera singers valiantly attempt to sing about the French and Indian Wars. You simply need to choose a more pleasing clip on your electronic device of choice.

Do something bold today. Stare down the anti-intellectuals by enjoying Diana Damrau’s unparalleled talent and then tell your friends about it. Excellence should be shared around.

Deconstructing “Madame No”

They call her “Iron Frau” or sometimes simply “Madame No,” but according to the news last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to be uttering a “maybe.” For months Merkel has rejected calls for Eurozone debt sharing and Germany’s continued role as the Eurozone ATM. At the most recent European Union summit, however, Merkel gave tepid support to debt sharing among EU partners— with strings attached. Merkel,  the de facto leader of the European Union, leads the most powerful economy in Europe at a time when the ambitious Eurozone experiment is precariously close to collapse. The world markets impatiently await her move; many wonder why she has been unyielding on this issue.

Because of her center-right politics and her advanced degree in science, Merkel is often compared to another influential female leader, Great Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. But her most striking similarity to Thatcher is her steely resolve. Thatcher famously said—amidst enormous pressure to ease the economic reforms her party put in place in the UK in 1980—“To those waiting with baited breathe for that favorite media catch-phrase, the ‘U-turn’, I have one thing to say: ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”  Similarly, despite extreme pressure from heads of state across Europe, and powerful billionaire George Soros, Merkel has rejected collective European debt sharing over fears it would leave Germany holding the bag. As Jeremy Warner, associate editor for The Telegraph in London, has reflected, “Angela Merkel isn’t bluffing. Like everyone else in Europe, she’s defending national sovereignty.”

Merkel’s refusal to pool debt in the European Union is not surprising given the long line of European nations asking for bailouts lately: Ireland, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and now Cypress. She insists that Germany will not support collectivizing debt through issuance of euro bonds until strict economic reforms are put in place in Europe’s debtor nations.  She has been accused of being obstinate—and perhaps unprincipled—in her protection of Germany’s interests. But there is another way to view Merkel’s position and ideology; she is a product of her family’s experiences and her nation’s troubled history.

Although born in Hamburg, West Germany, Merkel moved to Templin, in East Germany when her father, the Lutheran minister, was posted to a pastorate at the church in Quitzow. Gerd Langguth, a former senior member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, asserts in his Merkel biography that her father had a “sympathetic” relationship with the communist regime; this is the only legitimate explanation for why the family owned two automobiles and was able to travel freely between the two Germanys, both significant privileges in the austere East. As the family shuttled between East and West, Angela Merkel lived the stark differences between communism and the free market. This surely shaped her world view and cultivated a desire to see economic and political reforms in the East.

Merkel’s Lutheranism also helps to explain her stance in the current economic crisis. Her refusal to overlook the profligate spending, and in some cases the fraud and dishonesty of governments in southern Europe, harkens back to Martin Luther’s zealous reform of the Catholic Church 500 years ago. While Luther confronted what he perceived as the corruption and unconscionable spending of the Catholic Church in Rome, Merkel rejects the rampant spending and book-cooking of the governments of the Catholic states of Italy, Spain and Portugal. She represents the German taxpayers, in the words of Gavin Esler of the BBC, who really want to be good Europeans at heart—just as Martin Luther wanted to be a good Catholic. “But in their heads, most Germans suspect that there may be something wrong—something morally wrong as well as economically dangerous—about giving money to those who…have been at best reckless and at worst dishonest.”

Lutheranism alone does not explain Merkel’s resistance to aligning Germany’s future with the bankrupt Mediterranean economies. Remember those bizarre photographs in your high school history textbook of Germans wheeling wheelbarrows of worthless cash around to purchase sundries after WW I?  Germans alive today remember what that economic misery led to: Unbridled scapegoating and the rise of the Third Reich.

Because we are such a young nation—and often exist on the world’s stage as posturing teen instead of elder statesman—we often forget that history matters deeply in shaping individual and collective psyches. Throughout the Eurozone crisis, Germans as a whole and particularly Angela Merkel, have been accused of smugness by their less successful European partners. But Germany is Europe’s export powerhouse, so perhaps they are entitled to be smug. Moreover, who can blame them for being afraid of their more primal instincts? Germany’s economic turmoil between the two world wars led to history’s most extensive and effective killing machine. That’s difficult to forget.

Immediately after the most recent European Union summit, Merkel was portrayed as having finally given in to Spain, Italy and France’s demands for economic relief through more EU debt sharing. But with more time to reflect, analysts are coming to understand that Merkel essentially walked away with exactly what she wanted: In exchange for much-needed cash, France agreed to transfer supervision of its banks to the European Central Bank, which is located—surprise—in Frankfurt, Germany.

Markets will continue to watch Europe closely.  In the end, the Germans—with Merkel at the helm—will lead by pragmatic and savvy concessions. They will have to concede some things, but it will be on their terms.



The Chief Goes Solo

Ever since last week’s momentous Supreme Court decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, I’ve had a tune in my head by a very different set of Supremes: “Baby, baby…where did our love go?” This must be how the conservative bloc on the Court—Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito—and Republicans around the nation feel about Chief Justice Roberts. Similarly, liberals feel cheated by notorious swinger, Justice Kennedy. But liberals and conservatives alike should note that Roberts is singing solo, much like Diana Ross did when she left the Supremes back in 1970.

Although Congressional Republicans—and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney—have expressed shock and fury over the ruling and Roberts’ decision in particular, the most avid court watcher in our house called it months ago. My spouse, the health law attorney, contemplated Justice Roberts’ position and concluded that Roberts did not want another incredibly important ruling to be so politically divisive. Roberts is candid about his distaste for 5/4 decisions from the nation’s highest court; they give the impression of a court riven by politics and destroy public confidence in the rule of law.

As the New York Times has reported, Chief Justice Roberts aims to protect the court’s legitimacy by generally preferring incremental decisions from large Court majorities. But the recent health care decision also underscores his desire to defer to the will of our elected officials. In his written opinion he quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes: “As between possible interpretations of a statute, by which one would be unconstitutional and by the other valid, our plain duty is to adopt that which will save the act.” The Chief tried to craft a decision that would not be so acrimonious and might bring Justice Kennedy along with him, but things did not go according to plan. We were left with a 4-1-4 split; not a great show of solidarity from the Court.

As supporters of the President’s health care law celebrate its affirmation, it’s critical to examine the argument the Chief Justice took and why. His opinion stakes out a position with which no one else on the Court concurred. This cannot be good precedent. At the heart of Roberts’ written opinion, he argues that the federal government does not have the power to compel people to purchase insurance (the so-called “individual mandate”) under the commerce clause. He maintains, however, that the federal government can tax those who don’t under its taxing power. To support this position, Roberts cites the fact that the penalty for not purchasing insurance can be construed as a tax, and he writes, “Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass judgment upon its wisdom or fairness.”

According to Lyle Denniston, a court watcher at SCOTUSblog, this argument was actually Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s third backup argument. The Obama administration felt they were on much firmer legal ground in using their first argument—the commerce clause—and their second argument—the necessary and proper clause. The taxation argument was the kitchen sink thrown in at the end. Roberts was joined in the taxation section of his opinion by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan, but all four asserted in their separate opinion that Congress already had the necessary authority under the commerce clause. They had to go along with Roberts on the taxation issue in order for the law to stand.

The problem with Roberts’ opinion is that he performs, in the words of legal scholar Jeffery Rosen, “judicial jujitsu” to arrive at his conclusion: He calls the mandate a “penalty”—and not a tax—so that the Court can rule on it now. (Otherwise an obscure statute would prevent the Court from deciding the case.) But later in the decision he asserts that it is a tax, to save the Act from unconstitutionality. It is too clever by half, and it does nothing to protect the Court from accusations that partisan Justices craft what Thomas Jefferson referred to as “twistifications.” Rosen asserts that, like Jefferson’s nemesis Chief Justice Marshall, Roberts chose ideas from among several legal theories to arrive at his desired outcome. Roberts concludes that the Federal Government does not have authority to regulate health care under the commerce clause because the law attempts to regulate inaction rather than action, so he constructs an argument around the federal government’s power to tax.

In her dissent from Roberts’ ruling about the commerce clause, Justice Ginsburg—joined by Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor—argues that Roberts’ “rigid reading of the Clause makes scant sense and is stunningly retrogressive.” She notes that until Roberts’ unique interpretation of the commerce clause, the Court had ruled that Congress not only has the power to regulate economic activities that “substantially affect interstate commerce” but also can regulate “local activities that, viewed in the aggregate, have a substantial impact on interstate commerce.” In other words, one person’s refusal to purchase health insurance may not, in isolation, spoil the system, but when millions of Americans opt out of insurance coverage, it threatens to bankrupt the system and substantially drive up costs for those who pay in.

I’m relieved. The Court’s ruling means that we can finally move forward with substantial health care reform. But by rallying around the tax/penalty issue and denying Congress’ authority to compel the purchase of insurance under the commerce clause, Roberts articulates a novel needle’s-eye legal argument and threads the entire case through it. This does not bolster my confidence in the Court.

Chief Justice Roberts, take note: Dianna Ross’s solo career may have flourished, but it devastated the Supremes.