But when I talk to high school seniors, I find something different. They memorize “facts.” By and large, though, the joy of discovery, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. They’ve lost so much of the wonder, and gained very little skepticism. They’re worried about asking “dumb” question; they’re willing to accept inadequate answers; they don’t pose follow-up questions; the room is awash with sidelong glances to judge, second-by-second, the approval of their peers. They come to class with their questions written out on pieces of paper, which they surreptitiously examine, waiting their turn and oblivious of whatever discussion their peers are at this moment engaged in.
Something has happened between first and twelfth grade, and it’s not just puberty. I’d guess that it’s partly peer pressure not to excel (except in sports); partly that the society teaches short-term gratification; partly the impression that science or mathematics won’t buy you a sports car; partly that so little is expected from students; and partly that there are few rewards or role models for intelligent discussion of science and technology-or even for learning for its own sake. Those few who remain interested are vilified and “nerds” or “geeks” or “grinds.”