Tuesday, October 07, 2008

McCain against Education Again

I just watched the presidential debate, and I am struck once again by John McCain's contempt for educational efforts.

It's probably not going to get a lot of play, but the one thing that stood out to me as strange was McCain attacking Obama for supporting spending money on a star projector for a planetarium in Chicago. He's referring to a $3 million earmark for replacing the 40-year-old projection system at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, the first planetarium in the western hemisphere, let alone America, and a major science education venue in the Chicago area.

To my mind, that's not "pork," at least, not in the derisive sense of the word, like a bridge to nowhere. This is perfectly in line with what Obama was saying about the need to invest in America's educational infrastructure.

Planetarium projector
Modified photo by Arlette.
As a child, I remember planetariums being one of my favorite places to visit, second only to theme parks. As an educational venue, planetariums conveyed to me, like no other venue can, the enormity, wonder, and adventure that is represented by the universe we live in. It got me interested in topics like Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics.

In particular, planetariums did a far, far better job of that than school did. In school, it's all academics and textbooks. But there was something almost spiritual about going through those double doors that opened by themselves, into the serene, dim theater, surrounded by celestial ambient music and dramatic lighting. And there, in the center of the room - the projector. That strange alien-like contraption, a black cylinder with two spheres at each end adorned with thousands of tiny eyelets, the whole thing supported on a rack, displaying it in the middle of the room as it sat dormant and quiet.

And when the show started! The lights would fade, and the music would swell, and that alien device would come to life, rising and falling, turning on its axis, spinning the spheres at each end, throwing stars into the sky above. And the narrator would speak - not the dry monotone or the finger-wagging admonitions I heard in church, but the sage and simple voice of a guide, who would take you through the universe and back. In those tall, comfortable seats, pitched back to look up at the stars, we'd observe the magnetosphere of the Earth protecting us from the fiery conflagration of particles spit out fitfully from the sun, or travel out of our galaxy so far that we could observe it from afar, a swirling sea of stars so huge it was difficult to wrap your mind around it.

To this day, as you can probably tell, I have a childlike awe of the things I learned at planetariums.

But more to the issue at hand, planetariums are educational venues. They are venues for traditional education - school trips to planetariums are common - but they are also venues for informal and adult education. If we're going to be serious about turning around our nation's educational infrastructure, it must include more than just textbooks. We have to fundamentally embrace education as a part of life, not just a part of school. We need to support the things that make kids (and their parents) interested in math and science, that get them interested in careers in the math and science industries, and help them understand how important, far-reaching, enriching, and fulfilling these pursuits are.

If the worst instance of "pork spending" support John McCain can come up with in Obama's legislative history is this, an initiative which fundamentally embraces, celebrates, promotes, and (most importantly) strengthens America's math and science educational infrastructure, then he's better off not pointing it out. Especially in terms of what we're spending in Iraq - the $3 million for the planetarium renovation Obama asked for is what we spend in Iraq every 13 minutes. This would have been a relatively tiny investment for a big return, and given that the projector the money would have replaced was forty years old and is no longer serviceable since no one makes parts for them any more, it's not likely money that would have been squandered; that the Adler kept the last projector running so long beyond its lifetime shows that they are frugal and responsible stewards of the money apportioned to them.

To me, the fact that Obama supported a public, informal educational effort like funding a planetarium, and didn't try to distance himself from it when McCain derided him for it, just reinforces the kind of man he is, especially in contrast to McCain, who has voted against education time and time again.

Oh, and by the way, the $3 million didn't get funded. I guess we needed that 13 extra minutes in Iraq instead.

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