Science Debate 2008: Obama vs McCain

Two weeks ago Barack Obama submitted responses to 14 questions about science and the future of the United States. “These questions are broad enough to allow for wide variations in response, but they are specific enough to help guide the discussion toward many of the largest and most important unresolved challenges currently facing the United States.” These weren’t trivial questions. Nobel laureates, university presidents, every major scientific organization, and others contributed to the formulation of these questions. Today, John McCain released his responses to those questions. A side-by-side comparison of their responses has been posted at Science Debate 2008.

I’m going to try to carve out some time to read the comparison. But one thing that immediately jumped out at me was the contrast between their responses to question 4 about education

A comparison of 15-year-olds in 30 wealthy nations found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 17th, while average U.S. math scores ranked 24th. What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century?

Obama’s leading paragraph is (emphasis mine)

All American citizens need high quality STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education that inspires them to know more about the world around them, engages them in exploring challenging questions, and involves them in high quality intellectual work. STEM education is no longer only for those pursuing STEM careers; it should enable all citizens to solve problems, collaborate, weigh evidence, and communicate ideas. I will work to ensure that all Americans, including those in traditionally underrepresented groups, have the knowledge and skills they need to engage in society, innovate in our world, and compete in the global economy.

McCain’s leading paragraph is (emphasis mine)

My Administration will promote economic policies that will spur economic growth and a focus on an innovative economy. Critical to these efforts is the creation of the best trained, best prepared workforce to drive this economy through the 21st century. America’s ability to compete in the global market is dependent on the availability of a skilled workforce. Less than 20 percent of our undergraduate students obtaining degrees in math or science, and the number of computer science majors have fallen by half over the last eight years. America must address these trends in education and training if it hopes to compete successfully.

There seems to be a fundamental difference in how to two candidates view the purpose of education. To McCain, education is a means to an end; people are just cogs in a machine and education makes for successful cogs. For Obama, education is a pathway towards wisdom.


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