When leaders don't think

I take exception to Rick Rodriguez’ comment (Mayor’s Corner, Downey Patriot, March 22) that begins, “One of my favorite times of the year is when we get to celebrate STEM education at the City of STEM Big Science Fest at the Columbia Memorial Science Center. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and is the driving force in schools to prepare our children for the future…”

If he’d said that STEM is “a driving force” instead of “the driving force,” I could have lived with the statement. But there has been too much accepted opinion, on the part of the public, the media, and in much of academia itself, that the STEM curriculum is the only one worth pursuing, while in fact the purpose of education should be to educate—to teach the ability to understand as well as think something through, and to provide an individual with the means to pursue information in order to gain knowledge, and with luck and as time goes by, wisdom.

Who can deny that the areas covered by the STEM acronym have not just underscored but created almost everything we know and experience by way of the physical and material development of civilization? For thousands of years, mathematicians and scientists, architects, agronomers, physicians, building and road engineers, chemists, botanists, geographers, biologists and other figures have worked within a universal scheme of experimental observation and demonstrable proof to make ultimate use of the simple question, “I wonder why?”

My Post (4).jpg

But there are other aspects of human experience that are just as fundamentally crucial, and which we’re not examining closely enough in our historic moment. They would include the moral and ethical considerations we ponder when we think of how we use, or won’t use, technology. Why do we feel uncomfortable at the idea of universal facial recognition, where you can go anywhere and have your order taken? Or do we? The same with AI and the imminence of thought-reading machines. What do they threaten by way of loss of freedom? And who, ultimately, controls the use of new discoveries? Government? Corporations? The military?

Is scientific theory unassailable? What about when it’s used to justify the extermination of groups of people, as in the Holocaust? Or in the hideously cruel medical experiments on African-Americans and the mentally ill during the early 20th century? Believe it or not, there was once a prominent school of science that told us that character and intellect are determined by the shape of your head. It was called Phrenology. Some people still think there’s something to it.

Where does STEM fit into our notion of political engagement, of ethical behavior, of personal, familial and community relations, of right and wrong? Conversely, what is it that keeps us denying the utterly catastrophic changes that are upon us due to the scientifically proven fact of climate change?

These are existential questions that call in philosophy and art to help express the mysteriously perverse complexity of human behavior. And they’re outside the lines of STEM.

I don’t know if our local educators are asking these questions when it’s great to get kids off their Instagram feeds and out onto the excellent adventure of science. But it’s clear that Rick Rodriguez, in yet another of his feel-good pronouncements, isn’t. I don’t mean to single him out; he seems a good-hearted fellow who puts himself out there for the community, even if he makes ill-considered statements, like his recent comparison between the Mark Taper Forum and the Downey Civic Theatre, as though they were close to being the same thing.

And besides, for decades now, every local politician who becomes Downey mayor has had to wave the baton as drum major for the civic band. It’s an increasingly scarifying world out there; it doesn’t hurt to get a little reassurance at home.

Photo by Joan Anderson

Photo by Joan Anderson

But we don’t need a leader who doesn’t think before he speaks. I’m posing this in the larger context of the healthy changes that seem to be going on in Downey, which appears to be bouncing back from the collapse of the aerospace industry, and of Tesla’s betrayal. Without a vigorous cultural life, a busy gallery and club scene, a verdant city center for people to gather and discuss, or just sit and muse; and in the midst of a demographic shift that’s transformed Downey into a largely Latin-American and Asian city, the abundance of volunteer groups and community organizations have put a bounce back into Downey’s step.

I think part of this has to due with the physical expansion of the Kaiser Permanente medical complex, one of whose buildings recently gained certification as a children’s hospital. A large number of KP professionals and semi-professionals, plus administrative staff, are either commuting to Downey or looking to move here, if they haven’t already. The younger ones see good schools, numerous places of worship, excellent social services and fire and police departments, and recognize it as a good place to raise a family. Downey’s ethnic transformation is taking place without the usual tensions and resentments that accompany powerful change between social groups. Maserati’s proposed dealership move here, however small, tells us that they’re seeing something worth investing in.

Downey’s civic leaders have, over the past decades, made a point of reaching out to business in a state that has made business onerously expensive. Credit them for that. At the same time, they’ve tended to lack the breadth of knowledge and interest, the deeper perspectives on history and the currents of change, that could help them make relatively informed decisions in steering Downey to a greater place. They didn’t need all that in the past. Downey’s always had it pretty good. But just listen to them now, when the council is in session. Even if they’re compelled to deal with time-consuming agenda items, their references are depressingly narrow. We’re not seeing widely informed men and women work through community problems and weigh the implications of their decisions—or lack of them. Mostly we’re watching bureaucrats in action, happiest when giving out ribbons and commendations.

There are dangerous and explosive forces operating in American society right now, where the widespread anger we see in almost every sector of society is an expression of the primal fear of what we’re losing, what’s becoming of us. The money is gone except to the few, leaving the rest of us to live in debt. The notion of fair play is becoming a sucker’s game. The sense of personal autonomy and control is vanishing in the rise of a media surveillance state. The country is breaking up into bickering tribes at home while the rest of the world moves ahead in solving its problems and finding new trade routes that don’t include us.

How all this has affected the private lives of our local citizens and neighbors is of course impossible to know. But Downey isn’t impervious to change. Obligatory half-time speeches aren’t cutting it anymore. Those forces of anarchy and destruction are out there, and it’s becoming more and more imperative that if our Downey leaders want to talk to us in a meaningful way, they’ll need to listen to themselves first.