I'm captivated by the Fox series "Cosmos" featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson. To say that it's a stunning series with amazing graphics really doesn't do it justice. If you haven't begun watching it yet, it's not too late. The series so far is available online, though the first episode only for the next 10 days. You can begin watching with Episode 1.
Watch just one episode of Cosmos, and you will be struck not only by elegant and beautiful graphics, but also by Neil deGrasse Tyson's studied ability to explain scientific facts and theories in everyday, understandable language. The clarity and precision of his explanations not only piques interest but it also stimulates the viewer to think about and enjoy science.
Obviously, in our increasingly complex and technological society, scientific literacy, that is, understanding science and the scientific process, is an invaluable asset. Yet, the percentage of Americans who are scientifically literate is low, at around 28%.
That low level of scientific literacy makes Neil deGrasse Tyson's mission in the new Cosmos all the more meaningful, as he explains and illustrates scientific principles. But throughout his own education, he faced obstacle after obstacle to become the scientist he is today.
Like many students, he was put into "educational tracking," the practice of separating students into ability groups geared toward preparing them for their presumed future occupations. To hear Tyson tell it, he had to continually reject the "traditional" tracking suggested to him, sports or entertainment. After all, at the wizened age of 9, after a visit to a planetarium, he knew he wanted to be an astrophysicist. And after meeting Carl Sagan, he learned what kind of person he wanted to be.
It's notable that DeGrasse Tyson attended school in Bronx public school system, just as it's notable that he resisted educational tracking that wasn't geared toward what he knew he wanted to do. The practice of educational tracking, when it hinders rather than supports student goals, is really a bureaucratic method of impeding a person's self-determination.
Jeannie Oakes recognized that in her book, "Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality." Tracking provides different and unequal access to educational opportunities, she argued. "...it is the social consequences of tracking - sorting students according to preconceptions based on race and social standings and providing them with different and unequal access - as much as any sense of organizational efficiency or pedagogical benefits that makes Americans want to cling to this type of sorting."
So, tracking can be used as an organized process to practice separate and unequal access to education. That belies our American pretense that our country is a land of opportunity, where anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can get ahead.
In the video, starting at 1:01:30, deGrasse Tyson confronts, in his own inimitable style, the question of barriers faced by those who would become scientists.