by James Bailey |

The next time we stumble on a long-established computer virus and shudder at the magnitude of the threat, spare a thought for Sputnik. Sixty years ago this year, that little satellite crystallized a mind set in America that still controls us today, but a mind set that blinds us to what it will take to prevail in a future cyberwar, which could be over in microseconds.

In retrospect, it is clear that Sputnik hit us right in our sweet spot. Already panicked about Communists infiltrating the State Department and already training grade school kids to crouch under their desks during air raid drills, America became Space Race Nation overnight. Our schools actually led the way.

Biologists use the term “exaptation” to describe a trait that a species has for no obvious reason. It does not confer any increase in fitness. Exaptations only matter when the environment changes in a fortuitous way. Then they matter a lot, because they eliminate the long lag of adaptation. A species with the right exaptation is good to go immediately. America in the 1950s had just such an exaptation: the knowledge of calculus carried by public school mathematics teachers from their college training. It remained dormant because the typical high school sequence went only as far as trigonometry. Well, could calculus be used to compute orbits? Actually, yes. Calculus was invented to compute orbits. Overnight, America’s schools became the engine room of the Space Age. It was not just budding engineers who learned calculus. All high-achieving students did. Soon even government officials and business leaders had integrals and differentials in the backs of their minds. They could picture themselves in their own little elliptical orbits. A schools curriculum called “STEM” crystallized around what one observer has called “the rush to calculus.” Being an effective senator was not so different from being an effective astronaut, as John Glenn showed.

And so we won and closed out the millennium basking in the glow of our triumph. We even convinced ourselves that we had brought history itself to its conclusion, oblivious to the fact that our adversaries had moved on to a new game. The new game is cyberwarfare—cyber crime on a global scale—and an unblinking comparison of America in 1957 and America today shows how wrong-footed we are this time. We are still thinking like Space Age engineers, trying to fight viruses with heat shields. No wonder they are infiltrating the State Department on a daily basis. 

Lost in the Space Age frenzy was the reality that the 1950s actually bequeathed two competing principles for a 21st century America: the elliptical orbits of Sputnik and the double helices of DNA. Until we stop being an elliptical orbits nation and become a double helix nation, we are not secure. Once again, it starts in the schools.

A curriculum is itself a Trojan horse virus, with habits of thought its hidden payload. Pedagogues know that habits are installed by hiding them inside repetitive tasks that cause our neurons to adapt. For example, to teach kids to habitually solve problems by breaking them down into pieces and then treating those pieces one at a time, we make them factor polynomials night after night, year after year. René Descartes was actually quite up front about this. He demanded mathematics in the curriculum not for its own sake, but rather to install “methodical” habits of thought, habits that are all wrong for the cyber age.

To change the habits of thought, we need to change the curriculum. Once installed, however, a virus’ first order of business is to thwart its removal. When the Machine Age was threatening the hegemony of the classical curriculum, Latin teachers told students that the way to understand trains of gears was to start by studying the long and convoluted subordinate clauses of Cicero and Livy. “More Latin!” Today as the cyber age renders the STEM curriculum obsolete, educators, indeed even Ministers of Education, are just as mindlessly doubling down on the past. “More STEM!” To understand what it means to be a neural network, start with a train of gears. Indeed, whenever you see a brain deep in thought, tell yourself that the gears are really turning in there. 

We have no evidence that our adversaries are covertly aiding the effort to keep America’s schools stuck in the local minimum of the STEM curriculum instead of pivoting decisively to the BEADS subjects of Biology, Ecology, Algorithms, Data, and Society, but it certainly serves their interests. Is it going to take a million vehicles suddenly turning and accelerating into buildings simultaneously, as one recent observer has conjectured, to accelerate the needed pedagogical change?

Potentially there is, because the same computers that enable machine learning and cyber warfare also offer new ways for students to learn, independent of stuck-in-STEM schoolhouses. Kids can school themselves, on the internet. In so doing, they can install more forward-looking habits of thought, recognizing that the mind that is being made up is theirs. Doing so hits today’s students right in their sweet spot. As Prof. Albert Barabasi has noted:

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We have a generation that is growing up for whom the traditional goals of going to the moon, of flying to faraway stars, don’t exist anymore. That’s not what excites them. What excites them is data, networks, social systems and all of those things that were really not part of the thinking. *

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If their elementary school is not teaching them to program at the same time, and with the same urgency, that it is teaching them how to read, students can learn on their own at scratch.mit.edu. Millions of kids already are. If their middle school is still teaching them to process data two values at a time instead of two million, they can learn the techniques of Big Data at www.selfschooling.com and www.wolfram.com. If their high school is still doing heat shields, they can learn BEADS subjects at www.coursera.com and www.edx.com. The SelfSchooling web site shows the way.

But why wait for the school years? Toddlers can adopt a Kozmo robot (www.anki.com) and watch it learn, on its own, both how to navigate their room and recognize their face. They will grow up knowing that we have to out-evolve the cyber tide. We cannot STEM it.

* Albert-Iaszlo Barabasi, “Thinking In Network Terms”, https://www.edge.org/conversation/albert_l_szl_barab_si-thinking-in-network-terms.

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