In the May 2014 issue of Physics Today, an article appeared in which the authors suggested therapeutic intervention for improving physics teaching in college. A picture in the article caught my attention and I wrote the following letter to the editor, which appeared in the December 2014 issue. Here is the letter, which evidently “offended” the authors:
The insights by Lauren Aguilar, Greg Walton, and Carl Wieman on how students perceive their classroom experience and on suggested interventions for improving physics teaching are indeed helpful in elementary and perhaps middle schools. By the time students reach high school and college levels, however, it is too late. Many students in my college freshman general-education physics course do not understand the concepts of multiplication and division and often mix them up even in obvious situations. Students with an unacceptably weak background in mathematics can require months of intervention to correct just the arithmetic difficulties—something that should have been done in elementary school and is clearly impossible in a one-semester university physics course.
What struck me most in the Physics Today article was the caption for figure 1 on page 44. The photo was taken at a physics conference and drew attention to the absence of women and minority groups in the picture.
What was not visible was that an ethnic head count of the audience in that or any other physics-related conference would reveal that it was mainly foreign physicists, second- or third-generation Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and Asian Americans.
So beyond addressing the question of why women and minorities are underrepresented, we have to resolve the issue of the underrepresentation of all non-Jewish, non-Asian Americans.
The current American educational establishment is far more favorable to women and minority groups than was 19th-century Europe, so if Emmy Noether, Marie Curie, and Sofia Kovalevskaya could succeed there and then, any girl or minority should be able to succeed in 21st-century America. In my opinion, the underrepresentation in physics and mathematics is the outcome of the US way of life and its fascination with, and submission to, the youth culture, whose ultimate aspiration is to appear on American Idol or The Voice. That submission already has had a devastating impact on our undergraduate physics and mathematics.