May/June 1995 Table of Contents
1995 Astronomical Society of the Pacific
problems affect astronomy, they affect American minorities disproportionately.
Science education is failing a large fraction of our kids; it is
failing an even larger fraction of minority kids. Graduate students
struggle to prove themselves; minority grads have to struggle harder.
Tenured academic jobs are tough to come by; they are tougher for
the high achievers in schools, the science journalists, the planetarium
visitors, the teachers, the amateurs, and the researchers, African
Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are few. Many astronomers
and astronomy enthusiasts would rather not think about that fact.
The few do not have that luxury.
are the pioneers, the first scientists many of their families and
communities have ever known, the first scientists of color many
of their colleagues have ever met. The conspicuousness of minority
scientists, or of their absence, carries with it a special set of
problems. Will my colleagues construe a dumb question as a reflection
on all blacks? If I fail, does my whole community fail? How am I
to juggle my role as mentor with all the other responsibilities
of academic life? A minority scientist is always a minority
as well as a scientist.
be sure, astronomers, whatever their race or ethnicity, are among
the most privileged people in the world. But the representation
of minorities in science is more than an issue of scientists. It
is a canary in a coal mine, a visible signal that something is wrong
with the way we educate our kids, all our kids. The problems with
science and science education affect everyone, but it is minorities
who feel them first and strongest.
only do schools fail to provide adequate instruction, kids do not
receive the support from their families, communities, and peers
that they need to succeed academically. College and grad school
are expensive, both in the dollars you spend and in the dollars
you forego. Our education system requires Herculean perseverance
from students in physical science. Most students stay clear of it;
the perceived potential for success -- and for contributing to society
-- is greater in law, medicine, engineering, finance, and the social
sciences. The few who do wind up in faculty positions find that
academia is not always welcoming.
is why it isn't enough to say that we're meritocratic, that we accept
anyone regardless of race. We have to be pro-active. Individual
scientists, amateurs, and laypeople need to reach out to marginalized
communities, and the astronomical community must provide institutional
support and encouragement. Science centers and planetariums are
leading the way. They have realized it isn't enough for them to
throw open their doors; Latin names on a placard just don't cut
it anymore. Nowadays, science centers are more engaging than ever
are exciting times, when astronomy education and the profession
have a chance to reshape themselves. Astronomers and educators alike
are realizing that the conditions under which we operate have a
direct bearing on the quality of our work. We need to be more tolerant
of the diversity of talents, we need to be more supportive of our
colleagues, we need to make the graduate degree a more flexible
qualification, we need to reach out to the public and let the public
reach out to us. Out of these unsettled times will come an astronomical
community more at ease with itself and better able to tackle the
challenges of science in the third millennium.