Vaccine Development: Seeking Poets?

My husband and I were discussing whether the production of pharmaceuticals and other vital commodities would move back to the United States from China. He brought up an angle that had eluded me.

“We aren’t raising enough people with the education and ability to produce many of these things,” he said. “To make matters worse, not only are we not producing nearly enough design and production engineers, chemists, and people who know how to operate numerically controlled machine tools,  powerful unions have placed almost insurmountable impediments to manufacturing in America and have pushed wages beyond the economically sustainable.  Add to that all the politicians willing to buy votes with unrealistic economic promises and seeking power via unnecessary regulations, and we simply are years from returning to a manufacturing economy. That’s without even mentioning lawyers poised to attack any successful company.

With that in mind, my attention was caught by a newspaper article that was part of a series of how a variety of professionals are working during this pandemic. We have all read so much over the past few years about a renewed focus on STEM— science, technology, engineering and math—exactly those areas in which my husband was declaring our country to be deficient. This particular article featured a science teacher developing remote lessons. Although meant as a laudatory piece, it actually showed how meaningless a STEM label can be. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “A touchy-feely humanities class by any other name would still be a liberal arts class.”

As the article describes, at the beginning of distance learning, the featured 6th-grade teacher decided that it would be hard to interest the class in her planned lesson on thermal energy.  She chose to substitute a lesson on the science of social distancing, showing a flexibility that is, indeed, admirable.

However, when she described her new lesson, I was left shaking my head. Where I was expecting a lesson encompassing data, statistical analysis, and maybe even experimentation based on scientific principles, the teacher provided writing prompts for the students to describe their feelings and personal experiences and to express how they felt about government officials’ responses to the virus.

Excuse me? As a homeschooling mom, I was a big fan of integrating different subjects. For instance, mentioning how Sir Isaac Newton invented calculus during the 1666 bubonic plague outbreak from which he quarantined himself at his mother’s home in Lancashire brings math alive.  But that is not studying calculus. When we read a biography of a scientist such as Robert Boyle, I didn’t think that we were learning science. It was a history lesson that, depending on the strength of the writing, might also include some language arts. I hoped it would stoke interest in learning Boyle’s Law, and thus complement a science class, but I didn’t confuse reading a biography with studying hard science.

For our country to survive, we do need citizens who are scientifically, technologically and mathematically versed. As our infrastructure crumbles, engineers are vital.  If we intend increasing homeland manufacture of strategically important products like pharmaceuticals, semiconductor chips, and heavy machinery, let’s start by making sure that our schools don’t mistake teaching science and math with teaching about science and math. Whether we need a bridge buttressed, a vaccine developed or silicon chips manufactured, let us not confuse being able to wax poetic about those developments with the technical skills required to do the actual work.

28 thoughts on “Vaccine Development: Seeking Poets?”

  1. Rabbi and Susan,

    Love your insights and teaching. I really think there is a huge silver lining. Parents had a chance to demo home schooling. Some will never submit their children to public school again.

    My husband and I home schooled my nephew for his senior year. Thought it would be hard but the materials are easily available. Long story . . . thought we had failed at training my nephew for his future.

    However, there is a God factor to whatever we put our hearts to. After my nephew’s time with us . . his parents saw a huge transformation in my nephew’s kindness. He started succeeding at whatever he put his hand to. He became an incredible worker with great ethics. There are soooo many blessings that are an answer to our prayers for him which came from just a few months of homeschooling. Plus he passed his GED which was truly a miracle.

    During the pandemic, we are seeing red tape, manufacturing, inventions and medical advancements happen in turbo mode. America is returning to America. Many young Americans will be inspired by the heroes who have gotten us through these dark days. More kids will choose worthy occupations.

    You both put your heart into your teachings which will impact many generations present and future. Wish I had known about your practical life lessons when we were homeschooling. Your materials would be so much better than standard curriculum and there is much flexibility in homeschooling.

    Thank you for all that you do to make the world a better place by sharing God’s wisdom. May God’s face shine upon you and give you peace in this time.

    Many blessings,

    1. Betty, I think your experience with your nephew can serve as a beacon to many. You are so right that we can and must do what we can, but God has control of the picture. Every child needs adults in his or her life who love them and believe in them. What a blessing that you were able to be that for your nephew.

  2. Amazingly apt summary of the problem, Susan and Rabbi, but we have to be careful not to fall off the other side of the horse! Today’s youth, after decades of the plot to take over the schools, the courts, and the media, can’t speak the King’s English (and the king, of course, was George I, who was German!) They can’t spell and have no understanding of homonyms, or the difference between a comma and an apostrophe. Think systems, which is by definition complex; and be sure to include a little poetry, history, and geography with all the math and science. Above all, include philosophy, which is where it all gets started. The first scientists were philosophers, but I have heard of a university that has closed its philosophy department. You far better than I would be aware of how the Hebrew Testament shows us how history repeats itself. “Those who cannot remember the past may be condemned to repeat it”, even if nobody seems to have been able to track down the exact source of that. It might be better to go with “Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered.” Thanks for helping us all stay centered.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Deb–
      Good to hear from you. Firstly, with respect to your quoting ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, the only place I have seen it is in a book called Phases of Human Progress by George Santayana. However, it is a recurring Biblical theme of course and the main ritual of Passover is teaching the children. One of the most terrifying aspect of today’s culture, at which you eloquently hint, is not children’s English illiteracy but their cultural illiteracy. They have no knowledge, no understanding, and no interest in where we came from and why millions seek our shores but not the reverse. As far as closing the philosophy departments, I’m all for it. Call me and I’ll come with hammer and nails to seal the buildings devoted to the vapid and false studies of Schopenhauer, Heidegger, & Hegel. No successful community of humans has ever been established or existed based on the foolish philosophies of Bertrand Russell or of any of those pseudo intellectuals. There is nothing of value they teach that cannot be found in truer and more relevant form in the Bible. By the way, that is a challenge that I have been issuing for a few years and have never yet lost. In general, it is the philosophy departments of universities that harbor some of the most destructive people including the entire Frankfurt school who destroyed American public education in the 20th century. But then, with your background, you already know that. I’m all for your advice on including poetry, history and geography. In fact, I am certain that abandoning poetry memorization was another huge mistake on American schools’ slippery slide down the slope of stupidity the end of which seems to constantly recede.

      1. Couldn’t agree more with you about the philosophers you mention. Check out Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and the Boston University personalists. Or check out my website,, seeking to keep alive the work of my late husband, C. Alan Anderson, heir to the Boston personalists and one of the process philosophers.

    2. Deb, I love the Humanities and think everyone should learn literature and grammar. My problem is pretending that emoting in a science class is science and I would also have a problem with thinking that memorizing algebraic equations is a form of learning poetry.

  3. Where do I even start?
    Sometime after receiving a BA with a double major in history and English, I discovered I would need something more if I wanted a “real” job. I went back to engineering college earning a BS in mechanical engineering. This allowed me to spend the next twenty seven years of my life working at a DoD research laboratory. I also picked up a MS in Technical Management along the way. I thought I was a pretty smart guy until I ran into Calculus. To be honest, I never understood some of those derivations, so I just memorized them.
    Unfortunately, almost none of my coworkers at the factories where I toiled for nine years, would have lasted one semester in engineering school. Although I graduated with a high GPA, it durn near killed me. I worked harder during those years than any time before or since in my life! During this time I was in my early thirties, married, and paying for everything that wasn’t covered by scholarship money. I was motivated.
    If someone is smart enough and disciplined enough to get through Calculus and one of the “hard” sciences, they are likely to take a job that is more rewarding than teaching in a public school, where teachers are also expected to be social workers and the school, itself, is expected to take the place of parents, even to the point of providing food to the students. What teachers don’t know, they can’t teach, whether we are talking about mathematics or the meaning of compound interest in personal finance.
    But it is worse than that. For a number of years, I volunteered as a math tutor in our local high school. My job was getting juniors and seniors ready to pass the state math exam that was required for graduation. Some of these young people didn’t know their multiplication and division tables that we learned in the third grade! I noticed the outcome for these students was strongly correlated to the determination of their parents. I remember one mother, who basically offered her son a choice of death or graduation. Just kidding, but even though that mother was not much better educated than her boy, she wasn’t going to tolerate failure. He graduated and started a successful business cutting down bushes and trees growing under power lines, as a contractor for the power companies in the area.
    I think it comes down to this. If a parent values education and pushes their children towards success, while modeling the kind of behavior that brings success, there is a high probability the child will succeed. If the parents depends on anything or anyone to take that primary responsibility off their shoulders, the odds against that child ever reaching their potential is pretty frightening.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Henry-
      Your letter, and indeed your life, is a powerful testament to what Susan Lapin and I have always taught. Any institution graduating a young man with knowledge only of English and history is committing an act of sabotage against him, as you happily discovered in time. However, while that English degree was useless to you in your legitimate quest to be able to earn a living, it has stood you in good stead. You have written us an utterly cogent and erudite letter on complex topics, a feat quite beyond the English composition abilities of most college graduates let alone high school seniors. I am going to copy your letter to show to one of our self-schooling g’sons who will completely get your point and agree with it. He’s just starting calculus under my tutelage and writes very well too. I hope all continues well for you.

  4. Your thoughts struck a chord with me on multiple levels. I’m a Mechanical Engineer and a homeschooling father (i.e. my wife homeschools while I try to keep up). I remember the often pathetic education I received in the “GIC’s”-it wasn’t all bad, but there was a lot lacking.

    In my work I’ve observed the bureaucratic and arcane methods that well educated engineers seem destined to implement while hard-working, hands on “country-folk” build machines, program robots, and build amazing technology that solves a myriad of manufacturing challenges. I am not misled to think that education in general is the problem, but rather the proper kind of education in particular is the solution.

    There is a certain sadness to watch our country change from an hardworking, caring culture to a self-righteous, self-important people with little understanding of reality and even fewer solutions to the challenges that we face. What happened to those hard working, american pioneers with deep rooted values, grit and functional intelligence?!

    Lamenting the past doesn’t help; I hope to be part of the solution. I think education will need to be a primary focus. I’m with you Susan, what if the silver lining of this current crisis is a reawakening of good education and innovation. I’d love to be part of that!
    Well done!

    1. Craig, I’m hoping the silver lining will be parents waking up to find that being a parent is a commitment and deserves a great deal of attention.

  5. I think the world has always rested on a few people’s shoulders. Just because you lead a horse to water doesn’t mean they will drink it. If education was the hallmark of a superior people or nation then Germany should have been the beacon on the hill instead those great engineers committed the holocaust and yet it was those uneducated Americans who came to liberated Europe and save a great many Jews. I’m not down on education, in fact, I love it and wish I would have gotten one, however, my point is everything works out as God plans. One is no better than the other. If Americans were to take over these tasks then there would be no need for foreigners to fill these jobs. Right now foreigns can come here and start off well because of their education but if Americans were filling these colleges and university courses then there would be no need for the foreigners and if we allowed them here at all it would be as maids and low-level labor.

    1. Marie, you are absolutely correct that a good education does not make a moral person. Germans were sophisticated, cultured and highly educated. And hard-working and good people with life wisdom do wonderful and important things. However, I don’t agree that dumbing down our children so that immigrants from some better-educated countries can get jobs here sounds like a great plan.

  6. Your column brought me nearly to tears as it is so prescient. We’ve have lamented about the sequelae of leaving our children to the devices of contemporary government schooling and now the fallout of Rabbi’s observations are sitting in our front room. What a plight of self-making…

    1. Kristin, learning and education never stop. Many adults wake up and smell the coffee.

  7. Terry Sterling

    Dear Rabbi and Susan,
    As usual thank you for showing us how the world really works! My daughter is excellent at mathematics and is going to go to college soon to become a doctor. My fear is all the other garbage requirements she will have to go through to get there. I have spoken to her about this and she understands that there are a lot of mistruths that colleges teach now. She unfortunately went to a GIC for two years. Their math teaching was “estimation”. They taught that 2+2 didn’t mean it meant 4. It meant it could be 2+2 but could be 2.2. I couldn’t believe it that they were being taught that you don’t need to be precise. There was another time I wrote a poem for my sister in law who died of cancer. When I took the poem to my local Staples store to have it printed I had written it in cursive. The young girl who was assisting me said she didn’t know how to read cursive and I had to rewrite it in block script so she could read it. It’s all crazy and upside down! Thank you again for pointing out the truth. Sincerely and God bless You both, Your family and tremendous ministry! Terry Sterling

    1. Terry – have you paid attention to how the MCATs have morphed away from testing knowledge and thinking ability to being a test of one’s moral and ethical beliefs? Good luck to your daughter.

  8. Well said and I concur exactly. I am from the conservative old school in Europe (I’m from a military family) where learning/studying wasn’t playing video games on a hand-held devices or taking mindless, feel-good classes even at the university level. I do hope our country will be able to compete in math, science and medicine in the future ~ do they want to live under big government or do they want a democracy with choices? With much of our history being eliminated in schools, communism may look and sound wonderful. How will they be able to distinguish long-term effects of socialism if they never study history? I have to hang on to my faith that we Americans built a strong country and will not let this liberal agenda ruin our freedom. My 16 grandchildren seem well-grounded because their parents are… let’s pray there are a lot more like minded families.

    1. Kate, it does come down to families and parents recognizing that they must ensure their children’s education whether or not they use proxies as teachers.

  9. Im a mexicano and I loved your teaching and many mexicAn don’t like jews but they don’t know how much wisdom are in jews culture and now with the internet I feel that they will change their mind

  10. Susan,
    I owned a destructive testing lab for about 15 years. We did several UL tests and many other related to construction materials and systems. The work was highly specialized. I designed and built various measuring devices and the test protocols to deal with a wide variety of construction products such as window systems, doors, fasteners, bolts and their various applications.
    Due to the complexity you could not just hire off the street. Unless someone had experience at another lab it was impossible to fine employees that had experience. We ran adds in newspapers and tech journals for techs. As they would come in for an interview after introductions were over I would hand them a tape measure. Ok find me 1″ 21/32nds. 9 out of 10 applicants could not read a tape measure but they were applicants for a tech job that was all about taking measurements. At the time we were getting Cuban Rafters coming to Miami. We ended up hiring many that had advanced engineering skills and were escaping communism. The crash of 08 killed the business. So our educational system is broken and my kids dealing with common core math are having to take outside classes.

    We need to decentralize education and get with training that is useful to industry.

    John Eastman

    1. John Eastman, I implore you if at all possible you should take your children out of the public school system because when you know to do better you should do better. You may not be able to influence a whole school system but you can ensure that yours get a quality education without having to do double duty because of the inept school system.

    2. John, you reminded me of my father’s test for employees. He was a CPA and when a newly-minted CPA came for an interview he would give them a column of numbers to first estimate a total for and then to add up without a calculator. Many couldn’t.

  11. SHari Kwiatkowski

    Mrs. Lapin,
    Thank you for your articles, which I find most interesting. I believe that as males or females, we should mentor the youth of America to enjoy technology. Hypatia salvaged all books on math and taught students from these books-old or new. She may never have discovered anything new, but she sparked passion for math and science in her students. It is our job, as elders, to bring in the new and bright minds and train them to the limits of our knowledge. Our youth are very smart and will surpass us, God willing. I have faith in our kids!

    1. Shari, I am quite sure that our next generation is capable of brilliant achievement. However, minds need to be nurtured and I’m afraid that much of today’s educational system wastes that potential.

  12. Excellent perspective Mrs. Lapin. Thank you both for all you do. You bless more people than you realize.

  13. Thank you! Your – and the rabbi’s – insights are excellent, as usual.

    I can say that we haven’t fallen below the critical mass threshold, yet (I did a fair amount of “employee development” until about a year ago). However – it may not be long…

    1. Richard, thanks for the encouraging words. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this crisis spurred us to greatness?

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