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At age 74, I have already experienced many of the indignities of aging and before very long will also confront the inevitability of death. Although neither prospect is particularly pleasant, I strongly believe in the normality and necessity of both. Claims that science will soon prevent aging and dramatically prolong life strike me as irresponsible hype and false hope. I am all for efforts to expand our healthspan, but see little value in prolonging our lifespan, and little possibility that we will soon discover a fountain of youth.

My grandson, home from college for Christmas break, disagrees with what he regards as my sentimental and regressive attachment to the status quo. Tyler is participating in stem cell and genetics research and believes that it is feasible and desirable to double the human lifespan and make aging just another curable disease. Tyler has no qualms about this research and regards my doubts as technically naive and ethically unnecessary.

Here is a very brief point by point summary of our ongoing debate.

Me: Evolution requires aging and death to make room for each new generation and also favors a fairly rapid succession of generations. Both are necessary to provide raw material for the variability and beneficial mutations essential to natural selection. 

Tyler: Evolution has little interest in aging and death. Natural selection focuses its selective pressure on producing optimal reproductive fitness in the mating members of any species. Once the period of reproduction and weaning have passed, natural selection applies much less pressure on how the rest of the lifespan plays out. There is thus no inherent evolutionary reason to prohibit research that would prevent aging and prolong life. And there are excellent reasons to pursue it- although evolution does a remarkable job when given enough time, it works far too slowly and imperfectly to help us solve our current problems. Whenever, in the past, it has served our interests, humans have always felt free to speed up natural selection. We would still be hunters and gatherers were it not for the artificial selection of domesticated plants and animals that constituted the agricultural and pastoral revolutions. If we have the genetic tools to promote human health, longevity, and happiness, why not use them.

Me: But the world is already terribly over-populated and is rapidly becoming even more over-populated. Extending the lifespan will mean more crowding, more mouths to feed, more environmental degradation, and more resource depletion. Malthusian dynamics ensure that providing a longer life for some must be purchased at the high cost of a more brutal life for the many- a life threatened by even more wars, migrations, famines, and epidemics.

Tyler: Overpopulation is best solved by reducing birthrates. This has already been done with great success almost everywhere in the world except Africa and the Middle East. It will be a better, more mature, and healthier world if people live longer and have fewer diseases and fewer children. A longer lifespan will make people wiser, more future oriented, and less willing to take foolish risks in the present. This could lead to more rational decisions on how best to preserve our planet as a decent place to live. Me: Only the rich will be able to afford new products that prevent aging and promote longevity. The resulting caste system based on lifespan will be even more unfair than our current divisions based on wealth and power.

Tyler: The distribution of benefits that will accrue from aging research is a political, economic, and ethical question, not a scientific one. Given human nature and existing institutional structures, the benefits will almost certainly be enjoyed in a markedly unequal and unfair fashion- greatly favoring the rich and powerful, with only a very slow trickle down to the population at large. This inequity has accompanied every previous technological advance in the long march of human progress and is not specifically disqualifying to progress in slowing aging and death.

Me: Every scientific advance can, and usually does, have harmful, unintended consequences (medical, social, political, economic) that cannot possibly be predicted in advance. Scientists always have intellectual and financial conflicts of interest that bias them to exaggerate the potential benefits to be derived from their discoveries and to minimize the potential risks.

Tyler: Surely, aging research will have its hype, blind alleys, and unexpected complications- these are an unavoidable risk in all scientific advances. But the risks and difficulties should not paralyze efforts to make the advance or call into question whether it should be made; instead, they should increase caution and vigilance in how it is done. And we must remember the context. Our world is already going to hell in a handbasket- the risks of advancing science are real, but the potential benefits may be all that stand between us and disaster. Science is necessarily disruptive, but may offer our only road to salvation. To quote Mark Watney in the movie 'The Martian': "In the face of overwhelming odds, I'm left with only one option, I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."

Me: There is something arrogant and unseemly about tampering with anything so fundamental to life as aging and death. Their inevitability has always been an essential element governing the ebb and flow of all the species and all the individual organisms that have ever lived on our planet. Why assume that we have the right, or the need, to tamper with such a basic aspect of nature?

Tyler: Scientific progress has always challenged conservative values based on a sentimental attachment to the past. My grandfather would probably have worked hard to convince the first agriculturalists that they were breaking some sacred and natural code when they chose to settle down in one place rather than continue following the hunt. There is no inevitable, inexorable, over-riding, and natural law defining and governing one correct path of human destiny.



By Dr. Blake Spahn, Vice Chancellor of Dwight School

DwightSchoolViceChancellorBlakeSpahn.jpgThe philosophical underpinnings of the International Baccalaureate trace back to Kurt Hahn, a British educator of German origin who worked for a negotiated peace after World War I. He believed that implementing an international curriculum around the world could abolish national and racial prejudices, thereby wiping out the main cause of war. His thinking influenced Alec Peterson, Director of the University of Oxford's Department of Educational Studies, who aimed to broaden the British A level curriculum, enabling children to develop to their fullest potential. His work to reform the A levels ultimately took shape in the late 1960s as the universal IB curriculum, independent of any government and national biases and systems.

I took an initial interest in the IB when my own high school, Dwight School, adopted the curriculum. I saw first-hand how the IB impacted our school and its culture, and was struck by the transformation in such a short period of time. I later delved deeper while pursuing my DPhil in comparative international education at Oxford. My doctoral thesis focused on the development of the IB in the U.S., through the lens of four case-study schools. My goal was to answer the following questions through extensive research:

  • Why would an American school adopt the IB? The primary reasons were the curriculum's high academic standards across a wide array of integrated subjects and a school's desire to raise its academic standards. Additionally, the IB enhanced the school's ability to attract foreign students and to increase diversity within its community.
  • How is the IB implemented in a U.S. school? It was clear that prior to implementation, a school must understand its own core values to ensure compatibility and that successful implementation relied on the leadership of a senior faculty member, such as an IB coordinator or principal, to help smooth the way. Implementation also required that the school gain consensus among senior faculty by making them part of the decision-making process. Once on board, everyone needed to steer clear of creating a division between IB and non-IB students. 
  • What is the effect of the IB on the institution? The predominant impact was improved academic standards and increased pride in the school both for its enhanced reputation and for being part of a larger global group.

I published these research findings in greater detail in America and the International Baccalaureate: Implementing the International Baccalaureate in the United States in 2001. Since that time, the IB has grown exponentially nationwide for many of the same reasons and with even more enthusiasm in today's globalized world ─ an ever-evolving world in which employers seek internationally minded, multi-lingual, culturally sensitive and agile employees. The IB provides the best academic preparation available anywhere for graduates to enter this global marketplace equipped with the requisite skills and knowledge to succeed ─ and, in the spirit of Kurt Hahn, to build a better world through intercultural understanding and respect.  

Dr. Blake Spahn is Vice Chancellor of Dwight School, the first school in the Americas to offer all four IB programs for students from preschool through grade 12. Founded in 1872, Dwight School is dedicated to igniting the spark of genius in every child.

During the summer many parents concerned about their child's ascendance to college are providing them with support as they prepare for the upcoming SAT exams. An important issue to consider is what have evolved recently.  Namely, that the questions are very heavily embedded in a student's reading ability and possibly cultural acquaintance. I have been a strong advocate for preparing students for the SATs, having written support books on the topic for both teachers and students - for teachers on how to prepare students, and for students to provide significant practice. But now the question arises as to how to prepare for the math section of the SAT, when there is considerable reading skills embedded therein.

If we agree that the test items are to assess the students' quantitative thinking, mathematical skills, and problem-solving ability, then the items presented should be geared appropriately. Today we are faced with a new form of test item for the math section of the SAT exam, which I believe is wrongly constructed, since it is too dependent on reading comprehension and cultural competence. This is coming under the guise of presenting "real-world" experiences. Just looking at the sample tests provided online and seen through the eyes of a student who may be have challenges in reading, or a student whose native language is not English - a skill assessed on other parts of the SAT - one will see that they are at a definite disadvantage. After all, the SATs already have a reading test, and a test of writing and language. We don't need to "pollute" the math test with a significant degree of reading competence and cultural awareness.

We ought to assess "real world" mathematics skills without being so verbose. In previous decades, the mathematics section of the SAT focused exclusively on mathematics skills with a minimum amount of reading required. The uncluttered math items presented an advantage as evidenced by an experience I had during my years in the 1960s as a math teacher (and math team coach) at a Bronx high school, I remember the extraordinarily brilliant student, who emigrated from Hong Kong, demonstrated his brilliance in mathematics, but was rather weak with his English skills. His score on the verbal SAT was very low, but he got an 800, the top score, on the mathematics test.  He was subsequently accepted to MIT with a scholarship! This was when the math questions were far less verbal than they are on today's exam - testing math alone without requiring language competence.

Unfortunately, all too often mathematics teachers neglect teaching problem-solving skills in the regular program. For example, consider the question about how many games need to be played in a single-elimination basketball tournament with 25 teams competing to get a winner? Most students would simulate the situation by following the winners step by step. This would be time-consuming and open to slight calculation errors. A clever problem-solving technique here would be to consider the situation from an alternative point of view. That is, consider how many games need to be played to get 24 losers?  This question is very simply answered - 24 games - with a clever problem-solving technique of adopting a different point of view. I use this example only because it is brief and makes the point of demonstrating a clever problem-solving approach, one that we should expose our students to during their regular instruction program.

Reading competence is not the only distractor from this assessment of mathematics skills. There is also the cultural factor that could put immigrant students at a disadvantage when they do not understand the topic being described. Whenever math test questions are put into "a real world context," there is always the concern about what is "real-world" for urban students may not be in the real-world of a rural students. Even if the students can read well, there could be a time delay factor as the student struggles to understand what is actually being asked. Therefore, the less verbiage used in presenting a mathematics question, the more accurate the mathematics assessment would be. So let's focus on the problem solving skills in mathematics without the distraction from other skill sets. We would be equally displeased if a reading question on the verbal section of the SAT were to be engrossed in scientific or mathematical themes, which would discriminate against those unfamiliar with the topic. So let's keep the mathematics section purely mathematical. After all, isn't that what we are trying to assess. # 

About Me

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