Hello from the Society for Neuroscience meeting! Sci is headed home shortly. It's been a fabulous time, meeting new people, seeing old friends, and seeing the hottest new science! It's an overwhelming experience, but I always come away with a head full of new ideas, a liver crying for mercy, and renewed enthusiasm for the AWESOME that is neuroscience.
So you can imagine my dismay and disappointment when I saw an op-ed in the Washington Post, from a Dad who could not STAND the thought of his poor child being forced to take chemistry. You'll have to forgive the upcoming snark. It's been a long week full of science, and I have little will left to be my (usually charming!) self.
Here we go.
The sheer thrill that the writer displays in his own desire for chemical ignorance is astounding. It's nice to know he's happy about his own total lack of chemical knowledge. Unfortunately, he also displays a great deal of ignorance, not only for chemistry, but for the importance of a well rounded education.
The points he appears to try to make are these:
1. Kids shouldn't be expected to suffer through classes they don't enjoy.
So I take it I should never force my child through reading. He doesn't LIKE reading. He'll never BE a reader or an English Major or anything anyway. I shouldn't force my kid to take Government either. I mean, it sucks! And it's boring! And it's not like he's going to be a politician or even like he's going to vote. And while we're here, screw Math! My kid can add a bit and subtract, no matter what he does, he won't need MATH. There are computers and calculators and stuff for that! You could easily discount every class in the high school curriculum this way, so what's it all for, you know? Why makes the poor children suffer?!
Look, no one is going to love all their high school classes. Many people hate them all. That's not to say they aren't eventually useful.
Here we come to point #2.
2. You never learn anything important in high school chemistry anyway.
I'll admit, my high school chemistry class? There was a lot of math, a lot of rote memorization, and a lot of things like calculating moles. But there was also exposure to important things. What elements are similar to each other and why? Why do elements bond to each other in different ways? What does this mean for the way we live and the things that are around us? What does this mean for biology? For medicine? For engineering? Chemistry is the basis of so much that is incredibly important in science, and in our society. To see someone proud of their own ignorance in this area is both pathetic and depressing. The writer of the op-ed appears to have been a philosopher. If he's like other philosophers I have met (though I admit all the ones I know are much more sensible), he decries the lack of critical thinking training in our society, and becomes outraged at how students emerge from high school and college with no idea whatsoever of logic. The smug ignorance of people who disdain critical thinking and "go with their gut" probably gets him pretty riled. But really, who cares about critical thinking, right? I mean, it's not like you LEARN anything from analyzing problematic statements like "All birds have wings. This creature has wings. This creature is a bird." No one really REMEMBERS what kind of fallacy that is. And if they want to go with their gut, they really shouldn't feel FORCED to take an entire COURSE on logic. Torture, amiright? After all, how many of them will ever be philosophers?!
and now we come to my personal favorite. 3. His son isn't going to be a scientist anyway so it doesn't matter.
I'm so glad that this father knows his son well enough to know exactly what life decisions he will be making down the road, and knows exactly which things he can safely leave out of his education. But I'm very, very glad that this isn't my dad, and I'll tell you why: when I was 15, I HATED CHEMISTRY. With every atom (heh) of my being. I suffered through science and math classes. I lived for English, drama, music, history, dance. My parents really did think I'd go off to a conservatory and end up a starving artist, or maybe an English professor.
And we all know where I am now.
Who you are at 15, what your interests are, can change over time. Who knows where his son will be 10 years from now? Maybe he'll decide to study medicine. Maybe he'll decide to go into physics. Maybe he'll think about engineering. Or food chemistry, or drug design. Maybe he'll want to be a science writer. Maybe he'll want to go into any number of careers which involve a basic understanding of chemistry. Heck, maybe he'll just want to know what drugs he's taking for a condition, or what alcohol does, or whether the metals in his pipes are safe. And when he goes to reach for that knowledge of atoms, of interactions...well it won't be there. Then he could thank his Dad, who saw fit to leave his son just as prepared for the many health issues facing our society as he is, which is to say, not prepared at all.
You can give your kids more than this. You can give them chemistry. You can give them the first steps to take to learn how to find their own information and analyze it correctly. You can help them on the way to understanding how their bodies work and we they put into them and why it matters.
But, you know, maybe we shouldn't. After all, it's so boring. Just like torture! Ignorance is bliss, after all. Especially for this guy.