Why make students take chemistry?

Oct 17 2012 Published by under Activism, Uncategorized

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.

8 responses so far

  • becca says:

    1. Do you believe college is intrinsically less valuable than high school? Because I'm pretty sure many colleges manage educational missions perfectly fine without requiring specific courses.
    2. It's obviously false that no one EVER learns anything important in high school chem, but if you're going to go on about logical fallacies, it's worth pointing out that's a strawman take on his analysis. His point is not that his kid won't learn anything from high school chem, merely that other subjects could be equally or more valuable (whilst being less painful).
    3. Maybe you could have been a fabulous economist or programmer, if only you had been forced to take more econ or programming courses. Or simply better able to poke holes in Romney's tax plans or design a spiffier website, if only YOUR Dad had seen fit to prepare you for that many economic and technological issues facing our society today.

    Ultimately, the argument comes down to whether one fundamentally believes that education is best treated as a medicine that no one will take on their own accord, but that must be administered (violently, if necessary) for their own good. Despite it being a popular model in compulsory K-12 education, I think that's a sick way to look at people, a sick way to look at schooling, and a terrible model for spreading appreciation for OR understanding of chemistry.

  • [...] Why make students take chemistry? by Scicurious at Neurotic Phsyiology [...]

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    A student once commented to me that he was paying my salary. I responded, "Yes, but you are paying me to do what I think you need, not what you think you want." The student understood what I was saying and we got along fine.

  • Ned Wright says:

    In high school chemistry I learned this most important rule:

    Q: What's the most important thing to remember when mixing acid and water?

    A: Point the test tube out the window!

    50 years later it is still engraved on my memory.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I taught high school chemistry one year. My most exciting moment came when I unthinkingly poured some sulphuric acid into a sink which had a fair amount of table salt in it. I could see my breath when it hit the rising cloud of hydrochloric acid vapor. Needless to say we evacuated the room.

  • Walter J. Freeman says:

    I, too, have met plenty of people who relish and yes, even wallow in their ignorance, particularly when it comes to science or math. Some of this aversion is a learned response no doubt.

    Some of the aversion may well have to do with both internal brain wiring and some with external factors.

    External factors include social factors such as not being considered "cool" by one's peers if interested in science or math or technology. I believe the word is "geek," which is often used as a pejorative. And that is one thing that definitely needs to change in the social pressures surrounding young people.

    A great deal has to do with how the subject is introduced and conducted. If chemistry is presented as a tool to learn about things and to use that knowledge, then it might be more readily accepted. Teacher enthusiasm for the subject has a lot to do with it for enthusiasm is contagious, just like the current crop of Exxon commercials suggest.

    For me, I think, the tipping point was the fact that one could convert s0mething into something else entirely with predictable results.

    Yes, yes, I know that in cooking we do this all the time, but usually in the matter of foodstuffs there is usually some visible evidence of the ingredients even in the final product -- most of the time.

    In chemistry, this is not always the case. In fact it is seldom the case.

    About the age of 15 or 16 this is what caught my attention. I was helping out setting up a lab experiment in our small rural Southern high school, when it became apparent that we did not have one of the reagents needed for the day's lab.

    The chemistry teacher tossed me his car keys and told me to go to one of the stores in our small town and get a box of washing soda and then to come back and using the washing soda prepare the reagent needed.


    I never got over this revelation that stuff one could get from a backwater, small town grocery could be used in a chemistry lab class once the necessary chemical transformations were done!

    I was hooked from then on.

    I eventually got a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry and had a very successful career as a result, retiring as a vp of a major chemical company and a distinguished scientist of that company as well.

    The morale of my story is that you never know what will connect and turn someone on to the fascinating world of science and the fact that they, as individuals, can play and be a part of it. So I think chemistry is good for you and everyone ought to have some exposure. For you never know what might just spark a lifelong interest.

    Chemistry? Why it is just elementary, my dear!

  • Vicki Harrison, MS Chemistry, M.Ed says:

    In reading the information presented. You have added to my list of the importance of chemistry and other sciences. I teach in a small central LA high school with students that are having difficulty graduating on time based on a variety of reasons. At this point they are taking both high school and community college classes.
    My current position as the "science" teacher is in great jeopardy based on that the supervisor believes that chemistry is not necessary for these under-priveldge students..... In the 3 years I have taught, the majority of my students have met the challenges and their self-confidence to continue to graduation has been assisted.
    Could you please add to the list and if you have any current papers data or discourse I would love to read and hopefully work with my supervisor.

  • Esteban Arnold says:

    Chemistry will not do a single thing for you though unless you have a good responsible teacher who actually knows how to teach. Unfortunately I have the luck of receiving a teacher who is terrible at teaching, so yes it maybe an acceptable thing and to a child's benefit to learn chemistry and other various subjects but maybe we should also try to do a better job in our society at choosing good teachers for kids because if not then what good will it do to have them just there bored in class when their teacher does not know how to teach any of the subject at hand.

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