Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Public schools, boring classes, and science as a verb

A couple of days ago, the Washington Post ran an op-ed piece by David Bernstein entitled, "Why Are You Forcing My Son to Take Chemistry?"  In it, he points an accusing finger at the Maryland public school system for mandating that students take technical classes that they will, in all likelihood, never use again.  "It doesn’t take a chemist to know that my son is not going to be a chemist," Bernstein writes, in response to the objection that all students should be exposed to a variety of subjects, so they can make informed decisions on which career to pursue.  "He’s 15, not 7.  It’s really that obvious.  You took chemistry... What do you remember from that year?  Nada, I bet.  Next time a school official preens about the importance of chemistry, I’m going to ask him or her how many elements there are in the periodic table."

He goes on to rail against the system for making his son sit through a class where "It's all about memorization anyway."  "He will forget everything he 'learned' a week after the class is over," Bernstein writes.  "I can’t remember a thing, and I was a pretty good chemistry student."

He ends by pointing out (correctly) that choices like this one have opportunity costs -- by taking chemistry, the cost is that his son was deprived of the opportunity to take other classes that he would have enjoyed, and profited from, more.  More flexibility in what students study, Bernstein contends, would benefit everyone.

On one level, Bernstein is correct.  I have long been a supporter of more choice in paths for students, especially once they reach high school.  Forcing every student to sit through every general-ed class the school offers, just because "it's a graduation requirement," is wrong-headed.  Our own school system took a step away from that mentality a few years ago, and instituted a highly successful electives program -- there now are, in each subject, multiple tracks students can take to arrive at graduation, and the choices are largely driven by what topics students find intriguing.  (We do still have a great many basic survey courses that are graduation requirements, however.)

I think, though, that Bernstein misses one major point -- a question that is uncomfortable, perhaps, but it should be at the heart of any discussion of why public schools don't, by and large, turn children into competent life-long learners.  That larger question is (apropos of Bernstein's own experience) not why his son is being required to take a tedious class like chemistry, but why his son's chemistry teacher is teaching so as to make chemistry appear tedious.

After all, that's why some people go into chemistry, isn't it?  They find it fascinating.  And think about it... good heavens, chemistry is about stuff reacting.  If anything should be inherently interesting, it should be chemistry.  Why does dynamite explode?  How do chemical hand-warmers work?  Why does Drano clear clogged plumbing?  Why don't the oil and water in Italian salad dressing stay mixed?  Why does salt dissolve in water, but plastic doesn't?  All of these are questions you can only answer if you know some chemistry.

Yes, I know, you have to do some applied math to understand fully what's happening in chemical systems, and the math is what gets a lot of kids stuck.  But the math should be secondary to an understanding of the processes.  Because that's what science is -- a process, a way of knowing.  To quote the eminent astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson:  "Science is a verb."  The fact that Bernstein misses this point illustrates that it isn't just his son's generation that got shortchanged this way.  Note that to illustrate how irrelevant chemistry is to most people's lives, the question he wants to ask a school official is, "How many elements are in the periodic table?"  As if a factlet like that somehow is what scientists are concerned with, as if a collection of such trivia is what science is.

And of course, the problem isn't confined to chemistry.  My own field, biology, is often taught as if it were nothing but a long list of vocabulary words, as if somehow being able to name the parts of the cell or correctly spell "photophosphorylation" means that you understand how cells work, or how plants capture and store light energy.  Once again, there is no way around the fact that you have to know some terminology; we have to be speaking the same language so that we have some common ground upon which to discuss how living systems work.  But too many science teachers teach science as if it were some kind of static body of knowledge, as if the best scientists are the ones who remember the most abstruse words.

No field is immune to this characterization of learning as dry-as-dust memorization.  I had history teachers who taught us that history was just a list of dates, names, and treaties, not what it really is -- a complex interplay of personalities and motives, driven by circumstance, context, culture, and ambition.  It took me five years after graduation from college before I realized that history was interesting.  One of my English teachers in high school once told me, in a superior fashion, "It's low-minded to think that all literature is meant to be enjoyed."  Oh, really?  I wonder if the author would have agreed.  I doubt seriously that (s)he wrote a novel, all the while thinking, "Wow, I bet it will be really difficult for those idiot 11th graders to find the symbolism in this chapter!"

Now, I've been a high school teacher for 26 years, and I know that just as students often have little choice over what classes they have to take, teachers often have little choice over what, and in some cases how, they teach in those classes.  But we can as educators make our classes interesting, relevant, and exciting.  That much freedom we all have.  I have no qualms when I hear a student say about my class, "That was difficult," or "That lesson was a challenge to understand."  I do have serious qualms when I hear a student say, "Biology is boring."  If students, on a regular basis, find your class boring, make no mistake about it: you are failing as an educator, whatever their scores are on the standardized tests that educational policy writers are so enamored of.  Because the bottom line is, there is no subject that is inherently boring.  Taught properly, the universe, and its components and systems and interactions and history, are pretty damn fascinating, and our primary job as educators is to shine some light on a bit of it, and say, "Hey, look!  Look at this!  Isn't this cool?" 


  1. "Here at Oxhydro industries, we have patented a new, breakthrough formula that will rejuvenate your mind and body! Our proprietary serum combines 2 parts hydrogen and one part oxygen....."

    I have an easy answer for Mr. Bernstein:
    You need to have taken a chemistry class in high school in order to know that the above sales pitch is a steaming pile of horse manure.

  2. You're in your home and all of the sudden you start to get drowsy. REALLY drowsy. You feel as though you're starting to lose consciousness.

    Why? What's happening? What should you do?

    Those who have taken chemistry classes and try to have a general knowledge of such things, will immediately recognize that they have a carbon monoxide leak in their home and they will vacate their home... and in doing so, save their own life.

    I could go on and on.....

  3. The thing I genuinely struggle with in Mr. Bernstein's concern is that knowledge must be immediately applicable, or it is somehow unworthy of study. That really galls me.

    A lot of stuff happens on the way to an education. Sometimes learning, sometimes fun, sometimes struggle. Sometimes you fall in love. When someone approaches education with a business model and then wonders why the education system fails the test of their model, it isn't because the educational system is wrong. The model they are applying is wrong. Conversely, if you apply the educational model to business, I think you could see the same objective failure as well. Not everything in the world needs to be reduced to a capitalist business model.