From the Washington Post's Answer Sheet, By David Bernstein
I was recently informed by a school official at my son’s high school that the state of Maryland mandates that every student take chemistry in order to graduate. I decided to do a little research of my own.
After a lengthy five minute Google search, I discovered that my 15-year-old son must suffer through a year of chemistry because a “Committee of Ten” academics was assembled in 1892 in order to standardize the curriculum (how’s that for a bad idea?) and recommended that chemistry, among other subjects, be taught to everyone everywhere.
Even some of my smartest friends seem to be oddly loyal to the Committee of Ten. They are not able to imagine a universe in which my son does not have to take chemistry his sophomore year in high school. Seriously guys, dig deep, and you may find some powers of imagination left over from all those years of industrialized schooling and, well, schooling.
Now I don’t begrudge chemistry, which has brought forth many of the great inventions of our time, from the pain killer I took an hour ago to the diet soda I’m sipping on now (I’m actually sipping on Scotch. In fact, my very own mother, who if I am lucky will never lay eyes on this article, is a chemist, and believes that chemistry is the most noble of human pursuits and doesn’t understand how I, a former philosophy major, was able to eke out a living.
Nonetheless, why must my 15-year-old son take chemistry? Here are a few reasons I’m given.
In order for America to be competitive, we must produce more scientists.
Agreed. And I know Bill Gates thinks it’s important. But my son is not going to be a scientist. The very thought of it makes me laugh. Your son should take five classes in chemistry so he can be a scientist and make America more competitive.
Kids must be exposed to different subjects in order to know what they’re good at and interested in.
Again, agreed. Maybe kids can survey several science classes over the course of a year or two, and explore various options. They can be given a taste of a veritable potpourri of subjects throughout their education. But my son is not being exposed to chemistry, he’s forced to spend a year of his life studying chemistry every day, which translates into a year of misery for him and our entire family, and paying for tutors who just get him through the course. It doesn’t take a chemist to know that my son is not going to be a chemist. He’s 15, not 7. It’s really that obvious. You took chemistry (I’m not talking to you scientist). 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. Hint: you can find the answer on Google.
Chemistry will teach him analytical skills that he can apply to other fields.
Great. So will a hundred other possible subjects that will be less painful and potentially even more interesting to him. An experimental physicist recently told me that at this phase in chemistry instruction “it’s all about memorization anyway.” There will be no other phases in chemistry instruction for my son. He will forget everything he “learned” a week after the class is over. I can’t remember a thing, and I was a pretty good chemistry student.
Kids have to suffer through some classes they don’t like just so they can be prepared for the real world.
Now you’re getting desperate. You’re really going to make my son spend a whole year in a subject he will never use so that he can prepare to suffer at a boring job some day? I don’t know what you do for a living but I love what I do and rarely engage in work I don’t enjoy. If we’re going to pressure him, let’s do it in subjects where he can grow and put to use some day.
There’s a concept in economics called “opportunity costs,” which you may not have learned about because you were taking chemistry instead of economics. Opportunity costs are the sacrifices we make when we choose one alternative over another. A family store may be turning a good profit by selling tomatoes, but it would turn a bigger profit if it used the same shelf space to sell cucumbers. There are opportunity costs of selling tomatoes.
When you force my son to take chemistry (and several other subjects, this is not only about chemistry), you are not allowing him that same time to take a public speaking course, which he could be really good at, or music, or political science, or creative writing, or HTML coding for websites.
Maybe he will learn something in chemistry somewhere along the way. But he will lose out on so many other more important opportunities, and so will our society, which will have deprived itself of his full contribution.