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Doing Good Science

Doing Good Science

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On the apparent horrors of requiring high school students to take chemistry.

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There's a guest post on the Washington Post "Answer Sheet" blog by David Bernstein entitled "Why are you forcing my son to take chemistry?" in which the author argues against his 15-year-old son's school's requirement that all its students take a year of chemistry.

Derek Lowe provides a concise summary of the gist:

My son will not be a chemist. He will not be a scientist. A year of chemistry class will do nothing for him but make him miserable. He could be taking something else that would be doing him more good.

Bernstein's post is a slurry of claims about chemistry, secondary education, and the goals of education more generally with respect to human flourishing -- in other words, the kind of thing I need to take apart for close examination before responding.

So, that's what I'm going to do here.

Let's start with Bernstein's account of the dawning of the horror:

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.

Bernstein is right that tradition is not in itself a good reason to require that all high school students take a year-long chemistry course. On the other hand, tradition is not in itself a good reason to assert that a year-long chemistry course is a wrongheaded requirement.

The author proceeds to make noises acknowledging that he is glad that someone in our society is doing chemistry, what with all the goodies it delivers to enhance our modern lifestyles. He even writes:

[M]y 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.

I have some thoughts here, as someone who has been both a chemistry major and a philosophy major. First, Bernstein does not exactly do philosophy majors proud in his post, given that he projects the (mistaken) view that the whole point of philosophy is to provoke. But, his revelation that he was philosophy-majoring chemist's spawn seems to hint at ... let's call them generational differences of opinion. It strikes me that Bernstein might do well to attend to such generational differences of opinion -- and to the possibility that they may also be present in his interactions with his own offspring. More about this anon.

Bernstein then goes through the reasons he has heard to justify the requirement that his 15-year-old must take a year of high school chemistry. First up is the problem of American competitiveness and the pressing shortage of science. To this, Bernstein replies:

[M]y son is not going to be a scientist. The very thought of it makes me laugh.

Don't get me wrong -- I think "American competitiveness" is a less-than-compelling reason to require high school students to take much of anything. But on what basis can Bernstein make this claim about his 15-year-old son? Most 15-year-olds of my acquaintance (and no small number of 25-year-olds, not to mention 35-year-olds) have very little solid idea what they want to be when they grow up. They are focused on the pressing problem of figuring out who they're going to be, not on what they're going to do for a living.

Parents may have hunches about their kids' aptitudes and affinities, but we need to be honest that we can't know for sure. Bernstein should at least entertain the possibility that an inspiring science teacher might make a career in science, or at least further study in chemistry, something his son wants.

Of course, it's possible I've misread Bernstein as being descriptive here where he's really being prescriptive: No child of mine is going to do something as disgraceful as becoming a scientist!

We turn to another possible reason for the chemistry requirement, and Bernstein's response:

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.”

To start, how exactly does Bernstein know ahead of time which subjects will be less painful and which will be potentially interesting? Hearsay and innuendo from a chemistry-hating parent may not be enough to make an accurate determination. On top of this, why think that high school chemistry should be essentially a matter of rote memorization and those other possible subjects are not?

On this point, See Arr Oh provides a particularly useful response:

Mr. Bernstein argues against mainstream chemistry education as "all memorization." Well, I'll agree - there's a lot to take in that first go-around. But while elemental numbering, valence electrons, and balancing equations sound rote and boring up front, the trends are the critical information. What makes atoms bigger or smaller? Why are ionic (charged) and covalent (shared) bonds so different? What does acidic or basic really mean? Once mastered, these types of rational thinking - using data to read trends - show up in all sorts of other pursuits, from buying stocks to choosing a healthy diet.

I will add that high school chemistry, when taught well, has very little rote memorization of seemingly unconnected facts. I know this because my memory is not good (and is even worse in test conditions), and I came out of my high school chemistry class with a reasonably good feel for the kind of rational thinking See Arr Oh is talking about.

Derek Lowe also supports the view that what you want from a chemistry class is not perfect recall of a pile of facts:

I think, after a basic list of facts and concepts, that what I'd like for kids to get out of a science class is the broader idea of experimentation - that the world runs by physical laws which can be interrogated. Isolating variables, varying conditions, generating new hypotheses: these are habits of mind that actually do come in handy in the real world, whether you remember what an s orbital is or not. I'm not sure how well these concepts get across, though.

Habits of mind are the intended long-term take-away from a high school science class. High school science classes that are taught well actually deliver some familiarity with those habits of mind. Bernstein may have a legitimate concern that the quality of chemistry instruction in his son's school is not sufficient to deliver the goods, but then might be better off arguing for better chemistry instruction, not against requiring chemistry in the first place.

Indeed, it doesn't sound like Bernstein has much use for the habits of mind one might develop in a chemistry course in his own life. As Derek Lowe muses:

[A]lthough I'd like people to know some of these things, I wonder if not knowing them has harmed [Bernstein] too much. What might have harmed him, though, is a lack of knowledge of those broader points. Or a general attitude that science is That Stuff Those Other People Understand. You make yourself vulnerable to being taken in if you carry that worldview around with you, because claiming scientific backing is a well-used ploy. You should know enough to at least not be taken in easily.

It's good to know enough about how the scientific knowledge gets built, in other words, not to end up unwittingly buying a monthly supply of snake oil.

Bernstein raises, and responds to, another justification for a chemistry requirement:

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.

There's quite a bit to unpack in this response.

One of the issues here is about the relative value of a science curriculum that takes a shallow look at a broad range of subjects compared to a science curriculum that goes deeper into a more narrowly focused piece of subject matter. Which approach does a better job helping students notice, and partake of, the applied rational thinking and habits of mind that See Arr Oh and Derek Lowe identify as the most useful bits of intro level chemistry? My own sense, from the perspective of someone who has taught intro chemistry and who felt pretty lost for the first quarter of my own high school chemistry course, is that it takes time, practice, and depth of engagement to do anything that resembles "thinking like a chemist". It's worth noting, though, that the unifying principles of chemistry (those things that kept it from becoming a long list of disjointed facts to memorize for the test) were a lot closer to the surface than they seemed to be in high school biology.

Another issue here relates to more than just one's scientific education. What does it mean to be exposed to a topic in a useful way? How much exposure do you need (and how deep must the engagement be) before you have any good basis for judging your interest or potential, whether at the present moment or at some point in the future?

It strikes me that trying something can mean taking a chance on being over your head for a while -- and that we often learn more in situations where we flounder than in situations where we skate by with little effort.

I have written before:

Doing science is something that is learned. It is not an intrinsic quality of a person. This means that you are not allowed to decide you are bad at it if you haven’t been immersed in learning it.

And here, we circle back to Berstein's claim that a year of high school chemistry for his son will be a year of misery for the family. It almost sounds as if he thinks there is a sure-fire way to avoid any suffering connected to one's offspring's schooling. As the parent of a teenager, I doubt this is possible.

Parenting seems to necessitate helping your kid through all sorts of situations that involve some degree of suffering. Kids are being asked to develop new skills and habits of mind while they are simultaneously trying to figure out who the hell they want to be, establishing themselves as independent entities from their parents, and so forth. Kids are doing hard stuff, in school, and in life. We hope that they are gaining something from being brave enough and persistent enough to try hard things -- even hard things they might not choose if left to their own devices. There may well be particular kinds of hard situations that challenge their brains with particular modes of thought that they're not likely to encounter elsewhere until well into adulthood. Note that this might be a good argument for requiring that high school students study a foreign language or instrumental music, or that they participate in a team sport. I'm OK with that.

Finally, Bernstein addresses the "life is hard" rationale, namely, that the suffering generated by required courses is good preparation for the suffering of the workforce. Again, I think this is a weak rationale at best, but Bernstein's response is even weaker:

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 [sic] some day.

It is breathtaking that Bernstein seems not to recognize how privileged he is to have a paying job that he actually loves, given an economy in which plenty of people would willingly do work they can barely tolerate if it pays a decent wage and comes with benefits. And even then, it's hard to imagine that anyone but the boss can really completely avoid all pieces of less-than-enjoyable work. There's a reason why they call it "work" -- and why people tend not to do it for free.

Moreover, there are some things that we do in our lives beyond our careers that might occasionally require work that is less than thoroughly enjoyable. For example, parenting a 15-year-old might not always be thoroughly enjoyable. Yet, it's work that needs to be done.

Here, too, note that Bernstein seems to have complete confidence in his ability to discern which subjects will someday be of use to his son. The future, apparently, is crystal clear to him.

Moreover, Bernstein frames a year of required chemistry as claiming an unacceptably high opportunity cost:

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.

Set aside, for a moment, the fact that taking public speaking, or music, or political science, or so forth also comes with an opportunity cost (and that again, Bernstein seems to have reliable information from the future about which opportunity costs will lead to the best returns). I am deeply disturbed -- and not a little freaked out -- that a parent is commodifying his child's school day, and choices in life more broadly, by framing them in terms of opportunity costs. Does Berstein see his son's future as completely devoid of more opportunities? Is this kid's full contribution to society contingent on being able to dodge redox reactions in high school? That strikes me as a pretty fragile trajectory for human flourishing.

A few years ago, I wrote about an element of what makes a college education valuable that is often overlooked and under-appreciated. I think it also applies to some degree to what our kids might get out of their high school educations:

You have your mind. You have the ability to think about things, to experience the world, to decide what matters to you and how you want to pursue it. You have your sense of curiousity and wonder when you encounter something new and unexpected, and your sense of satisfaction when you figure something out. You have the power to imagine ways the world could be different. You even have the ability (the responsibility?) to try to make the world different.

This is what I think a college education should give you: lots of hands-on experience using your mind so you know different ways you can think about things and you start to figure out what you care about.

Yes, you may encounter a lot of facts in your college education, but the real value of those facts is that they give you experience thinking about them in different ways. What you come away with is the ability to think about different facts out there in the "real world". You get the ability to use the facts you encounter to draw your own conclusions rather than having to take someone else's word for it. (The thing about those other people who will just tell you what you should think? Sometimes they lie.)

Thinking is hard. It requires a lot more effort than floating through the world on auto-pilot. But once you get started, it's more addictive than potato chips. Thinking is fun. Even a little slice of a life of the mind (maybe reading a novel on the bus every morning) can counteract a fair bit of drudgery (like the job you're riding that bus to get to). The joe-job is sometimes unavoidable; you've got to eat. But nourishing your mind gives you something better than just biological existence.

What, really, are we expecting kids to get out of school, and how are these things connected (or not) to the specifics of the curriculum? How much of what we're hoping for is about to giving our kids particular job-ready skills? How much is about keeping future doors open for them (e.g., being able to major in chemistry without burning lots of time and money on remediation) should they choose, in the future, to go through them? How much has to do with a broader aim of human flourishing -- and who gets to decide what that human flourishing should look like?

I worry what it says about us that parents (former philosophy majors, even!) are happy to parade their disdain for subjects they've decided, on the basis of who knows what, will be of absolutely no interest or use to their kids.

I also worry about what seems to be happening to childhood and adolescence in the U.S. if we cannot figure out how to help our kids meet the challenges of life -- which sometimes include the challenges of the required curriculum -- and if we cast the contexts in which kids are asked to try something they may not love, even something with which they may need to struggle, as essentially a (school) year of their lives that they are never getting back. Verily, this is the nature of time, flying like an arrow in one direction and so forth, but time that is not obviously productive is not thereby wasted. Kids need time to follow paths that may not lead to obvious destinations. They should have the chance to pursue lots of opportunities. For parents to cast them in terms of opportunity costs is not, in my view, the best way for them to cherish time with their kids.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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