An article in the Washington Post by David Bernstein asks why his son, fifteen, is being taught chemistry in high school when it is not mandated by the state and is not likely to lead to a career as a scientist for his son, who shows little interest or faculty in chemistry. The question is a valid one. The conclusions Mr. Bernstein drives himself to are less so.
Mr. Bernstein is an executive at a not-for-profit organization and should be familiar with the folly of assaying the worth of an activity solely by its ability to earn a profit. My first defence of chemistry would also serve just as well as a defence of literature, mathematics, economics or even Mr Bernstein’s own subject, philosophy. Each field of knowledge ultimately aims to explain and explore either humanity or the context in which human affairs occur. Chemistry is part of that. To not know chemistry is to not know the universe one inhabits. That is not a place any educated person should be comfortable with.
While in university, I was frustrated and annoyed by students who insisted that subjects such as poetry, politics and philosophy alone constituted a true education, and what scientists and engineers were engaged in was mere training for a trade, a bourgeois affair pretending to be an intellectual pursuit. May I now retort that an education that omits chemistry, of all things, may best be called inadequate, if one is being generous, and not much of an education at all, if one is being frank. The early philosophers spent their lives trying to unravel the workings of the natural world around them; we have the good fortune of being born in a time when we can know most of those answers from simply opening a book. Seen in the context of history, this is a staggering privilege.
Mr. Bernstein says that his son is unlikely to become a chemist or a chemical engineer and would be better served by learning oratory or music (delivered with an idiotic remark suggesting that those of us who were busy studying chemistry would not understand the economic concept of ‘opportunity cost’).
Let us assume that Mr. Bernstein is right, and his son will not engage with chemistry in a professional context. Would he, as a citizen and a consumer, still be better equipped for life with or without a working knowledge of chemistry? Sooner or later he will face an issue where chemistry will come into play: chemical and radioactive contaminants, nutrition, toxins, climate change, water and air quality: all of these are issues which a voter or a buyer might need to grapple with at some point in their lives, and where more than a vague familiarity with chemistry would be helpful. A scientifically-illiterate constituency leads to misconceptions that range from the amusing (‘‘contains no chemicals’’ – so what is it made of, then?), to the frustrating (the insistence that ‘natural’ anything is better than ‘artificial’) to the seriously consequential (public opinion about energy policy, climate change, genetically-modified foods, or even vaccination). And what if he were to find himself in a position of influence and as utterly lost as Yes, Minister’s Jim Hacker?
This argument applies to any science one can think of. Would an electorate that did not panic and stampede at phrases like ‘Frankenstein food’ be better at recognising the merits of genetically modified organisms? Would that same electorate recognise the differences between various designs and generations of atomic power plants instead of running scared at the very sound of the word ‘nuclear’? Would it be less willing to accept pseudoscientific bases for justifying racism, sexism and homophobia? I should imagine so.
Yes, chemistry is a challenging subject, in that it does not yield without some sincere effort. They all are. Physics, biology, geology, mathematics, computer science, you name it. However, Mr Bernstein is amiss to think that this alone constitutes some sort of justification as to why his son should not be required to educate himself about the way in which matter interacts in the universe around him. Difficulty alone does not prove a subject’s unfitness for study; nor does being interesting earn it a place in the curriculum. As someone whose own high school experience isn’t too distant, I put it to him that adolescents are not always the best judge of what a complete education is. I would have jettisoned some parts of my own syllabi quite gleefully, but in retrospect, I am better off for not having been able to do so.
In arguing otherwise, that teenagers ought to be allowed to self-specialise at an age when they should be acquiring a holistic view of the world and all that’s in it, he comes off as little more than a parent disgruntled at his own somewhat pitiable inability to help his son with grade school homework without the aid of a tutor, and wishing the world to mould himself to his little snowflake’s needs and allow him to pick easy, immediate pickings than challenge him to push his limits and strive for something difficult yet richly rewarding.