I never learned chemistry, and it finally matters


I volunteer as a tutor through the College where I live. I had an early experience with the student I’m helping that is a familiar one, I’ve heard, for many parents of school-age children. He showed up with his chemistry text and wanted my help with the work he was doing. I took one look at it and realized I was screwed. I’m not sure I even passed grade 11 chemistry. I know for damn sure I don’t remember any of it now. As a consequence, I’m afraid, my student thinks I’m an idiot. He isn’t even that impressed that I wrote a book. To him I’ll always be the guy who doesn’t know chemistry.

This got me thinking. I always believed most of what I was learning in high school was crap and time seems to have borne me out. I mean, it’s not like I use most of it on a daily basis. I’m occasionally embarrassed by my sketchy grasp of global geography, and I really do wish I’d taken the opportunity to learn French properly, but most of it really isn’t useful on a general level. Until last week I had no need to demonstrate a knowledge of molecular bonding and I don’t think I’ve ever had cause to use calculus in my life for any reason other than passing a test. True, there are many careers where people do need this knowledge, and there’s nothing at all wrong with giving students a broad base of knowledge. It’s simply that I always knew I wouldn’t be going into engineering or science or anything similar and so for me, at least, it was all a bit silly.

I think what’s always bothered me about the way these topics are presented in school is the subtle implication that every grown adult should know about molecular bonding, and calculus, and the population of France. For that matter, we also tend to imply that every grown adult should know about the things I do still use, such as not only how to employ proper grammar but how to tear apart a sentence and discuss the various elements of it. And it’s simply not true. When I want to know the population of France I can look it up. I don’t need to have it memorized. Anyone who can communicate effectively has what they need from English, and it doesn’t matter one bit if they can explain rhetorical constructions. And really, don’t get me started again on calculus.

I’m convinced that many students see through the transparently false claim that they’ll need all this to be well-rounded adults. When they see through this explanation they’re often left with no reason at all to care or to study, because it’s the only reason they’ve ever heard. There are other, perfectly good reasons to learn this stuff. The best one I’ve already offered – that is at an early stage you don’t want to restrict your options too much. If you don’t at least explore multiple areas of interest you might miss your true calling. So it’s perfectly justifiable to maintain a general curriculum through high school, at least. But because this is so often justified in an absurd way, students tend to tune out.

I was surprised because my student, at least, seems to believe the message. He believes any competent adult should know chemistry. I’m afraid I just don’t. But as I looked over his shoulder while someone else went through the exercise (a med student who most assuredly does need chemistry) I realized that I could learn it well enough, which I simply never bothered to do in high school. If only someone had asked me to take it on as a challenge, only as an intellectual exercise, I might have attempted it. I think I learned more about chemistry in those two hours than I did in all of high school – just to show some teenager I could learn it and certainly not because it’s going to be on a test.

I have no moral to this story. I was skeptical about why I was expected to learn all this stuff in high school and I wasn’t a very good student. The student I’m tutoring seems to have accepted that this stuff is important and he’s still not a very good student. Maybe there’s no correlation at all and people just need to figure their own reasons out at some point. But I do have one new reason to add to my list of potential motivators. It’s useful to know chemistry (and geography, and grammar, and French) just so teenagers don’t think you’re stupid. Surprisingly, I find that very motivating.

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