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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I never learned chemistry, and it finally matters

  1. …Jeff, I suspect if you try to explain to a class of kids or teenagers that they need to pay attention to something to not close off options in life, they’ll laugh and take an extra lunch. I took Math until grade 12 because I was told I’d be closing off too many options to not. They were right, and though I was a disaster in said math class, I use the math I learned occasionally, and wish I’d taken more.

  2. You make an excellent point. I remember a lot of people (myself included at some points. Usually just before exams when stress kicked in to high gear.) from high school that had the same “why am I learning this, it will never help me” attitude towards science and math (especially in grades 9 and 10 when those courses were mandatory).

    Unfortunately it’s how kids think and, as Mikael C. said, telling them they are “limiting” their options won’t affect many. While high school throws a lot of varied stuff at you (let’s not get into my opinion on elementary school here, in Canada) it does come in handy as trivial knowledge if nothing else.

  3. Adults take this stance, too? I’ve known for a while that high school students couldn’t care less about French or science, but I didn’t know that university students had come to the same conclusion as well. I think it has something to do with our era’s emphasis on enjoying life, as opposed to the last generation’s vague notions of self-improvement, or respect for the advances of knowledge.

  4. Education, in general, is important. It allows a person to intelligently go about his or her daily life, making better decisions as a result. These decisions could take place in a grocery aisle, in an interview, or in a car. To become very proficient in one subject or several (at a post-secondary school) is great and is a testament to a person’s perseverance to master a subject so that he or she can apply it to a future job, but it’s NOT necessarily what everyone is cut out for. A person’s motivation to learn a subject comes from several influences–home, the media, friends, school, and experiences, so when a young person says that he or she ‘doesn’t think they’ll need this subject in the future’, we have to look at where they’re coming from. He or she could come from a home where post-secondary education is not emphasized, or there are simply not enough funds for an expensive post-secondary education. We should also look at the fact that a young person usually does not have enough life experience to decide what he or she wants to do for the rest of his/her life. Young people have always been ‘told’ to go to school…and so they go. They don’t realize the impact of what a good solid high school education will have on their future. Honestly, what is wrong with a teenager saying they don’t care about school or don’t want to continue with schooling after high school? I think it would be a good thing if more high school graduates went right into the work force and experienced life a bit more. I think that after 1-2 years of just working, they’d realize whether they made the right decision or whether they abhor their minimum wage job and wish to go back to college/university! Maybe then we’d have a more mature group of individuals filling the lecture halls who genuinely care about their education.

  5. Crap, now I’m an adult? Thanks for driving just one more nail into the coffin of my self-image…

    To reply to your point, I don’t think we’ve become anti-intellectual or opposed to education in any way, but our notions of what is “useful” have certainly evolved. Going back to some time when Latin and Greek were considered essential skills, they were considered important because they were used as signals of social rank. Education wasn’t used to perform productive work. It was used to cement privilege among those who, as often as not, would never in fact perform real jobs.

    Education is still, quite naturally, about what students can use. But for better or worse (in many ways for better, considering the alternative) education is now largely about what students can use to do their future jobs. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with justifying it on that level either. We just need to maintain a fairly wide view of “useful” and not confine it only to the job market. Proper grammar, for example, is useful for a lot of reasons. So is French … but just because I know that doesn’t always mean it’s enough. =/

    Additional: I didn’t have the opportunity to read Rebecca’s comment when I first replied to Joe. I agree with you 100%, in particular about the huge value in taking some time away from school in order to realize why you really want it.

  6. I must say I think it is appalling that people who form the intellectual elite of Canadian society can’t engage with 1/3 of the country in their native language. Speaking French shouldn’t just be some esoteric endeavour; most countries have humanities programs in university that require mastery of a second language yet I doubt most people holding PhDs in Toronto or Vancouver could describe how a hockey game went in French. I don’t know if the US is worse than we are, but I find functional bilingualism to be pathetically low in Canada, especially compared to Europe, or even many parts of the developing world.

    I don’t think one should be able to study things like Canadian history, political science, or even law without being able to understand French!

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