Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Is Science Important? - An open letter to David Bernstein of The Washington Post

Today in the Washington Post there is an article entitled "Why are you forcing my son to take chemistry". In it the author, David Bernstein, shares his frustration that his son is forced to take high school chemistry. In short, this is my reaction to the video, and Mr. Bernstein.

Now, perhaps as a chemist I'm approaching this subject with somewhat of a bias. I obviously think that chemistry is important. However, the specific subject of chemistry has nothing to do with what really upsets me about this article. And so, I present to you, an open letter to David Bernstein of The Washington Post:

Mr. Bernstein,
I recently read your article in The Washington Post, and would like to discuss a few things with you. I'll start with the research that you did. You say in your article:

"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."
Ok, that sounds like you really put some effort into this article. Five whole minutes on Google, huh? Well, if you had looked a little harder you may have found this website, which details the classes your son is actually required to take. You'll notice that chemistry is not specifically on the list. The science requirements are:
  • 3 credits (1 biology credit, designated BC, and 1 physical science credit, designated PC, must be included)
Your son can take chemistry to fulfill the physical science requirement, but does not necessarily have to take chemistry.

You also mentioned the cloak and dagger sounding organization known as "The Committe of Ten". While it is true that the "Committee of Ten" was a real group of academics that were assembled to standardize education, it certainly isn't the conspiracy theory that you're implying. Education should be standardized. Reading this article it sounds like the standards were set in 1892 and that was the end of it. I assure you that is not the case. It seems like every year brings with it new discussion about curriculum standardization.

Later in your article you say of your son:
"But my son is not going to be a scientist. The very thought of it makes me laugh."
This quote breaks my heart. You as a father, for some reason, believe that your son cannot or will not ever be capable or have the desire to  succeed as a scientist. The idea even makes you laugh. I wonder how your son would feel, hearing that from his dad. If he believes it himself then the damage has already been done.

Now, maybe your son hasn't shown any interest in being a scientist. Maybe it's not his personality. That's just fine, but the idea of him becoming one is not laughable. You should be promoting science and critical thinking, not laughing at the idea. The truth is, you have no idea what your son will be. In high school I missed 85 days of school my senior year. In Utah that is 47% of the school year that I didn't even attend. I spent the year after high school playing guitar in a band with my friends, playing video games, and generally doing nothing with my life. I am now in my third year of graduate school working on a PhD in physical chemistry. If my entire life were judged from that one point I would be a failure my entire life. But I turned my life around. I changed who I was. Mr. Bernstein, don't deprive your son of that same opportunity. You don't know what classes he will like, and you don't know what he will become.

We need scientists, but we also need people in all fields to be interested in science. We need critically thinking, evidence analyzing citizens. Memorization is not the only thing science is good for - in fact science isn't memorization. If you feel that memorization is stressed too much in high school education, write an article on that. I'll agree with you. But don't head down the path away from science literacy.

Thank you for your time,

Chad Jones

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