Don’t Make Me Uncomfortable: High School Chemistry Edition

Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post Blogs has run this very…special…op-ed from someone named David Bernstein who is pissed as heck that his son has been told he needs to learn chemistry, and he’s not going to take it anymore.

I was recently informed by a school official at my son’s high school that the state of Maryland mandates that every student take chemistry in order to graduate. [It turns out that it is not, in fact, mandated by the state but that is what I was told anyway.]

With us so far? Someone told his son he had to take Chemistry, so Mr. Bernstein went and Googled for info about curriculum standardization, but didn’t Google far enough to find out that actually, Maryland schools’ science requirements do NOT mandate Chemistry instruction.

With the mistaken assumption fraying at his nerves, Mr. Bernstein’s case against mandatory Chemistry instruction includes such gems as this:

Now I don’t begrudge chemistry, which has brought forth many of the great inventions of our time, from the pain killer I took an hour ago to the diet soda I’m sipping on now (I’m actually sipping on Scotch. In fact, my 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.

and this:

But my son is not going to be a scientist. The very thought of it makes me laugh. Your son should take five classes in chemistry so he can be a scientist and make America more competitive.


But my son is not being exposed to chemistry, he’s spending 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. It doesn’t take a chemist to know that my son is not going to be a chemist. He’s 15, not 7. It’s really that obvious. You took chemistry (I’m not talking to you scientist). What do you remember from that year? Nada, I bet. Next time a school official preens about the importance of chemistry, I’m going to ask him or her how many elements there are in the periodic table. Hint: you can find the answer on Google.

Just off the top of my head, I notice that David Bernstein does not show very high expectations for his son. I remember what it was like to be a teenager, and if I’d found an op-ed in the WaPo with either of my parents talking about, for example, my struggles with Pre-Calculus this way, I would’ve been pissed off. I was a much nicer person at 15 than I am at 32, but seeing my mom talk about how her daughter was never going to be a mathematician would have raised my hackles.

Furthermore, I am not a chemist or a scientist in any way, but I do remember some things that I learned in Chemistry that don’t come through so easily in Google. I remember how to dilute an acid or base with water (hint: you measure out the water first!). I remember balancing equations. I remember performing titration. I also remember that my Chemistry teacher was an asshole who clearly held teenagers in disdain and was not fond of teaching, but amazingly enough, I still learned stuff from him because he didn’t treat me like I was never going to be good at science so there was no reason to bother.

An experimental physicist recently told me that at this phase in chemistry instruction “it’s all about memorization anyway.” There will be no other phases in chemistry instruction for my son. He will forget everything he “learned” a week after the class is over. I can’t remember a thing, and I was a pretty good chemistry student.

Dude, do you ENJOY talking about how your teenage son is so intellectually limited?

This one here is possibly a useful point, but the unexamined class privilege on display is really quite amazing:

Now you’re getting desperate. You’re really going to make my son spend a whole year in a subject he will never use so that he can prepare to suffer at a boring job some day? 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 some day.

*nervous titter* Mr. Bernstein, as a member of a younger generation, I can assure you: unless you have the power to pull tremendous strings for your son, he will NOT have such a good time of it in the job market. Just because YOU got a Philosophy degree and still managed to make a living—at something you enjoy, no less!—doesn’t mean your kids will be so lucky. In fact, I can basically guarantee that your kids will be significantly less fortunate than you are. Not because they’re less intelligent, industrious or adaptable than you are, but because the American job market is in such a state relative to the educational attainment of the new generation that young people have to fight to the death just to get a spot at “entry level.” It was bad enough for my age group, and for the people who are just finishing college now, it is considerably worse. Your sons WILL have to accept work that they don’t enjoy, and they will have to do it well and with a good attitude, or they will not be able to make a living. Between now and the time he starts applying for jobs, your chemistry-hating older son will need to learn the life skills to follow instructions, act as part of a team and get the job done. He isn’t going to learn that if he takes nothing but electives.

Here’s what I think happened: David Bernstein didn’t enjoy learning Chemistry as a teenager, while his mother the chemist pressured him to do better and was disappointed that her son showed so little interest in the natural sciences. David is bitter because his mother wasn’t proud of him, and he wants to spare his son the agony of being told the world does not revolve around his interests. Now his son is struggling at Chemistry, and rather than tell him he’s smart enough, and that his hard work will be worth it in the long run, David Bernstein tells his older son that he will never be a scientist. Chemistry and other demanding, highly technical subjects are for other people’s kids to learn.