Field of Science

A chestnut so old, it's started stinking

Both Derek and SeeArrOh have nicely weighed in on this Washington Post letter by a disgruntled parent who is demanding to know why his son should be "forced" to study chemistry in high school. He then lists a number of arguments usually offered in favor of teaching and learning chemistry and proceeds to what he thinks are cogent rejoinders. This one in particular sent a giant bee through my bonnet:

Chemistry will teach him analytical skills that he can apply to other fields.

Great. So will a hundred other possible subjects that will be less painful and potentially even more interesting to him. 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.

Ah, the "math and physics need good problem solving skills while chemistry and biology need a good memory" chestnut again, and SeeArrOh touches on this. I am hazarding a guess that this experimental physicist was jealous of chemists; I am tempted to send a few beakers flying through his office window. I was exposed adequately to this fallacy myself; when I was in high school, apparently all the future engineers were supposed to study physics and math to hone their analytical skills while the future doctors were supposed to study chemistry and biology, since "medicine is all about memorization too". This was nonsense. Chemistry is as useful for future engineers as math is for future doctors.

Obviously our schools are still not doing a good job of driving home the analytical nature of chemical science. Try to memorize every reaction in an organic chemistry textbook and you will indeed not remember any of it within a few months. But try instead to learn a few unifying principles like syn-anti addition, pkA, stereochemistry, acid-base chemistry and resonance and you can make sense of a vast landscape of chemistry which you will likely remember. The best textbooks like the one by Clayden et al. indeed emphasize this unified approach. In addition, learning the subject this way will make chemistry much less painful than memorizing it. 

It's very likely that the letter writer's high school teacher made chemistry all about memorization; if that had been the case then it might have been easy to be good at chemistry in the short-term without really understanding most of it. Unfortunately much of chemistry and biology is still stuck - if not by content, by its mental makeup and by the attitude of its teachers- in the nineteenth century where there was no structural theory and no molecular biology and therefore these sciences did appear like a set of disconnected facts to be memorized. That's also why chemistry makes a convenient target. Math and physics are much more obviously about analytical and logical thinking whereas biology is much more easily seen as essential for things like medicine. Chemistry as usual is the middle child, the one everyone likes to treat with benign neglect. But the fact is that the twentieth century saw both chemistry and biology elevated to the status of conceptual sciences, perhaps not as pristinely analytical as math but enough to be able to take a completely logical approach to the way in which they are taught.

Derek and SeeArrOh cover the other objections thoroughly. Physics, chemistry, biology and math are all part of the world we inhabit. I cannot see how omitting any of these from the school curriculum (along with history, politics, economics and literature) could contribute to an informed citizenry. The writer probably makes a good case that a high school shouldn't "force" students to take chemistry, but that hardly detracts from chemistry's intrinsic value value.

Come on Mr. Bernstein, you should at least have your son take chemistry so he can recognize all those dangerous "chemicals" in food products...


  1. Try Peter Atkins, Reactions, The Private Life of Atoms:

  2. I disagree. I think at a young age students should be required (or "forced" in your words) to take chemistry (along with biology, physics and math). Perhaps the level at which they are taught might vary by student (college bound vs non college bound for example) but they must be required to take it.

    People have no idea how chemistry is used in their everyday life. Try having a discussion with my grandmother (now deceased) about her drugs. She had no idea how the drugs functioned in her body. None whatsoever. She didn't take high school science (she didn't go to college). A basic chemistry course could have helped her immensely understand something like how chemicals dissolve and then migrate through the body.

    we really need basic science at the high school level. I'm adamant.

  3. @Julie Are you sure that basic chemistry covers such topics as how drugs migrate through body? Or how drugs act?

    Education in chemistry is awfully outdated. And often lacks any intrinsic logic - that's why it's "all about memorizing". The problem is the size of minimal background required to understand chemistry. In physics or math it's sort of simple: one starts with common sense ideas like numbers, geometric figures, speed, mass, electric current. In chemistry everything starts with moles, atoms, molecules and elements. Those are things that one doesn't deal with (consciously) every day. So chemistry has very high activation barrier to grasp the basic principle. At least in that way how it's taught in high school.

  4. Hmmm. I take away points that public perception of chemistry is harmed by poor introductions to it in school, that there's a misunderstanding in some circles that chemistry isn't an analytical science, and that chemistry belongs in the toolbox of an informed citizenry.

    These points may be harmed by the seemingly-spurious attack on the very-briefly-quoted physicist. Given the rest of the post, it seems possible that he/she was correct about the usefulness of the course under discussion. It's certainly not obvious that there's any anti-chemistry sentiment, behind it. Even if there were, isn't it more likely that it's due to ignorance rather than jealousy? Maybe I'm missing some context?

  5. Argh, even as an anonymous coward, I'm mortified that I left a spurious comma in that comment.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS