The Classes That We Were Forced to Take

Kids must be exposed to different subjects in order to know what they’re good at and interested in.
Again, agreed. Maybe kids can survey several science classes over the course of a year or two, and explore various options. They can be given a taste of a veritable potpourri of subjects throughout their education. 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.

In The Washington Post, a father argues that mandating that high school students take specific courses in order to graduate doesn’t make a lot of sense if all they take away from the course is that they despise it, and don’t retain any of the information they’ve learned/were asked to memorize.

I don’t totally agree with the father, but I understand what he’s saying. Exposing students to a variety of disciplines is a good idea because it creates well-rounded people who can grasp fundamental concepts (I don’t make medicine, but at least I have a basic understanding of how medicine works, and what it does to my body), as well as introduce people to things they might not have discovered and liked on their own. The ability to grasp new concepts, and having the willingness to learn is critical in the workplace. You don’t go into a job knowing how to do everything perfectly.

That said, when I was in high school, the subject I couldn’t stand the most was arithmetic (the most common subject that’s disliked by writers). Of course, I had a tiger mom who expected me to excel in everything—especially science and math courses—so I bit the bullet and studied calculus during the summer of my junior year at a community college so that I wouldn’t have to take any math courses at my high school. I liked my other classes a lot more after I stopped worrying about doing math homework. And, although I don’t quite remember that calculus course I took in a lecture hall with 100 other students, I do remember passing the course with flying colors and being proud of that accomplishment.

(Thanks Jon, for sending along this story!)

Photo: sterlic

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15 Comments / Post A Comment

Megano! (#124)

Yeah, the year I didn’t have to take any more math courses was the best year ever.
In Ontario it’s a bit weird (and I’m not even entirely sure if they still do all of this anymore) — you have to take math course from grades 9-11, but there are 3 or 4 levels of difficulty you can take, and which one you take depends on what you want to do in university or colllege and whether or not you’re planning to go to university at all. You have to take an English course every year, and then you have the “optional” arts courses — either music, drama or art. I THINK you only have to take science in grades 9 and 10, but I took a science course in grade 12 instead of a math course, and was much happier for it. You also have to take a Civic and Careers course in grade 10. AND 40 hours of community service. AND a literacy test.

highjump (#39)

I disagree with this OpEd, and perhaps a bit with you Mike. Understanding basic chemistry, biology, and math (though perhaps not the level of calc, certainly algebra and geometry and basic stats though) is fundamental. Do you know what kind of mickey mouse stuff is taught in regular (not AP) high school chem? Things like the parts of an atom – our entire world runs on electrons! Bases and acids – common substances we encounter every day! Super simple types of reactions – basic problem solving skills!

It is just as unacceptable to be illiterate in these concepts as it is to not be able to read. If for no other reason than if you grasp basic chemistry you’re less likely to die from iron poisoning from a vitamin overdose or some other stupid thing. The school district is not asking anything ridiculous of this teenager. Sure, this is probably room for a discussion of pedagogy, but really. Kids these days, suck it up and study.

shannowhamo (#845)

@highjump I wonder if -like when I was in high school- the parent is putting the kid in AP/honors/IB/whatever classes because he’s a smart kid and all his friends are smart and feel too good for “regulars.” Finally, I realized as much of a smarty I am in many subjects, I was “regulars” when it came to math and science. And that’s where they aren’t expecting that much and are fairly easy to pass because they deal much more with concepts than hardcore formulas and stuff. But there was a stigma with going down a level. Is it bad for kids to be challenged? Of course not, but there is a point where “challenged” turns into bitter. The solution wouldn’t be to say “no math for anyone YAY!” but really look at where the threshold is for “you’ve learned enough of this subject you hate.” I don’t know why math (or sciences involving alot of math) are always the fall guys but everyone I work with (librarians) remember the teacher who made them hate math. It only took one year to build up a lifetime of resentment towards a whole discipline!

runningpig (#1,244)

I don’t know how I feel about it either, but it does really bug me that its usually a math or science class that is “despised”. I had to take history every year – I didn’t hate it, but about the only thing its good for is helping me win free beer at pub trivia. And even then I feel like I’ve retained more about history from my personal reading choices.

Poppy (#1,438)

At my school (in New Zealand) we had to take, and pass, all core subject (maths, English, science, geography and/or history, and I think a foreign language of your choice) up to a sixth form (age 16) level. You could specialize in biology, chemistry, or physics as your science option after fifth form. You then were free to choose your own subjects for seventh form.

I somehow got accelerated in my worst subjects (maths, geography, science – I chose chemistry) and sat those exams a year early, therefore getting not one, but two blissful years of choosing subjects that suited me and that I knew I wanted to focus on in university. We had career counselors to help with our decisions, also. It should go without saying that I loved that.

I’m inclined to agree with the author of the quoted article. It makes total sense to me that kids should get a good grounding in the basics, and then get to focus on what they want*. I feel like it must surely improve graduation rates too – I’m pretty sure if my siblings had had to do subjects they didn’t enjoy and weren’t good at for even a week longer, they would have given the whole thing up and dropped out.

*Forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it the case at many colleges in the US students have to do basic maths, English, and science papers in their first year? Because that, to me, is a waste of time and money – that should be learned by the time you’re 15 or 16.

@Poppy Yes — often the first two years, actually. Partly because of the “liberal arts” ideal of a well-rounded education, and partly because American high schools do such a bad job of preparing kids with even basic knowledge of how to write or understand the natural world. You’d be amazed how many freshman at good American universities are functionally illiterate, innummerate, and have no understanding of history, politics, or science.

Weasley (#1,419)

@stuffisthings

Sometimes I read your comments and I feel like we live in different worlds

@Weasley To be fair, a lot of GRADUATES of good university are also functionally illiterate, innummerate, and have no understanding of history, politics, or science.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

@stuffisthings
This thread is blowing my mind. Not in a good way.

@TARDIStime @Weasley
OK that was a bit of exaggeration, but my experience both being in college and talking to professors and TAs over the years, especially those who teach “rocks for jocks,” “math for liberal arts majors” (actual name of a class I took!), and “English for engineers”-type classes is that the most they could possibly hope for is for their students to achieve basic competence — which is what I thought high school is supposed to teach in those subjects. For example, the math for liberal arts majors class I took as a college junior had a whole unit on fractions — which is, what, a 5th grade subject?

Meanwhile, my experience in countries where you don’t take courses outside your field in university is that most of the students I met — at both the undergraduate and graduate level — nevertheless tended to have a better understanding of “general knowledge” fields than most of my fellow students back home.

Now I like the liberal arts ideal in theory. I think it’s important for engineers to know Shakespeare, just as it’s pretty important for Political Science majors to know what fractions are. But my personal experience leads me to believe that secondary education in other developed countries does a better job of instilling the kind of broad base of knowledge and experience that the American liberal arts education is supposed to provide than the American liberal arts education does. I don’t think it’s unduly controversial to say that American high schools have a lot of problems when it comes to educating kids? And that these problems carry through to college? Is there a college professor in all of America who HASN’T complained about their students’ atrocious writing skills?

Maybe I just attended university with a particularly stupid cohort (I didn’t go to Harvard, but I went to a pretty good state university) and then later fell in with a uniquely smart group of people who misled me about the quality of secondary education in France, Germany, the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, etc. But I’m just reporting my experience here.

I think it’s ridiculous to say that because a kid doesn’t like something, they shouldn’t have to do it. High school is mandatory, unlike college, because as a society we decided that this is the basic stuff people should have experienced to be fully-functioning members of society. It’s not supposed to be job training. I hated social studies in high school, but I’m glad I was taught the basics of World War 2 because you need to know this stuff. Likewise, you should know what an acid and a base are and have a general idea about what DNA is.

Teenagers aren’t exactly known for their ability to put their long-term wellbeing over immediate enjoyment. I know several people who regret avoiding tough subjects when they started college because they were too immature to look ahead, and allowing 13 year olds to start ruling out huge swaths of future careers by refusing to be educated in anything “hard” will just make that worse..

nogreeneggs (#154)

@MilesofMountains I think you hit the nail on the head with “it’s not supposed to be job training.” EXACTLY. Can you even imagine a society where people knew nothing other than what their profession (that they chose at 13) required? Talk about going backwards.

I read an article that discussed how kids today hardly know anything because they (like this father) think you can just Google everything. Sure, you can Google everything…but that doesn’t mean you should.

I think it can be argued that studying something you don’t naturally excel in develops a stronger work ethic, and like Mike mentioned a greater sense of accomplishment when you do well.

Brunhilde (#78)

What I remember from high school chemistry:

Little Ernie was a chemist
little Ernie is no more
for what he thought was H 2 O
was H 2 SO 4.

ThatJenn (#916)

Hahahaha I took chemistry in high school and HATED every second of it, and swore off all science forever.

…because of distribution requirements for my liberal arts college, I ended up going down a life path where I now have a BA and an MS in chemistry.

ThatJenn (#916)

@ThatJenn Then again, I am not really a “success story” as I now work an office job that has nothing to do with chemistry, because it turns out I was right the first time… I don’t want to be a chemist. I never learned to like lab work no matter how much I loved teaching the subject and figuring stuff out on paper.

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