High School Chemistry, A Success Story?




                             In the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, November 2, 1991, a front page feature article is headlined, Franklin teacher uses creative touch to help chemistry sink in.  Franklin is the real name of a local high school, and while anyone who wants to read the article may look it up, it is probably prudent that I replace the other real names by ones in­vented for this article.


                             We'll call the Franklin teacher Theodore Passage.  A sidebar on his career explains that he is 30 years old with a bache­lor's degree in engineering, and worked as an engi­neer for "nearly a year" before be­coming a teacher, first in Brook­lyn and now in Rochester.  His school is in a low income neighbor­hood plagued with crime, drugs and dropouts.  The article pictures Passage as an enthusiastic teacher, one who understands his students, maintains order diplomatically, livens the classes with banter, and is concerned with the progress of his students, even visiting their parents when he sees the need.  In all, a model teacher.


                             But what does he teach?  Here one must trust the journal­ist's report:


                            Passage conducts a question-and-answer session with stu­dents about the notes they've just read..  "Allie, how do electrons arrange them­selves around atoms?" Passage asks Allie-Joe Turner, a 16-year old junior.  "Shells," Allie says, answering correctly.


                             This is what the journalist saw as successful teaching.  The student got the right answer.  What does this indicate about the stu­dent's under­standing of chemis­try?  Nothing.  He "knows," to be sure, some words: "electrons," for example.  Electrons were not known to Pasteur and Priestly, but words are not know­ledge.  If Allie-Joe really knew something those scientists of one and two hundred years ago did not, one might imagine that he would have some­thing to tell them, were they to reappear on earth asking him what was new in the science to which they had devoted their lives.  But what he would have to tell them would be as meaning­less to them as it is to him, and to all readers of the news­paper article as well, except for those who are scien­tists.  Nothing in that story of electrons in shells, as taught in high schools in Rochester, New York, would answer a single question Priestly was wondering about in the year of his death.


                             Yes, the electron shell model for the atom is of great impor­tance, but it is not of the same order of truth as the experimental pheno­mena that make it useful.  It would be more to the point for a teacher of high school chemistry to explain what "elements" are and why we believe there are such things, and to have the students repeat with their own hands as nearly as possible the ex­periments of two centuries ago, more or less, that led mankind to the modern conception of atom.  Failing this, for it is not possible for each student to repeat all the experience of the centuries of scientists who preceded him, he should at least be able to describe the key experiments and the unseen world of hypothesis they were designed to prove.   Allie-Joe should learn how postulating atoms, which nobody can see or taste, makes it easier to understand why certain measure­ments come out the way they do. Electrons are a considerably more problematic notion than atoms, but a case can be made even for them in high school (though it seldom is).  But electron shells?


                             We are a nation whose high school graduates are barely literate, half of them unable to understand a reasoned argument of more than two senten­ces; a nation split on the validity, indeed the meaning, of the theory of evolu­tion, and readier to believe an astrologer than the United States Surgeon General.  As long as we praise the teaching of science by incantation in this way, ignoring the very structure of science as a set of hypotheses by which observations are bound togeth­er in a consis­tent, predictable man­ner, we will bring up ever more generations willing to believe in astrology, social­ism and psychoanalysis. 


                             A grounding in the meaning of science ought to begin in Mr. Passage's class, but what does the State of New York give this enthusiastic teacher to purvey?  A catechism of "correct" answers concerning in­compre­hen­sibles.  Nothing except jail is better calculated to stifle the imagina­tion of young people who might once have been induced to want to know a few of the observable processes of nature and how they hang together.  Instead, the students are divided in two camps, the rebellious, who recognize nonsense and will have none of it, and in the process refuse to learn anything at all, and the tractable, who go through the motions of learning for the praise of their parents and teachers and who -- some of them -- in the fullness of time do discover, for themselves or in college, or even later in life, that there really is knowledge out there, and that it does have mean­ing.  The first group merely remains illiterate, suspicious and gullible.  The second group wastes its youth.  Both groups are ill served.


                             One might add that chemistry is not the only subject in which a discerning youngster will early see that he is being fed a pack of non­sense, and be tempted to tune out.  In mathematics – “Advanced placement calculus” – he learns that the derivative of x cubed is three times x squared.  Is that wrong? No; it is right.  The trouble is that it isn't mathematics, unless he under­stands what a derivative is and why anybody would want one.  Very few who come out of today's high school calculus classes do.


                             That equivalently meaningless lessons are learned in history and politics is better understood by the general public, which sometimes demands reforms.  What they get is invariably named reform, again and again and again, but turns out only to be higher taxes for education.  The need for further reform, with an increase in “funding for education”, never dies.


                             One can summarize the trouble in each of these cases as a fault in the philosophy of education.  Whether in physical science, social science or in the humani­ties, no assertion is understandable unless it is associated, at least in principle, with a statement of how we know it to be correct. Even the barest of facts should imply a question to this effect.  Bach was born in 1685; how do we know this?  Are there open questions in this regard?  Well, actually, there aren't, but the answer to how humanity knows that date is interesting. One might along the way learn a bit about the Julian and Grego­rian calendars. 


                             Yet the birth date of Bach is easy to understand in principle; we all know what it means to be born, and we know how to count the days and years.  Some statements are deeper than that.  Consider, "Copper is an element."  Here is a statement of some sub­stance.  What is copper, and how do we know it is an element?  What difference would it make any­where if the statement were false?  Could we still reconcile the rest of chemistry with the falsity of that state­ment?  I believe a semester devoted to that one question, inevitably leading to ramifica­tions into other parts of the science of chemistry, would teach high school stu­dents a hundred times more than our present courses do, and not only about chemistry but about the nature of knowledge itself. 


                             But if we go on, before having any clear idea how it was we knew copper to be an element and water not (Aristotle believed it was the other way round),  to the statement that there are “electrons ar­ranged in shells” in every atom, we find ourselves far beyond any scien­tific question that can be answered even in principle in a high school course.  Such statements have no place at that level.  It is a disservice to the stu­dents to tell them that this is knowledge.  It is, actually, a cargo cult.


                             For in the South Pacific islands in recent times there have been recurrent outbreaks of a sort of religious misunder­stand­ing of the nature of European technology, that grew out of the coloniza­tion of an un­scien­tific society by people with wireless radio and engine-driven ships arriving at their shores with “cargo”.  Watching the Dutch or English invaders string up their radio anten­nas and turn their knobs, and seeing all this followed by the arrival of great ships filled with marvels, food, clothing, firearms and the like, the New Guinea natives believed they had learned how to do all this themsel­ves.  When the war was over and the Europe­ans had gone home, they strung vines resembling antennas, turned what knobs they could find, and waited for cargo.  When it did not come they some­times, if they had preachers persuasive enough, destroyed all their property, to put themselves into the same des­titution the Europeans had been appeared to be suffering before their own cargo arrived.  And so on, until the United Nations relief mission did indeed arrive with the cargo their starvation had persuaded the world to provide.


                             Teaching high school students about electron shells permits them to utter some formulas which might fool someone in the Regents offices in Albany, but it will no more be science or bring on its fruits than will stringing a vine result in a radio call for cargo. (The welfare system, however, might still arrive with food stamps.) Today's teacher is honored for doing what an ignorant school system considers teaching:  cajoling unwilling young­sters into behaving them­selves while parroting bits of meaningless jargon called chemistry.  The newspapers may accept that sort of success as a victory over igno­rance, but it is no such thing.


                             It is nothing but a feature story.


              Ralph  A. Raimi

              3 November 1991

              (slightly revised 19 July 2008)