On Thursday, I met with other teachers from our sophomore Honors Program. One of the English teachers observed that math and science have "PR Problem." In other words, nobody likes us or finds us useful. What is he supposed to tell students when asked for a reason why they should continue to take courses in these areas? After all, it's not like you use all those Algebra formulas every single day.
I understand why he asked the question---and it is a valid one to consider. But what I didn't appreciate is the idea that math and science are basically useless to the average person. I asked him, "Do you use Julius Caesar every day? When was the last time you whipped out Of Mice and Men to accomplish something in your daily life?" The point being that when viewed through the lens he was using for math and science, English appears just as useless.
His response? "But I can look around at today's political situations and see elements of Julius Caesar. I can tie the themes from Of Mice and Men to things happening today." Well, duh. Isn't that what we're all supposed to be doing? Don't you think that for my classes, I connect our current topic of learning to the "real world"? I just finished some lessons on polio with my kiddos, and lo and behold, polio eradication is still in the news (more than 50 years after its end in the US). Is it possible that information about human health and development, stem cells, genetics, and other biology is not still current or useful for kids sitting in my classes? Might these things have more of a direct impact on their lives then whether or not they read A Farewell to Arms?
I'm not knocking a good background in communications skills. Kids who lack the ability to read, write, and speak well are certainly going to have a difficult go of things in my class (and in everything else). I continue to work on those things with my students, along with the science content. I'm also not knocking the need for cultural literacy. I think it's important for students to have a common set of experiences. But Life is more complicated than what you learn in your 10th grade English class. You need more tools in your toolbox.
This is where science and math come in. I never use the trigonometry I learned in high school. As a set of facts, it has played no role in my chosen path as an adult. However, this class did reinforce my problem solving skills. It helped me continue to develop the ability to look at a situation from different angles (literally and figuratively). My trig class taught me to commit to a task and see it through---to not give up at the earliest opportunity just because I was a little frustrated.
I always try to praise my students for doing the "hard thing." That is, sticking to a challenging set of courses...making an effort to learn to study and connect different pieces of information...learning to thoughtfully examine a problem, set of data, or a conclusion. If they don't remember the phases of Mitosis forever and always, I'm okay with that. Do they understand something about themselves and their abilities? Do they have the skills they need to move on to whatever is next for them? That's the big idea. That's what you tell kids when they ask for a reason to continue to take math and science.