yes, education is good for you, stop whining.
It’s often said that politicians are two faced, and generally for a good reason. While the double standards of a disturbing majority of them fill entire libraries dedicated to cataloging modern history and foreign policy, there is another area where their hypocrisy shines through so brightly, one must ignore it not to notice. How often do we hear about the imperative to innovate and keep scientific research in the United States going strong, which is almost always either preceded or followed by praising American colleges and labs as the absolute best in the world, the premiere destination for the best minds in the world? Then, the very same politicos turn around and start partisan witch hunts when science does not agree with their ideology, rush to slash science and research budgets the minute money is lacking to make sure their friends and cronies aren’t deprived of their sweetheart no bid contracts, and then claim that slashing cash used to boost R&D won’t affect a soul. Throughout their careers, the lawmakers who rush to pat our scientists on the back refuse to support them in conducting the kind of research we need to keep moving forward and make near constant remarks deriding education.
So when at the meeting of the American Chemical Society, a presenter showed a video of Trent Lott, who as you may recall resigned from his post as Senate majority leader after his praise for segregationists came to light, it wasn’t a big surprise that he called his math and science classes a complete and utter waste of time, both his and the teachers’, to applause and laughter from the audience. Yeah, that’s great guys. Let’s dismiss something you either weren’t all that great at studying, or something that you didn’t use every day from there on in as completely useless, and cheer someone who proudly admits to being hostile to the idea of learning just a little more about the world around him and how we can quantify it. Forget those nerds who were in the same classes and went on to make all the technology you now take for granted, am I right? It’s always great when a politician and his fans act like spoiled, entitled brats who can’t be bothered to apply themselves and study the kind of topics they might not immediately need, or at the latest, require to know by next week. Unfortunately, it’s not just Lott and it’s not just one video. This is an entire culture, a current of self-absorbed and stunningly lazy anti-intellectual rhetoric all too many politicians exploit for votes from the partisan faithful.
In the video, Lott whines that he took a physics class he doesn’t actually need in his daily life. And maybe he’s right. Maybe he should’ve just told his teachers he was going to be a politician and the school would have just given up on him and let him graduate with only basic English and math skills so he could stay as ignorant as he wanted and his young, delicate little eyes and ears wouldn’t have to be exposed to anything not required to read a law book, be grossly overpaid for producing bloated, muddled legislation, and paying off his friends for a flow of cash to his PAC and personal funds? Maybe we should take his advice and let every high school kid make an official announcement of what he or she wants to do for a living and only teach them exactly what they need to do that job, nothing more, nothing less, effectively turning secondary education into a vocational school and reserving anything beyond basic algebra and eighth grade science only for those who want to be scientists? Surely he’d have nothing to whine about then. The only problem is that we would be severely limiting the horizons of these high school students and not allowing them to be exposed to something they might find interesting and exciting if it requires that they learn more than the exact schedule of skills needed by their declared career, but hey, all this exploration, sometimes very demanding and elaborate exploration is just a waste, right?
If I had the same mindset as Lott and his ilk, I wouldn’t have taken any math past statistics because that’s the level of math which was required by my undergraduate major. But I did, and turned out to be pretty good when working with trigonometry which I proceeded not to use for the next eight years or so. Then, as things changed and I went back to school, this time for an education heavy in mathematics, suddenly it was a good thing that I took calculus and the trigonometry which lay discarded in the back of my head for eight years suddenly came in very handy for my thesis paper and then again on a test on which I had to rewrite an algorithm often used by tools like Google Maps to tell you when to turn right or left along your route. What might have been a waste of a whole year of schooling was suddenly absolutely vital to figuring out how to solve a real world problem. Oh by the way, I also took science classes in high school and college, including physics. And guess what? Writing a lot of posts about the physics of stars, black holes, planets, and diving into arXiv papers helped pay the rent in a very rough economy and job market. Were I as close-mindedly ignorant as to believe that everything I might not use for direct personal benefit right away is just a big waste of time, this blog wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t have a job right now. You never know what skills you may need and if as an adult, you never had to use some formula you learned in an advanced geometry class, publicly whining about having to have studied it only tells me one thing about you; you’re small-minded, incurious, and self-absorbed to a glaring fault.