There is a statistical phenomenon that commands such great respect in academia that it goes almost without saying. It is called the CAS rule, and for the uninitiated it simply states: as the number of students inside the CAS building increases, the probability of throwing a rock and hitting either a pre-med student or an IR major approaches 1. This phenomenon is so powerful that it works even when the pool of participants is one – that’s right, if you threw a rock right now into the CAS building and only one person was standing there you would have just hit CAS’s only pre-med IR student.
If I were to ask you which was harder, being pre-med or being an IR major, you would probably say being pre-med. You would be correct. Being pre-med is quite difficult, but pre-med students are also insane so let’s pretend they don’t exist for a second and ask a different question. If I asked which was harder, chemistry or IR, you would probably say chemistry – chemistry has math and science and stuff – of course it’s harder. This conclusion, which is simultaneously thought of by every chem student after the CH 101 final, surprises no one.
But it should. Deep inside the curriculum of chemistry the subject matter is no harder than any IR course (or English or biology class for that matter). Sure, the learning curves might be a little steeper in the sciences and sure the workload of a four-hour lab is different than the workload of a 400 page novel, but after a certain point the difficulty is the same.
The problem is that chemistry is taught to be hard. Somebody, somewhere in the history of higher education, thought that the only “credible” science courses were the ones that had 200 students at the beginning and only 30 at the end. I can see the whole unfortunate process now. Scientific research puts a university “on the map,” the research gets over-emphasized, administrators assume that students need to be taught “research level” chemistry and general chemistry becomes a class where teachers must now cover an entire discipline in two semesters.
Can you imagine a Writing 100 class that covered every interpretation, evolution and stylistic preference of the English language from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf in two semesters?
In two years?
No, it would be the hardest class at BU.
General chemistry, instead of serving as an introduction to basic chemical principles, attempts to teach something about every aspect of the discipline. Even the best chemistry teachers can’t accomplish this task, and we shouldn’t expect them to.
The deck is stacked against general chemistry in another way. How many English classes did you take in grade school? If the answer is somehow less than the number of years you attended grade school I’d like to know which NYC magnet school you attended. Now think of how many chemistry classes you took. One? Two? Chemistry may not be harder than English, but by default we are six times more prepared to take even “Beowulf to Virginia Woolf” than general chemistry by default.
There really is no excuse for general chemistry to be as hard as it is. There is no excuse for its overly-broad curriculum or the ridiculous insistence that an introductory 100-level class must be as rigorous as the research environment around it.
In fact, there is really no excuse for general chemistry at all. Get rid of it. Get rid of Bio 101 and PY 101 while you’re at it. Give us the grammar school equivalent of science instead. Make the class interesting. Teach us something in depth at the expense of teaching something else at all.
Because all I see from the introductory science classes is a lot of students who never look at science again, and a lot of English majors who don’t even try to understand something that is a) necessary to know in a modern world and b) very interesting.
Get rid of general chemistry and focus more on what science is, a bunch of problems with interesting (and sometimes really strange) solutions.
Take this platinum atom with stuff attached to it:
This molecule has, for the better part of a year, been responsible for more fencing practices missed, Culture Shock posts unfinished and friends not seen than any other aspect of my life.
It is also, however, a member of a larger group of molecules that may be the next generation of solar cells. It turns yellow when you want it to be purple, and blue when you want it to be yellow all for reasons we don’t fully understand.
It’s a difficult problem, but perhaps no more difficult then the famous IR problem “what are we supposed to do about Cuba?” What I do in lab and in class is difficult, but don’t think that what I do is any harder than what you do. It isn’t.
And if you want proof that English is just as hard as chemistry go and read Ulysses.
Because quantum mechanics has got nothing on James Joyce.