Respectful Insolence

Shortsighted, not curious, and proud of it!

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgWhile I am on vacation, I’m reprinting a number of “Classic Insolence” posts to keep the blog active while I’m gone. (It also has the salutory effect of allowing me to move some of my favorite posts from the old blog over to the new blog, and I’m guessing that quite a few of my readers have probably never seen many of these old posts.) These will appear at least twice a day while I’m gone (and that will probably leave some leftover for Christmas vacation, even). Enjoy, and please feel free to comment. I will be checking in from time to time when I have Internet access to see if the reaction to these old posts here on ScienceBlogs is any different from what it was when they originally appeared, and, blogging addict that I am, I’ll probably even put up fresh material once or twice.

When I first encountered this post over at Pharyngula a couple of days ago, I wasn’t planning on commenting on article to which PZ referred, even though I found it as disturbing as he did, and even though I don’t have quite the same compunctions about “beating up on” a student that he does. (Humiliating students and residents for stupid answers is, alas, a longstanding tradition in medical education.) After all, PZ had already taken it on, as had Super Doomed Planet, Jason at Evolutionblog, and The Uncredible Hallq. Whatever I might say today, a couple of days later seemed superfluous. But then I thought about my college days a bit and decided that my take on this, although equally scathing to the attitudes expressed in the article, was nonetheless a bit different. But first, I feel obligated to give you a flavor of why this article was so disturbing. I sincerely hope that this is some sort of satire that misfired, but I fear that it is not.

The article, written by a journalism student named Stacey Perk and published in the Daily Iowan, is entitled On schooling’s useless lessons. Rarely does one see such vapidity so proudly on display in the very first paragraphs:

I loved high school. I loved the memories I have of parties, football games, and hanging out with my friends. These are the things I have taken with me, not the useless information acquired in the classroom.

I remember complaining about how I’d never use knowledge I gained in the classroom in real life. I regretted all the time I devoted to school because, in the end, I didn’t remember the algebraic equations, historical dates, or the periodic table.

Like omigod! So she loves parties and hanging out with her friends but remembers nothing of those nasty classes? It gets worse, though. I thought at first that this must be some intentionally ironic or half-satirical piece, but I still don’t think it is:

A problem exists within the high-school education system: It doesn’t prepare students for their careers. When I decided in high school that my major was going to be journalism, I took the only class offered by my school in hopes of learning the journalistic writing style. I didn’t learn anything from that class. My teacher was not a journalism teacher; she was an English teacher. We spent every class silent reading instead of learning about the inverted pyramid.

The school system needs a reality check; most students aren’t going to be mathematicians, historians, or chemists. So why do we have to take these classes? If students know at an early age what they want to do for their careers, then high schools should offer classes in that area. This would make me feel that the time I spent in the high-school classrooms wasn’t a waste.

Let me get this straight. As a future journalist, you don’t think that knowing some history is important? How do you plan on putting the events you report on in context for your readers? What about stories that involve some science? Don’t you want to have a clue about what the issues are? How about math? How often do stories involve determining whether a politician’s budget and tax promises add up?

Apparently college didn’t bring any wisdom:

When I got to college, the education system did a better job of focusing on students’ career goals. But even then, I found myself stressing over statistical equations and astronomy facts during my first two years. Why? I was never going to use that information. For open majors, the general-education requirements are great. For me, they were a waste of time and tuition.

Not only did the gen-ed classes waste my time and money, but they also hurt my GPA. Being forced to take classes makes them less interesting. If they aren’t interesting, you won’t do well in them. Statistics and astronomy bored me, so I opted not to attend class and neglected to study for them. These gen-ed classes caused my GPA to plummet.

The horror! Did it ever occur to you that perhaps by studying and committing yourself that you might raise that pesky GPA? No, it’s far easier to blame the material. Did it ever occur to you that you might be put on assignments as a journalist that you fine equally uninteresting? What will you do then?

Here’s a possible explanation for her attitude:

I shouldn’t have to give up my dream of working at Glamour magazine because my GPA was low – all because of some stupid gen-ed classes that I was forced to take. Let’s just get rid of them.

I keep hoping this is just bad satire, but keep coming back to the conclusion that it probably isn’t. It’s rather sad to see a future journalist fail to realize the value of a broad-based education. In fact, if any profession needs such a broad education, it’s journalists!

But enough bashing Stacey. It’s fun, but it’s almost too easy. As Jason put it, she’s just showing a bit of the petulant arrogance of youth. Life will teach her, and she will mature. Or it won’t, and she’ll remain vapid.

Certainly life taught me, which is my lead-in to my perspective on this issue, now that I’m over 20 years out from my college graduation. My dirty little secret is that the reason the article irritated me so is because there was probably a little bit of Stacey in me when I was in college. No, it’s not the love of partying and hanging out with my friends, at least not to the extent Stacey seems to love them. (I was then, as I am now, pretty geeky and had only a relatively small circle of friends. I rarely “partied.”) It was the blinkered attitude that I only needed to take classes relative to my major and career goals. It was also a bit of the same arrogance of youth that let me to take pride in being able to take the most difficult science classes and excel at them and viewing humanities courses as being somehow less worthy of my time and effort. You see, I knew I wanted to be a scientist or a physician from the very first day I entered college as a chemistry major. I also worried that, if I didn’t take enough science classes or do well enough in them, that I wouldn’t get into medical school or a good graduate program. This led me to be reluctant to take classes outside of my specialty, even ones that interested me. So insane was I that one year I took 17 credits in the fall semester, all but 3 of which were hard-core science classes, including graduate level biochemistry, and then did the same thing again the next semester. Talk about your lost year!

Yes, the science fascinated me, and yes I did very well in every class (well, every class other than second term organic chemistry, where I got my lowest grade ever in college, a B-; somehow my GPA survived though and they still let me get my chemistry degree). And it paid off. I got into the University of Michigan Medical School, which got around 3,000 applications every year for around 180 positions.

But by my senior year, I was starting to feel as though something was missing. I began to sense my shortsightedness, but by then it was too late to do much about it. There were only two terms left to take some nonscience classes that interested me, and that was not nearly enough time to make up for the three preceding years of relentless focus on chemistry and biology. I managed to fit in a creative writing course (the professor thought I was very good, by the way), an archaelogy course, and an English literature course. But that was it. There wasn’t time for any more.

The next year, I was in medical school, and all hope of further diversifying my education was gone. Medical school is, after all, a professional school. Its purpose is to train doctors, not to provide a broad-based education. And there is so much to learn, so much information that must be mastered, that there just isn’t room any more for anything unrelated to medicine. The pace is relentless, and the amount of knowledge and number of skills to acquire vast. Medical students have no choice but to develop tunnel vision. And it only gets worse during residency. True, I did go to graduate school during a break in my residency, but the focus there is almost as relentless on one’s thesis project. The one good thing is that the point of graduate school in sciences is more to teach you how to think and how to apply the scientific method. Science changes so rapidly that the information we had to learn was not as important as learning how to teach ourselves, read the scientific literature, and apply it to our research. This was a relief compared to medical school, where there was a premium on mass memorization. Nonetheless, it was still highly focused, with minimal room for wandering outside of one’s field.

Now that I’m on the wrong side of forty, I can’t help but look back at my college days with just a twinge of regret. What I didn’t appreciate then that I do now is that college can and should be one of the freest, best times of one’s life, intellectually speaking. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to go to college, you should take full advantage of it and not just use it to train yourself for a career, as important as that is. Regardless of what your career goals are or how rigorous your program is, in college you still have more time and freedom than you will ever have again in your life to study almost anything in addition to your future career. It’s a wonderful time for experimentation and sampling of different disciplines, no matter what your major or your career goals are. You can study history, philosphy, any science, astronomy, mathematics, whatever. You can challenge your mind in ways that you never dreamt possible, if you choose to do so. But the time there so short. It doesn’t seem that way at the time, when you’re just leaving your teens and entering your twenties, but four years will pass almost before you know they’re gone. Then it’s off to either professional school, graduate school, or the “real world.” Within a few more years, it’s time to think about settling down, getting married, even having children. Once you’ve graduated from college, you’ll never have as much time to explore so many different disciplines as you did in college. My biggest regret about college is that I didn’t take an art class or take more literature or history courses.

College is your best chance to indulge your intellect in disciplines that you may never be exposed to again. It’s your best chance to find out what really interests you. You can certainly try to do so later, but never again will you have as much time or opportunity, unless you win the lottery and can stop worrying about making a living. Never again will it be all laid out right there in front of you, ripe for the sampling. Not to take advantage of such a feast is a grave mistake. And such knowledge often comes in handy in unexpected ways. These days, I try to make up for it by indulging my interest in history and reading far more history than I ever did. Blogging may also be an expression of my desire to broaden my horizons and learn a bit about other things than medicine. Unfortunately, there is so little time. The only reasons I’m so prolific are because I’m a fast writer (at least when I’m not obsessing over the precise wording of a grant or a scientific paper I’m working on, which can lead me prodigious levels of writers’ block), and because this happens to be my main hobby.

These days, I occasionally have college students majoring in various biological sciences rotating in my laboratory for credit. Some of them are pre-med students, and some want to get into a Ph.D. program, and sometimes they ask me for advice. One piece of advice I always give them is to take full advantage of their time in college by not just taking courses in biology. I encourage them to take as many courses outside of their intended field of specialty as they can fit in, the further afield from their major, the better. I tell them that there will be plenty of time to learn medicine or harder core science once they graduate to a graduate program or medical school, and there will never again be this much time or freedom to explore the world of literature, art, science, and mathematics.

Some actually seem appreciative, but some of them look at me as though I were a Martian when I tell them this.

Youth is wasted on the young.

This post originally appeared on the old blog on October 20, 2005


  1. #1 Samantha Vimes
    August 29, 2006

    At last, something *I* can advise you in.

    Many communities have Artists’ Groups or Art Centers which offer classes from members and/or local experts. Such classes are usually on weekends and you sign up for them individually, so you can look for one when you shouldn’t have to work.

  2. #2 Dunc
    August 29, 2006

    As a future journalist, you don’t think that knowing some history is important? How do you plan on putting the events you report on in context for your readers? What about stories that involve some science? Don’t you want to have a clue about what the issues are? How about math? How often do stories involve determining whether a politician’s budget and tax promises add up?

    You don’t read much modern journalism, do you Orac? ;)

  3. #3 Bronze Dog
    August 29, 2006

    I have a feeling she’s already learned the big lesson of modern media. She doesn’t need to concern herself with things like “facts.”

  4. #4 Pthalo
    September 1, 2006

    This is very interesting for me, because where I’m going to school (getting a masters degree in English in Hungary), we don’t have the opportunity to take courses outside of our major. If you major in English, you can take courses on English/American history, literature, and of course extensive linguistics courses in which we learn the phonology, morphology and syntax of English. We learn about applied linguistics, sociolinguistics and historical linguistics. We can take special classes in the different American dialects. We can take classes to improve our English skills and classes to prepare us for the two big scary thesises we have to write to earn our master’s degree. They don’t have bachelor’s degrees here, so we have to write two thesises and we get both degrees at once.

    It is not possible for me to take any courses in mathematics or science unless I double major. I do have to take physical education, but I tried that two semesters ago and I’m hoping perhaps I can get an exemption. I did manage to take a class unrelated to English entitled “introduction to slavic linguistics” which gave a history of how the slavic languages evolved from proto indoeuropean.

    I can’t take physics or chemistry or biology or philosophy – except for a history of American and British philosophers.

    I take plenty of courses preparing me to be a teacher or an interpreter. I can learn to to translate and to interpret. I’m faced with courses devoted to having me memorise stupid acronyms that will be useful as a teacher because they will remind me of teaching methods I’ve vowed to avoid because they will make my lessons boring. I took classes in the hisotry of teaching, methods in teaching, plenty of psychology necessary to be a teacher.

    It would be interesting to be able to take these “general courses” that Americans talk about, but most of my classmates are glad that after high school they will never have to put a sphere inside a prism and mark the places where the sphere touches the sides of the prism and then calculate the angles and surface area of the resulting shape as we did in gymnasium – high school.