As much as we all love to connect with others over a shared interest — that song you love, a writer whose work encapsulates to you the best of modern literature, the ideology you believe will save the world — what we love even more is to bond over mutual dislikes — that song you love to hate, that writer whose work encapsulates to you the worst of modern literature, that ideology you believe will lead to utter ruin. And few things unite people as effectively as a shared hatred for high-school science and math. “When will I need algebra in real life?”, “All I learned in school was about mitochondria being the cell’s powerhouse” — jokes like these abound on Facebook and other social media platforms, while publications like The New York Times and Harper’s have, in recent years, questioned whether we really need math and science, or quite so much math and science, in high school. Few people, it seems, left school with fond memories of equations.
As a final-year Master’s student in physics, I picked my side in this debate a long time ago, but I do admit some of the criticism is justified — far too much of what passes for scientific education in our schools is rote-memorised garbage. As the mathematician Roger Penrose wrote, many people “when confronted with a line of mathematical symbols, however simply presented, can see only the stern face of a parent or teacher who tried to force into them a non-comprehending parrot-like apparent competence — a duty, and a duty alone — and no hint of the magic or beauty of the subject might be allowed to come through.”
But the solution to this cannot be a reduction in the importance of science in the syllabus — in fact, we need much more of it. In an age of information overload, we are today being bombarded with a host of pseudoscience in the form of climate-change denialists, anti-GMO fear-mongers and people who believe Lord Ganesha was the first subject of plastic surgery. An educated population schooled in the methods, history and ethos of science has rarely been as necessary. But even beyond that, when people say advanced math and science have no relevance to their adult lives, they seem to fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of collective universal education. Sure, some of it is just about providing basic language and arithmetic skills, and some idea about our history, society and polity, but it also has a higher marginal utility — the advancement of human intuition and common sense.
Common sense is not a static concept. It arises from the society we live in. A few hundred years ago, it was common sense that the earth was flat. Even a hundred years ago, many considered it common sense that women shouldn’t vote. It is the same deal with intuition; like the great mathematician William Feller once wrote, “Even the collective intuition of mankind appears to progress. Newton’s notions of a field, of force and of action at a distance and Maxwell’s concept of electromagnetic waves were at first decried as ‘unthinkable’ and “contrary to intuition.” Modern technology and radio in the homes have popularised these notions to such an extent that they form part of the ordinary vocabulary.”
This advancement of human intuition and the boundaries of common sense takes place primarily through the arena of public education and popular culture. I understand why the legendary physics Nobel Laureate and the father of quantum theory, Niels Bohr, once said “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet”. But, I also realise that because ideas like wave-particle duality, Schrodinger’s cat paradox and other pop-science depictions of quantum reality are so common in the society I grew up in, through YouTube videos, science-based TV shows and science fiction, not to mention being present in my school textbooks, I found quantum mechanics much less shocking than Bohr did, and consequently, found it much easier to come to terms with its essential non-classical weirdness.
The frontiers of human understanding and knowledge are usually explored by experts, but society doesn’t progress until the masses are made aware of these ideas as well. Like Will Durant wrote in The Story of Philosophy, “For if knowledge became too great for communication, it would degenerate into scholasticism, and the weak acceptance of authority.” Science, like economics, as a famous saying goes, is too important to be left to the experts. My high-school education was considerably more complex than my parents’, and their high-school education was more complex than their parents’, and that is how it has to be. This is how society advances, by the constant redefining of what is common sense. And every time someone says learning algebra in school was a complete waste of time, they deny the important part school education plays in the evolution of society as a whole.
Souradeep Sengupta is a final year MSc student at the department of physics and astrophysics, University of Delhi.