A petition to pass organic chem
On the perils of organic chemistry, journalism falling for all the wrong incentives, and the problem with making education all about passing tests
The story of a professor at New York University who was released subsequent to student complaints that his organic chemistry course was too hard is one that, due to an acute set of troublesome predispositions, is too irresistible for media outlets to overlook. It's too juicy not to report as a tale of generational conflict -- or Covid learning loss, or the consumerization of higher education. It's ripe for the picking. But those frames are misleading, in no small part because they are so predictable.
■ Above all, when it comes to matters of education, we have to shake the idea that someone who's brilliant about a particular subject matter is the best person to actually teach that subject matter. Content knowledge and pedagogy have to be developed independently to create a good teacher.
■ The distinction is just like knowing that someone who is an expert at any other type of work may not be the ideal candidate to manage other people who do that work. Teaching and managing are skill sets that aren't necessarily tethered to a particular form of knowledge or set of on-the-job abilities. It is a fundamental mistake to conflate them.
■ Moreover, the NYU story is hard to tell without introducing a whole load of other complications. For instance, the New York Times reports this sentence: "Students said the high-stakes course -- notorious for ending many a dream of medical school -- was too hard, blaming Dr. Jones for their poor test scores."
■ Two important notes arise from a careful reading of that sentence: First, weed-out courses are generally silly, in no small part because they tend to arbitrarily reward or punish people in ways that don't actually bear out in performance of the ultimate job.
■ The second note is even more important: Education should not be adversarial. That's not to say that education should consist of students and teachers hanging out in an egalitarian free-for-all. But any education that consists of teachers and students squaring off with one another as competitors is an education that falls short of its potential. Students shouldn't take pride in pulling one over on their instructors (as by submitting papers they didn't really write), nor should teachers seek reputations for arbitrary toughness (as by celebrating the harshness of a grading curve).
■ Tests should measure learning, but they don't always do that. If there's a fundamental breakdown in the learning process, that could be a problem on one of multiple levels: Some students are blockheads who are too lazy to learn. Some professors are sadists who just want to see other people fail. Most of the time, neither case is true.
■ Sweeping guesses made by journalists, like "this one unhappy chemistry class could be a case study of the pressures on higher education as it tries to handle its Gen-Z student body" are weak at best and damaging at worst.
■ Older people have whined since the beginning of recorded history about "kids these days". It is nothing better than a lazy deflection. We should look more thoughtfully at what is really going on.
■ Most of what people really learn -- the things they actually put to work in their vocations and in life -- ends up happening in low-stakes environments without tests or even formal teaching hierarchies: On-the-job training, conference talks, journal articles, scuttlebutt with colleagues, and -- far more often than we likely realize -- via search engines and the Internet.
■ We neglect the importance of low-stakes learning (that is, what you learn when you're not facing a test at the end) at our peril, and that neglect is a systemic shortcoming. We too often design education around high-stakes testing and doing what must be done to "get by" -- like passing a weed-out course in organic chemistry.
■ There is no perfect answer to the NYU story because it is too wrapped up in other complex issues, but it should focus our attention not on false dichotomies over "cranky old professors versus whiny entitled students", but on more comprehensive consideration about "What signifies a successful education?" That's a serious question worth asking, and not just about our medical schools.