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Academic preparation for life skills?

Slashdot notes a study that says biology grad students are the most miserable of the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] graduate students. This is because the funding for their research opportunities is scarce and that the skill set is not broadly applicable to other fields.

But the main problem is that most of the skills you learn in biology, especially biomedical sciences are only useful in the biomedical sciences and that most grad students don’t learn enough ‘generalist’ skills, such as high level math or serious programming skills, to have other career alternatives if academia doesn’t work out.

This gets into the common plaint about why anyone should take courses in math at any level, the public school arguments about algebra requirements for middle and high school graduation, and the difference in curricula between medical and chiropractic doctors that seems to be fading as math and rigor are loosing ground to math-less and ‘alternative’ not evidence based treatments and methods.

It is also behind the idea that high school courses are done backwards. Traditionally it was biology then chemistry then physics. But some said physics was fundamental and chemistry a basis so they should be taught before biology. But physics gets into calculus ideas, chemistry is heavily based on algebra, and biology – especially in high school – is primarily observation. The tradition approach is practical because it recognizes the scope of the subjects at the high school level and also the patterns of intellectual development.

Why do math is a question similar to why do PE. Physical education is to develop the body, mathematics education is to develop the brain. Neither can be obtained simply by training, which is how many see the role of education. People are not robots or computers to be programmed with specific skills in any order and devoid of context. They are holistic beings based on physical, emotional, and intellectual constructs woven together.

Mathematics is also a boundary in civilization. The idea of a modern education is not natural. It takes work and the goals are not obvious. It is not something you do to survive from day to day. But, arguably, it is the sort of effort in intellectual development that mathematics represents that stimulates and enables much of the innovation in technology, management structures, and other facets of modern civilization that make it set apart from mankind’s social structures in earlier times.

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