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The Many Lessons of Chemistry in Classical Education

Revisiting Some Archived Articles that Have Not Been Lost, but May Have Been Forgotten and Are Worth a Fresh Read

Original Post Date: July 8, 2013

I find that I am better able to learn topics when I can connect them to something I already love or already understand. When I learned biology in high school, I was bored out of my mind. Later in life, I have realized that biology is God's engineering on display! This realization has caused me to take a much keener interest in biology in my later years.

Chemistry has the same effect on many people. If one is not already planning on being a chemist, chemistry seems an incredible waste of time. However, there are some key lessons lurking in chemistry that I think will help students take a deeper interest in it, as well as pull deeper meaning out of it.

To begin with, chemistry is the study of the invisible. While chemistry studies things that are material in nature, the things that it deals with—atoms, molecules, energy, and so on—are all invisible. Therefore, the thought processes learned in chemistry can help us in other areas of life where the important things are not visible. In chemistry, we learn to examine secondary attributes to help us have a deeper understanding of the things we cannot see directly. Likewise in life, we will need to probe the many attributes we can see in order to deduce the truths that are not visible.

Second, chemistry is based on philosophy. Nearly all of science, at its core, depends on philosophy. However, with chemistry it is very easy to show. In philosophy, Descartes made the statement ex nihilo nihil fit, which means, "out of nothing, nothing comes." This is known as the principle of sufficient reason, and exists at the core of chemistry. Why do we balance chemical equations? Because all of the products had to come from the reactants. Why? Because it cannot come from nothing—ex nihilo nihil fit. Likewise with energy: if we have energy somewhere, it has to have come from somewhere else. When we calculate the amount of energy that passes into an object, we rely on the same principle. Linking chemistry to philosophy in this way allows us to reinforce the importance of philosophy. When the student knows that philosophy is at the core of scientific work, they are more able to grasp how philosophy can be practical.

Third, chemistry helps practice practical logic skills. In chemistry, as with other subjects, there are formulas to memorize. However, unlike other subjects, chemistry requires students to link together multiple different equations to achieve their purpose. They may have the equation for the ideal gas law to know how much pressure a certain number of gas molecules will exert. However, rather than being given the number of molecules, they are given the weight of the solid reactants which will eventually make the gaseous molecules which will then create pressure. Thus, the student must use the periodic table to convert the weight to the number of molecules, use the chemical equation to figure out how many molecules of product were generated from the reactants, and then use the ideal gas law to figure out the pressure. Instead of having one equation into which the student simply inputs the numbers, they have a range of facts and equations, and must determine on their own how to put them together to find the right answer.

Fourth, chemistry is foundational to learning modern scientific thought. Chemistry connects macro and micro scales, discusses the interior of the atom, and discusses basic chemical naming and chemical substances, which will help students develop scientific literacy and confidence, which will enable them to more effectively participate in public discussions on matters which touch science.

Finally, in Classical Conversations chemistry is taught as part of the Challenge III course. In Challenge III, the focus of the year is on consequences. Reading works written by Shakespeare, which is an integral part of the Challenge III course, is all about examining the chain of effects created by the actions of the characters. Sproul's The Consequences of Ideas covers the repercussions that result from various ideas and ideals. Chemistry fits this same vein by providing students with tools for predicting and evaluating outcomes in a controlled environment. Thus, chemistry provides a microlaboratory for thinking about, predicting, and evaluating consequences.

In all, chemistry uniquely brings together a set of skills which are useful for integrating different aspects of learning and bringing them to bear on practical problems.

CATEGORIES: Classical Christian Education

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