Standing up for my major: Why we need Biology in schools

Anyone who went to college in the United States — or just knows how to read — is probably familiar with the debate over whether a liberal arts education serves any sort of practical purpose.

On one side, you have English professor Verlyn Klinkenborg’s passionate defense of the English major in the pages of the New York Times. On the other, you’ve got Avenue Q:

And it’s not just the “soft” majors that are under attack. David Bernstein, writing for the Washington Post last fall, unleashed a broadside against science subjects like (but not necessarily) chemistry:

When you force my son to take subjects which which [sic] he doesn’t connect, you are not allowing them [sic] that same time to take a public speaking course, which he could be really good at [half-sic], or music, or political science, or creative writing, or HTML coding for websites.

Maybe he will learn something in chemistry somewhere along the way. But he will lose out on so many other more important opportunities, and so will our society, which will have deprived itself of his full contribution.

As you may have gathered, Bernstein wasn’t even condemning the college chemistry major — he simply took issue with using the high school graduation requirements as a vehicle for instilling a basic level of scientific literacy in every American. And he has a bit of a point: a philosophy major, Bernstein seems not to have ever learned how to use the English language.

But if the English majors are all sticking together, I feel a responsibility to stand up on behalf of my own educational background (which is primarily in biology).

I’m not going to do so with some impassioned essay like Klinkenborg’s, or with a point-by-point rebuttal like Bernstein’s — after all, I’m not an English major so I never learned how to write — or even using an exhaustive list that looks just like a biologist’s catalogue of species. Rather, I’m going to relate the decline in our connection to the natural world by simply outlining a single recent event. [You can tell I’m also not a statistics major.]

One Walmart shopper was recently shocked by what she found inside a bag she thought contained only potatoes:

Bonnie Raygor said she went to make dinner Thursday night when she reached into the bag of potatoes she bought last Friday and found an orange and white snake.

“First I saw its underbelly, which is white. I thought I had a bad potato. Instead I had a snake,” said Raygor. “The bag was sealed. The only thing that’s in it are the  little holes. So I’m assuming it was in there when I bought it. I screamed.”

Raygor estimated the snake to be 3 1/2 feet long.

Raygor said she dumped the potatoes out of the bag, and her daughter and daughter-in-law put the snake into a reptile enclosure that she has from previous pets. She then called Walmart.

A terrifying and unwelcome experience, to be sure.

But was the snake actually dangerous to anything larger than, say, a mouse? Raygor doesn’t think so because she googled it — as if a snake is just some medical condition — and determined that the species is not venomous:

“I think it is a corn snake. That’s what it looks like on the Internet,” she  said. “I’m hoping it’s a corn snake, because I just stuck my hand in it and  grabbed it.”

This, people, is why we need better biology education: Corn snake, lady? Seriously? That’s no corn snake — that there’s a potato snake.

And for the record: Snakes in a Bag is a huge improvement over making snakes into a bag [warning: disturbing as shit].


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