Practical decisions can’t be avoided
Commenter Steven doesn’t like using ‘practical’ as a criteria to decide what gets taught in science education:
People routinely critique research (like mine!) because they don’t believe it or think it’s practical. But as to whether something should be taught … I still think that ‘practical’ is a misleading idea. I’ll use medical examples to stick to a theme: teaching nurses to use Wordperfect 5.1 and DOS might have been a supremely practical idea in 1989, but these days it would be hopelessly outdated. What’s practical today is outdated tomorrow (next-gen sequencing today, who knows what tomorrow?)…
You could also ask that fundamental skills be applicable in a day-to-day work environment, which (I believe) is where much of the talk of ‘practical’ comes in. This, too, has definitional challenges. You could argue that obscure diseases, for example, should receive little attention because doctors will never see a case of them. And then, you get a German doctor diagnosing cobalt intoxication because of something that he saw *on TV*. That’s why notions of ‘practical’ bug me: there’s very often a counterexample on its way, you just haven’t seen it yet.
As someone who did his undergraduate thesis in numerical relativity–one of the most
impractical and useless abstract and theoretical branches of physics–and who counts string theorists among his close friends, I appreciate that being practical isn’t everything in life. But even though it is a limited metric, it can’t be completely avoided when we think about science education.
Quantum Field Theory (QFT) was not required for all Stanford physicists. I’m sure there are creative examples where knowing QFT helps you in any field of physics. But the overwhelming majority of the time it is not that important. We can’t practically make grad students take 5 years of coursework, and we have to cut it off somewhere. And so we reasonably decide to nix QFT. Again, expedience, convenience and utility aren’t the only things that matter. But anyone who’s worked on course design will tell you they play a role.
Similarly, I’m sure there are examples where learning more physics would help doctors. Quantum mechanics, e.g., might help doctors better understand MRIs. But are we really going to force doctors to start wading through Griffiths? And if so, why stop there?
We cannot conceive of education in terms of possible counterexamples. As distasteful as some of us might find it, practical considerations play an important role.