Here's a blog post at The Washington Post in which a parent asks the musical question: "Why Are You Forcing My Son to Take Chemistry?"
It's short, but it can be summarized as My son will not be a chemist. He will not be a scientist. A year of chemistry class will do nothing for him but make him miserable. He could be taking something else that would be doing him more good. And this father is probably right about his son, who's 15, not becoming any sort of scientist. But his argument breaks down a bit after that.
That's because the same objections could apply to most other things that his son could be taking. He says that his son "could be really good at" public speaking, or music, or creative writing, for example. Or not. Perhaps one of them would make him miserable, or simply do nothing for him, and be an opportunity cost as well. The difference is that the boy (and/or his father) are already pretty sure that chemistry will be a waste, and they haven't had the chance to find that out about the others yet.
But again, I take him at his word when he says that his son will be lousy at chemistry (leaving aside the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect, although that's definitely something to consider). This gets back to questions that I wrote about here, namely: how much science should people know? How much should they get in school? How much will do them some good? I think, in this case, that everyone should know that there are such things as chemical elements, and that they combine to form compounds. They should know about reactions like combustion, and a bit about energy and thermodynamics. Knowing an acid from a base would be nice, but the list just keeps on going from there, and where does one draw the line?
I think, after a basic list of facts and concepts, that what I'd like for kids to get out of a science class is the broader idea of experimentation - that the world runs by physical laws which can be interrogated. Isolating variables, varying conditions, generating new hypotheses: these are habits of mind that actually do come in handy in the real world, whether you remember what an s orbital is or not. I'm not sure how well these concepts get across, though.
Do you need a year of high school chemistry to learn these things? I doubt it. A lot of it will be balancing acid-base equations, learning about the columns and rows of the periodic table, oxidations states, Lewis structures, and so on. And the son probably will have no use for any of that - the father has no memory of any of it himself, and although I'd like people to know some of these things, I wonder if not knowing them has harmed him too much. What might have harmed him, though, is a lack of knowledge of those broader points. Or a general attitude that science is That Stuff Those Other People Understand. You make yourself vulnerable to being taken in if you carry that worldview around with you, because claiming scientific backing is a well-used ploy. You should know enough to at least not be taken in easily.
Update: See Arr Oh's thoughts here.