When Will I Ever Need This?!?

Teachers have heard this question from students forever. Unfortunately, this narrow-minded, utilitarian view of education has been given credence in recent years by policy makers and educators themselves.

I don’t blame students when they ask this question; their perspectives are somewhat limited based on their limited life experience. Students today are surrounded by a culture of instant gratification where people gain celebrity status for no apparent talent, where their contemporaries develop million-dollar app ideas, and where every one of their fleeting thoughts can be broadcasted to the world through Facebook, Twitter, or whatever new platform is coming next. They’re distracted by all this noise, which makes focusing on the difficult proposition of connecting with the history of civilization through learning “the best which has been thought and said” rather arduous – yet all the more imperative.

As educators, as parents, as mentors, we must challenge the apathy of young people in this regard. This is difficult when I see commentary in newspapers and on social media where adults themselves question the point of studying Shakespeare and where our own Alberta Education ministry is bending over backwards to emphasize the importance of creating “authentic” learning tasks, as though by virtue of direct application, education is somehow made “useful.”

I recently travelled to Rome for the first time. Standing on the ruins of the early days of western civilization, I’d never felt more connected to humanity. I was filled with an appreciation for the history of art and of literature that prepared me to be able to recognize this connection. Later, in Venice, standing on the Rialto, my mind was flooded with images of Antonio spitting on Shylock, setting in motion one of the most intensely complex literary revenge stories in English literature. One day I’d like to visit Egypt and look up at the same sky that perhaps inspired Euclid to write The Elements. This is the power of knowledge. It connects us to that which came before us and helps us become our best selves. It allows us to situate ourselves within the greater context of the human experience. Knowledge links us with everyone who came before us and with everyone who will come after us.

When adults around me question the validity of learning algebra, of balancing chemical equations, of studying Shakespeare, or of understanding Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, I shake my head in disappointment. But when students groan and ask, “When will I ever need this? Ugh!” I see it as an opportunity. I can respond in a number of ways:

“You may want to compete on ‘Jeopardy’ someday.”

“So you can go to university and get a good job.”

Or . . .

“Because in working through symbolic mathematical representations you’re literally developing neural networks in your brain that will enhance your ability to solve all kinds of problems. Because in studying literature, you’re being afforded the opportunity to develop a sense of empathy for people who live outside of your limited experience as a subjective individual. Because in learning about history, your understanding of judgments and decisions is broadened, thus opening the world to you.”

Not everyone will have a passion for lifelong learning, in the academic sense, and that should be okay, too. But all children should be afforded the basic foundations of “the best which has been thought and said,” foundations that are being eroded by initiatives like Inspiring Education in Alberta. By treating students as consumers, we risk robbing them of their right to foundational knowledge in favour of fads and trends that frame education as a commodity that is only as valuable as the market dictates.