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.


7 thoughts on “When Will I Ever Need This?!?

  1. From p. 153 of my book. I go into more detail but thought this might be of interest (this was pertaining to math):

    “The question of “When will I ever use this stuff” gets a lot
    of play these days. I don’t recall it being asked that much
    when I was in school, but maybe I wasn’t aware of it. Fifty
    years ago, when I was in junior high, the space race had
    begun in earnest and there seemed to be no doubt in my
    mind, or in the minds of many of my classmates, of why
    algebra or math in general would be of any use.
    Given today’s technological age, one would think the same
    reasoning prevails, but students keep hearing that with the
    Internet you can just Google the answer to many
    questions. Furthermore, I think the press and others plant
    the idea in peoples’ minds that math must be relevant and
    kids seem to delight in asking “How am I ever going to
    use this in life?” I get the feeling that they’ve picked it up
    from various sitcoms and other venues that use this as a
    stock phrase and laugh-getter. Kids only ask this question
    because they are –essentially–told to ask it.”


    1. Thanks for the comment Barry. You’re absolutely right about the fact that this is more pervasive in the culture now. With solid curricula, good teachers, and high expectations, my hope is that we can move beyond this short-sighted perspective.


  2. Well said. In my view students ask that question because they are preconditioned to do so, to a degree they aren’t in, say, music, art or history. It’s not so much that the application of those fields aren’t a question to them, but only in mathematics, in my view, is the question sharpened for them to such a degree (by adults) that they come to regard application as the sole raison d’etre of mathematical education. The question then lurks until they hit some snag and the math they are learning suddenly is a frustrating experience. Their young minds grapple with existential questions: “Why do I have to do this #$%?” (Yeah, this particular kid also has a potty-mouth, at least in their head 🙂 ). And their grappling with those things (instead of thinking through the roadblock in their work) leads them to ask for the end-payoff in terms adults have fed them “you’ll need this for a job one day”; “It’s really useful stuff. You’ll see!”; or “You should always be taught math so that you understand what it’s used for”. (Imagining a teacher having to justify every poem this way in a poetry class!) And the existential question becomes “When will I ever need this?” That’s the result of preconditioning. The child is fed this as a release valve for their frustration. And it becomes an excuse for not trying, for given up. And … we see many who do.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the comment, Dr. Craigen. I definitely agree that adults sometimes pre-condition students to think about education and learning in these narrow terms. In fact, my point is exactly that: Alberta Education, with its student-centred “engagement” agenda is further antagonizing this somewhat natural obstinacy teachers have seen in students for a long time. All this push toward fluffy, fuzzy curriculum and pedagogy, where teachers are “learners” alongside their students, can easily be interpreted as legitimizing students’ inexperienced perspectives with respect to education. However, what we need is a system that, while recognizing the importance of the whole child and the diversity of experiences within the classroom, takes the authoritative lead and inspires students not by “coming down to their level,” but by encouraging them to rise to greater heights. We have the history, research, and evidence to show us the path we should take; unfortunately, in Alberta these days, this is all being largely ignored.

    Liked by 1 person

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