It’s Good to Know Stuff, Part 2
In my previous post, I began explaining how I answer students who pose the prevalent question:
Why do we have to know this?
Every teacher should have an answer to this question, but, typically, the question implies that the questioner is looking for some practical application of the knowledge. In other words, he is really asking, What use can I make of this knowledge?
And the way teachers and parent-educators tend to answer the question suggests that they understand and accept the implication. They look for ways the knowledge might one day be used–in a career, in day-to-day life, in future educational contexts. After some time thinking about such things, I began to question this pragmatic way of thinking.
In Plato’s Republic, the philosopher at one point asserts that there are three categories of things we pursue in this world:
- means — things we want because they get us other things (e.g., money, a job, a diploma)
- ends — things we want for themselves alone (e.g., happiness, pleasure, justice)
- means & ends — things that are both valuable in themselves and lead to other desirable things (e.g., health, a mate, freedom)
Money is worthless unless it can be used to acquire goods and services. No one fills up a swimming pool with coins and bank notes just to gaze upon it or swim around in it. Well, other than Scrooge McDuck. Money is simply a means to other ends.
Success, joy, love — these are things we all want because they are intrinsically valuable. No one seriously asks the question, Why do you want love? We just do. All of us. The question strikes us as nonsensical. It’s like asking why a triangle has to have three sides.
Most things fall into the third category. They have some intrinsic value but also are means to other valuable things. We all desire health for its own sake. It’s just better to be healthy than sick. But having good health also allows us to work and play and experience the joys of life that we couldn’t otherwise. Health is therefore both an end in itself and a means to other ends.
And here’s my point in a nutshell:
Too many of us intuitively place knowledge in the first category when it belongs in the third.
In other words, we think of education–the acquisition of knowledge–as simply a means to an end. But it’s not just a means to an end. It’s an end in itself. In other words,
It’s good to know stuff.
A kid asks me, “Why do I have to know this?” and I answer, “Because it’s good to know stuff.”
I’ll ask, “Is it better to be beautiful or ugly? Is it better to be a success or a failure? Happy or sad? Healthy or sick? Loved or lonely?
Then I’ll ask, “Why?” to any of those questions. And the answer, of course, is, “Duh. Because it just is.”
Right. So is it better to be knowledgeable or ignorant? Is it better to know something or not know something? They usually get it by this point.
The Bible and Gold Nuggets
I’m a Christian who revers the Bible as the word of God. But even people skeptical about its infallibility acknowledge that there’s a good bit of wisdom in there. And that, I think, includes statements like:
“An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” Proverbs 18:15
“Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold,” Proverbs 8:10
Knowledge, the Bible says, is valuable.
Once, I brought into class a wheelbarrow filled with giant gold nuggets. Actually, they were rocks from my garden I had spray-painted gold. But I told them they were real gold. I put one one each desk and said, “Pretend these are real, and I’m giving them to you. How would you respond? Would any of you complain about how heavy your gold is? Would you say to me, ‘Mr. Wasko, why do I have to have this gold?'”
They got the point. But I understand. It’s easier to recognize the immediate value of gold than knowledge.
Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit
On my Facebook page, I asked how people answer their kids when they ask, “Why do I have to know this?” One homeschool mom wrote, “Because it will help you win Trivial Pursuit.” She was being facetious, but there’s truth lurking here.
Games like Trivial Pursuit and game shows like Jeopardy and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? exist because we all know it’s good to know stuff. It’s frustrating to get questions in Trivial Pursuit that we don’t know the answer to, and it’s a peculiar delight to happen to know an answer–no matter how trivial. Can’t we all relate to the simple pleasure of shouting out the correct answer (or is it question?) when watching Jeopardy? Heck, I do it when I’m all alone.
I admire people who know stuff. I once went to an art museum with a college professor and enjoyed it far more than I ever had before because he knew so much about the art and the artists. My botanically brilliant sister-in-law took my family on a hike a few years ago and amazed us all with information about the plants we saw along the way. I’ve got a friend who knows all about wine, another who’s area of expertise is baseball, and another knows how to catch fish anywhere there’s water. None of these people make any money or gain any cultural status for knowing this stuff. They pursue such knowledge for the intrinsic pleasure of knowing it. I happen to know stuff about grammar and writing, and get my jollies writing blog articles about it.
We can all relate to this, right? Deep down we all love to know stuff.
Is All Stuff Equally Good to Know?
Even though I fully believe it’s better to know stuff than not to know stuff, it doesn’t mean I think all stuff is equally good to know. But this post has already grown too long, so I’ll save that for Part 3. I’ll also talk about the excellent question: If it’s so obvious that it’s good to know stuff, then why do kids continually ask the question, Why do I have to know this?
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Something I think you’ve not mentioned and perhaps it shows up in part 3, is the simple importance of training the brain and learning how to think. I find this to be very true with the study of math which challenges in a way other subjects do not.
Brilliant analysis, Brian!
I had an epiphany a few months ago. It will take a little bit to explain.
I grew up on video games … and math. I loved math and I was extremely good at it. For over a decade there was joy in every new discovery. Society cheered me on every step of the way, from memorizing multiplication tables to working Calculus to winning competitions. No one cheered when I vanquished Bowser and saved the princess in the final castle, but it felt great nonetheless.
I took an engineering path in college and they sucked all the fun right out of math. By my third year math was dead to me (except for theoretical math that had no apparent practical value). Fifteen years later I also realize the curriculum assigned to engineers was utterly worthless. We practiced differential equations and transformations over and over because that’s what professional engineers did 10 years before I went to college. By the time I went to college computers already did that grunt work. Still we “practiced” equations night after night.
Over the years I also had a tenuous relationship with games. I became addicted to certain games in unhealthy ways. I weened myself off of them and then found others. At times gaming was beautiful discovery. Other times it was obsessive clicking. Farmville (not that game specifically but the phenomena in general) killed gaming for me. Farmville took the psychological mechanisms that make gaming work and turned them against gamers to extort cash out of them.
And then I discovered dopamine and it all made sense. When you solve a math problem (or any mystery), when you get a mushroom and Mario grows taller, your brain releases dopamine and you feel good. Mostly this is a natural, healthy part of life, but it can create unhealthy feedback loops, like when I became addicted to certain games. Cocaine works the same way.
In a sense Brian is correct. Ends are the things that produce dopamine. Means are the things that will help you produce more dopamine. The discovery of knowledge does both.
OK, leave it to me to suck the humanity out of this: “You’re not in love, you’ve just temporarily created pathways in your brain such that you get a hit of dopamine whenever you see her.” That’s not my point (even though it’s absolutely true). My point is that understanding infatuation is a key to building a healthy relationship, so you don’t burn like a rocket for a while and are left in a mess when the dopamine is gone. The goal is to create dopamine with the same person for a lifetime in a beautifully human way.
Let me put the humanity back in. If the goal is to create happiness then we should put everyone in a partial coma and stimulate dopamine for their entire life. We just need a better cocaine. Many people would choose that, the everlasting climax, so to speak.
But humanity is about ups and downs, pleasure and pain, dopamine and depression. And yes, discovery is a part of that. But not all discovery is healthy. Not all discovery is good or moral.
For my whole childhood, I thought the discovery of math was good and noble and video games were a waste. Now I realize they both functioned exactly the same way in spurring me on to pursue them. They both had some value, but not much compared to other fields. I could pursue math now and learn things, discover new knowledge, and I could do the same with video games.
But I’m not pursuing either because there are other more worthwhile uses of my time. Not all knowledge is equally valuable.
Hey, get your own blog! Seriously, maybe you should–this is good stuff.
I agree with your final sentence, and I’ll elaborate in Part 3. I just don’t agree with your earlier statement that the math you learned in college was worthless. Nor do I agree that “Ends are the things that produce dopamine. Means are the things that will help you produce more dopamine.”
I don’t have time to elaborate here. Maybe my next post will clear it up. Not sure. I do appreciate the time you take to share your provocative and well-written thoughts, Ryan.
Everything you said is JUST SO true! Life became so much more enjoyable for me when I realized “learning stuff” is fun! And that is the first time I have ever seen a written reference to Scrooge McDuck…well done sir!
Those few typos in my comment are bothering me. Lol. I know you said you won’t correct my grammar but I am very self critical. I think everything should have an edit button. Or smartphones should be better at auto correct!
I love it: Why? Because it’s good to know stuff. It’s so simple and so deeply true. I can kinda kick butt at Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader now that I have a few years of homeschooling under my belt. I love to known stuff. I truly wish it had a better education. The more I teach my kids he more in see just how much was left out of what I was taught. I wonder if there’s a way to help kids really love learning for the sake of learning or of it’s more of a personality (or maturity) thing.