It’s Good to Know Stuff, Part 1
I taught for ten years in a public high school. It was a challenge that often sent me home frustrated and discouraged, but for the most part it was a fulfilling experience. For many reasons, I’m glad I started my education career that way.
One thing I remember from my early days was being confronted on a regular basis with the question,
Why do we have to know this?
I doubt if the question was ever asked out of genuine interest. It was almost always a way to complain and stall for time. No one was asking, “Tell me, Mr. Wasko. How might memorizing this brilliant section of Hamlet’s soliloquy benefit me in future years?” They were really saying, “Memorizing Shakespeare? Are you kidding me? What possible good would that ever do me? Why are you wasting my time?”
The motive of the questioner notwithstanding, I always felt an obligation to give a good answer. A teacher should know, after all, why he is teaching what he is teaching, right? Why do we have to know this? is in that sense a legitimate question.
What troubled me was that some things I taught were tougher to defend than others. Why do we have to learn punctuation rules? Easy — because it’s essential for helping you communicate clearly in writing — something everyone will have to do at some point his life.
Why do we have to read To Kill a Mockingbird? That one’s trickier. I would usually say something like, “Because it’s a wonderful book full of memorable characters that will tug at your heart and shed light on issues of race in the American South during the 1930s.” But that wasn’t what they were asking. The student was looking for some practical application. Some way that reading this book would help them be successful in a future career.
You Never Know…
I remember a student asking the question in a chemistry class when I was in high school. The teacher said, “A basic knowledge of chemistry is necessary for many professions. Doctors, for example, need to know chemistry.”
The student said, “But I’m not going to be a doctor.”
And the teacher replied, “You may say that now, but you never know what you’ll end up wanting to do.”
I remember the conversation because I was thinking to myself, “You’re right that I don’t know exactly what I will be, but I can tell you some things I won’t be, and a doctor is one of them.”
This interchange came back to me when students started challenging me the same way. It doesn’t make sense to teach kids stuff just because there’s some remote possibility that they may choose a career in which that knowledge is needed. Is education really just a big buffet line where you get to sample all the dishes until you find one you really like?
One day I was in the mall and saw a poster promoting math education. It was an image of an astronaut floating in space with the words, Study Math. I thought to myself, “How many kids is this poster really going to influence? How many people really aspire to be astronauts?” There’s a better chance of playing in the NBA than floating in space for a living. It seemed a pretty unpersuasive ad.
Don’t get me wrong. An important part of education is preparing students for an eventual career. We want kids to enter the job market with skills that will help them provide for themselves and their families and to make a valuable contribution to society. But is that all education is about? Is it just getting students ready for work?
I’ve heard other teachers answer the question by saying, “You’ll need to know this in college.” But that seems even worse than the “maybe you’ll need this in your job one day” answer. It’s just saying, “you need to know this so that later you can know this.” The logical next question is, “Why will I need to know it in college?” Right?
There’s an assumption underlying the question, Why do I have to know this? The assumption is that the purpose of acquiring knowledge is to use it in some practical way in the future. The implication is that there’s no point in learning something that you aren’t going to eventually use. How may of us have complained that we spent all those years learning algebra (or history, or biology, or British literature, etc.) but never once used it in our everyday lives? If that’s true, was our classroom experience simply a waste of time?
I don’t think so, and I’ll explain how Plato helped me get my brain around this in Part 2.
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