Am I Ever Going to Use This?
It’s the question that makes teachers and parents cringe: “Why do I have to learn this? Am I ever going to use this?” It’s such a hard question, because there’s a lot riding on the answer. If we simply say, “Listen, you just have to learn it to get a good grade, and, no, you’re probably not going use it. But that doesn’t matter. Just do your homework!” it feels like we’re telling our student that most of school is a necessary evil, and, let’s be honest, often a waste of time. Maybe that’s okay, right? Don’t we have to do hard things in life? Don’t we have to jump through some hoops to get where we want to go? But if that’s the best answer, why do we feel like our students just talked us into something that’s not quite right? If we really think a lot of school is a waste of time, why are we putting so much time and money into it?
Of course, the other option is to insist they will use everything. “Engineers have to write, too, you know, and journalists still have to do their taxes.” No sooner have the words left our lips than we realize this is, at best, a half truth. Sure, engineers write, but not short stories, and journalists have accountants. Maybe, instead, we could just say, “You don’t know what you’ll be doing later in life, so you need to prepare for all of it.” Better, but hardly motivating. How can you prepare for everything?
Sports, music, and brain science
Okay, we have to acknowledge that no student will “use” everything, but that doesn’t mean most of school is a waste of time. The type of thinking developed by pursuing varied subjects equips students to become flexible and creative as they approach problems in life. Coaches and music teachers understand this. Consider swimming. Swimmers practice drills that look ridiculous. If you want to learn the freestyle stroke, your coach may ask you to “drag your fingers.” By dragging your fingers along the top of the water with each stroke, you are forced to lift your elbow high, and high elbows are necessary for an efficient freestyle stroke. It feels and looks silly, and you’ll never “use this in real life.” You would lose the race, but it’s a valuable drill. It connects to something you will use in the race—high elbows. The same thing happens in music. Can you imagine a pianist performing an entire concert of scales? Of course, not! Again, this doesn’t mean that scales aren’t valuable since they won’t be “used in the real world.” Drills develop a type of muscle memory that carries over to something useful.
Our brains work this way. When we learn a new activity, our brains develop new pathways for thinking. Apparently, you can literally see this. In a recent chapel, Dr. Overholt displayed neurons before and after certain types of learning, and you could see that new dendrites formed at the end of the neurons after learning occurred. Each dendrite creates an electrochemical pathway, and while scientists still don’t completely understand how all of this works, it seems that these pathways grow with our learning. So while we may not solve a matrix again after Algebra II, we can use the pathway formed in our brain to solve other real world problems.
While brain chemistry is pretty cool, Christian educators have been advocating for a well-rounded, liberal arts education for centuries. Why? Because a wise dad told his son, “Get wisdom!” (Prov. 4:5, ESV). This punchy command from king Solomon encapsulates what we’re trying to communicate to students. We don’t merely want students with good grades. We want students equipped to live life well with skill, to create good, beautiful, and useful things, and to be a blessing to others. We don’t just want students who make it to college, we want students who thrive once they get there because they are wise. Wisdom is a supreme goal. Solomon urges his son in the most forceful way, “though it cost all you have, get understanding,” (Prov. 4:7, NIV). To do that, students need to see how the world works from as many angles as possible—aesthetics and logic, mercy and justice, utility and beauty, courage and humility. True, a future contractor may not need to quote Shakespeare, but an ability to interpret the world through metaphor may enable him to rightly orient the eternal purpose of his profession, which will, in turn, dramatically affect the way he conducts his business. While he may not need to give a detailed explanation of how a bill becomes a law, he will need the sense of justice and equity honed by that discussion. The quadratic equation may never appear in his daily work, but the resilience developed by pushing through math homework surely will. Wisdom matters. So to our students we say, “Get wisdom and do your homework!”