“When am I ever going to use this?”


As an educator, there are some questions from students that should just not be answered. “When am I ever going to use this?” is one of those questions.  Sadly, many teachers make the mistake of trying to give an answer, (note image of the poster above from a classroom in my school) and in doing so they undermine the very notion of education itself.

“When am I ever going to use this?” contains a dangerous premise about the nature of education. It implies that in life, various situations will arise in which a particular skill or a particular piece of knowledge will come in handy, and it is the job of education to provide you with that knowledge or skill ahead of time when you are young, so you will be ready when the need arises as an adult.

The tiniest bit of reflection upon this idea will either cause disbelief in the premise, or a belief in the utter uselessness in the idea of education itself.  Sadly, I think most people today default to the latter.

Let’s reflect upon the data in our own minds to illustrate this point. Suppose you are a relatively successful, forty-something adult. What percentage of facts learned in high school have you used to date? The difference between meiosis and mitosis? The symbolism in “The Minister’s Black Veil”? The significance of The Battle of Hastings? Ok. Maybe not so many particular facts, but what about particular skills? How to measure a flagpole using only its shadow and trigonometry? Factoring trinomials? Determining the momentum of a moving object? Formatting a works cited page and parenthetical citations? Depending on your interests, you could have used some of these, but for each skill used, most of us can think of dozens not used. So then, what’s the point of education? Is most of it just useless knowledge and skills, never used, and justifiably forgotten?

Benjamin Franklin tells a story that helps illuminate the nature of education. He tells of a time when the state of Virginia offered to educate six young men from six Native American tribes. The tribal leaders said thanks, but no thanks. In explanation, they told of a previous time when some of their young men were taught at universities in another colony. These young men came back poor hunters, poor warriors, unable to survive in the forest, and unable to speak the language properly. In short, they were considered useless, uneducated. Summing up his story, Franklin says that in the colonies, education was for developing the intellect, while for the natives, education was for survival.

In short, the “When am I ever going to use this?” mentality is using the natives’ “survival” view of education. According to this view, there are a certain number of tasks a person must be able to accomplish in life in order to survive, and education is to provide the knowledge and skills necessary to accomplish them. But there is an alternative to this mentality, the colonists’ “developing the intellect” view. Detailing what “developing the intellect” consists of is a topic for another post, but the advantageous results of developing the intellect are easy to see. I live in Texas, and while driving across the state this week I observed large fields of trees and grass, seemingly untouched by man. Now imagine standing in the middle of that field, and using just the materials present, creating a cell phone, or an air-conditioned car, or even the fancy thermos that somehow keeps my ice water cold for over 24 hours. The list could go on. How do you look out at the field of grass, cactus, weeds, trees, dirt, and rock, and develop paper and ink, plastic containers, rubber tires, centrifuges, airplanes, watches, and laser pointers? For most of these things, I don’t particularly know; but I do fundamentally know that it is done with an intellect developed a certain way, and not with an intellect taught only things that answer the question “When am I ever going to use this?”