We’ve all asked it, in one way or another:
“Why do I need to know this?”
“Am I really going to use this in real life?”
“Why can’t we learn something more useful?”
“Who really uses _____ in real life?” (fill in the blank with “sentence diagramming,” “algebra,” “Latin,” “literature,” “fractions,” “logic,” etc)
Naturally, these questions are asked more frequently when students hit the “pert” years of Logic School, like 7th and 8th grades. But even adults will find themselves asking such questions, for something or other.
So here are two ways to answer these questions. There are certainly other ways to respond, but here, for now, are two.
One answer is that students don’t really know what it is that they need to know. Very few of us realize what our life’s work will be while a child or adolescent. In fact, many grown-ups are still wrestling with what they want to be when they grow up. And when we finally figure it out (at least for a while), a rich, broad education, based on the time-tested classical curriculum, gives us a strong foundation. The poet and critic T.S. Eliot considers in his book Notes Towards the Definition of Culture:
“[A] fantasy of liberal education is that the student who advances to the university should take up the study that interests him most. For a small number of students this is in the main right. Even at a very early stage of school life, we can identify a few individuals with a definite inclination towards one group of studies or another. The danger for these unfortunate ones is that if left to themselves they will overspecialize, they will be wholly ignorant of the general interests of human beings.
“We are all in one way or another naturally lazy, and it is much easier to confine ourselves to the study of subjects in which we excel. But the great majority of the people who are to be educated have no very strong inclination to specialize, because they have no definite gifts or tastes. Those who have more lively and curious minds will tend to smatter. No one can become really educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest – for it is a part of education to learn to interest ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude.”
That last note — that to be educated means to interest in ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude — leads into a second answer to the question “Why do I need to learn this?”:
The love of learning is a process. Sometimes a long process.
The great rewards that come from learning are not usually immediate, and sometimes the process takes years of grunt work before the payoff happens. The student struggling through pre-algebra may one day experience an epiphany in college calculus, which leads to a career in civil engineering. The 6th grader who bears through Shurley grammar may one day be able to enjoy the complex syntax of Shakespeare. In his essay “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis writes this about the sometimes painful process of learning to enjoy Greek poetry:
“An enjoyment of Greek poetry is certainly a proper, and not a mercenary, reward for learning Greek; but only those who have reached the stage of enjoying Greek poetry can tell from their own experience that this is so. The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire. His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural or proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it. Of course, he gets it gradually; enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery, and nobody could point to a day or an hour when the one ceased and the other began. But it is just in so far as he approaches the reward that be becomes able to desire it for its own sake; indeed, the power of so desiring it is itself a preliminary reward.”
But Lewis’s point is in fact a bigger one concerning the Christian journey. The process of learning a subject like Greek is in a way like the discipleship process here on earth:
“The Christian, in relation to heaven, is in much the same position as this schoolboy. Those who have attained everlasting life in the vision of God doubtless know very well that it is no mere bribe, but the very consummation of their earthly discipleship; but we who have not yet attained it cannot know this in the same way, and cannot even begin to know it at all except by continuing to obey and finding the first reward of our obedience in our increasing power to desire the ultimate reward. Just in proportion as the desire grows, our fear lest it should be a mercenary desire will die away and finally be recognized as an absurdity. But probably this will not, for most of us, happen in a day; poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship.”
In Providence’s “Educational Philosophy,” there are a couple of great sentences about this idea: “Difficult academic work also prepares us for a life of faith by modeling that life in microcosm: rigorous learning requires a belief that the object of understanding–which is not seen and for which we must, at times, wait patiently–will nevertheless be grasped if we continue to hope for it. And we must demonstrate that hope through the good works of study and concentration and discipline.”
So “Why should I learn this?” The answer may be more important than you think.