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  • Writer's pictureRich Dlin

Why Do We Have to Learn This?

Easily the most common question teachers, parents and other students hear is some variation on wondering why we have to learn "this". Usually followed by some version of "When am I ever going to have to <fill in the blank>?" It might be that you don't see the value in knowing that the capital of Alberta (it's Edmonton), or what the difference is between cirrus and cumulonimbus clouds (cirrus clouds are very high altitude and made of ice crystals, with a wispy look to them, while cumulonimbus clouds are low altitude and mean thunder and lightning). Maybe you don't think you'll ever need to know the difference between an electron and a proton. Perhaps you are certain that knowing that the cosine of 30 degrees is exactly equal to the square root of 3, divided by 2, is not going to help you in any way in your life. And you know what? You're probably right. None of those things are critical or even marginally necessary knowledge for leading a happy, healthy life.

That's right. I said it. None of the things you learn in school are going to matter when you are "grown up" (whatever that means). You know what else doesn't matter?

  • Knowing all the lyrics to the opening number from Hamilton (I do).

  • Being able to write neatly upside down and sideways (I can).

  • Completing the New York Times crossword puzzle every Saturday (I never have).

  • Watching all of Star Wars in The Complete Star Wars Saga Order (I haven't ... but I really want to!)

  • Suspending yourself sideways from a pole so you look like a flag (I can't do that either - but how cool does it look?)

  • About a million or so other things that people do regularly.

It's possible that at this point you think you know that point I am trying to make. If I'm right, what you are thinking is that I am going to say the kinds of things I am listing serve no practical purpose, just like much of what we are taught in school serves no purpose, and yet we do them anyway. If that's the case, then I can also predict your rebuttal - which is that the things I listed are all things we choose to do because we enjoy them. And that is true. But there's something deeper going on.

Everything new we learn illuminates a corner of our brain that was dark.

And that illumination is priceless. It is never really about "when am I going to use this". The vast majority of the things we learn never get put to direct use. But that illumination fundamentally changes who we are - for the better. And it's why we enjoy doing things like solving puzzles - because the mental challenge is itself an illumination. Learning is discovering the world we live in, and the world that lives in us. The awareness it provides unlocks a level of enjoyment of life that becomes more profound even as it highlights the elegance of simplicity. Understanding what makes cirrus clouds have that wispy, feathery look, and why just looking at a picture of them conjures the smell of the air on a bright, clear winter day doesn't take away from the sublime appreciation of them - in fact, it enhances it because of how it fuses scientific study of the world with the inherent appreciation of beauty that we all feel without being taught.

Can you smell the air?

The notion that everything we are taught in school must be directly useful is understandable, but is actually an impossible mandate. The changes to the workforce landscape are swift and often difficult to predict. However, the illuminating impact of learning for the sake of learning can never be undervalued. This, in fact, is what prepares our students for life after school more than anything else. Forging pathways from ignorance to understanding is how we prepare ourselves for a fulfilling and ever-evolving life. One where being prepared for an unknown future is actually not the paradigm. Rather, it is a life where being able to actively participate in contributing to the wonders of the future is within your grasp.

Thanks for reading,


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