I know this, but what good does it do me to know?

I realized that this post needed a picture so I took a picture of a book in protest


Now that I am teaching again, I find that I have the most trouble answering questions related to motivation, usually some variation of “Why do we need to study this?” And as awful as this might sound, I truly don’t know how to satisfy that question. I do try — depending on the student, so far I’ve replied:

  • “Maybe if you study it more, you will learn that you do like it. I used to hate algebra but look!, I’m teaching it to you now. 
  • “Oh, you want to make video games? Well, you’ll need this math when you start programming classes…”
  • “Yeah, I don’t know why the Ottoman Empire is a state standard either, but you need to study a wide breadth of subjects because you never know where those connections will come in handy.”

Of course, every discipline will have their own specific answers. A US Government teacher will discuss the importance of civic education for a functioning democracy. Or a geologist might just say “‘cause rocks are cool” and that’s a fine and dandy reason. At the very least, I hope I’ve done better than a coworker who told a student that if he hated social studies, “Just wait ‘till you’ll have to take economics. Economics is the worst.” Yeah, sure, that’s a great way to prime students with a good attitude for their required courses in an already maligned field

I think though, I struggle to answer because I never considered the question important. When I went to school, I studied because I felt that I had no other choice. Then, by the time I reached college, I had developed strong enough interests that I no longer needed to put effort into the choice anyway — I would have pursued the topics that I enjoyed regardless of the opportunity to do so at a university (and as I continue to do now in a hobbyist capacity here).

So, with the students, I’m dodging the question. I give two vague hypotheticals (“Maybe…” “You never know…”) and a cutesy if cynical appeal to self-interest (“You want to make video games?”) but ignore the more fundamental problem of education:

What good does knowledge do me?

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