Subjects in the Classroom and Life

Posted Oct 19, 2002
Last Updated Oct 26, 2011

I recently had a long and interesting talk with a teacher at one of our local high schools. We started discussing the curriculum in school. We bounced around in a rather good-natured fashion from one subject to the next; the talk wasn’t short, but in terms of the scope of the talk, the discussion was relatively brief.

We started talking about the value of different subjects in school. The focus became the utilitarian value of various subjects. He mentioned Algebra and trigonometry. As a student I had always felt that higher mathematics were pointless for me, but I rarely heard a teacher express such a view.

He explained to me that he couldn’t think of any reason in the world that kids should be forced to learn Algebra. It’s not applicable in real life, he said.

There was a time I would have agreed. Now I’m not so sure about that.

In truth I have had no reason to use any of the Algebra I learned in school*. And neither have most of my friends and family in all their various roles in a myriad of jobs covering decades of time. Architects in my family use plenty trigonometry for their careers, and one engineering friend uses metallic stress equations for welding issues. But the vast majority of the people I know at all levels of the workforce have little use in all their lives for Algebra.

Despite this fact, I feel that it is good for kids to learn Algebra. As I get older and have kids growing under my wing, I’m starting to feel that schools should expose Algebra, along with plenty of other hard subjects, to the students in our schools much earlier than schools currently expose them to children.

There is value in learning some information that does not have a directly relevant utilitarian value. Learning Algebra won’t help me become a better writer, photographer or father. But learning it has had good effects on my life because it opened up a way of thinking. I wish I had learned more maths in school. I wish my school had created an environment that strongly encouraged kids to challenge their minds on the more difficult subjects.

Why should we learn hard things, especially if they don’t relate directly to our occupational lives? In my life, learning more intricate mathematics such as calculus would probably have made my studies of programming languages much simpler. While I could become proficient in many computer and internet languages with only the most basic knowledge of mathematics, I assure you that I’d be much better off knowing other ways to approach problems and solutions.

But that’s only for someone involved with computer technology. Most of us could care less about those things. So we might say that for most of us, higher mathematics is pointless. I guess that could be true in a sense. But as Obi Wan Kenobi told Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, something can be true or false from different points of view.

Take other subjects that could seem pointless from a utilitarian point of view. I learned German in high school. In the several years since graduation, I have not yet once had the opportunity to actually use all the things Herr Snapp taught my class. And yet, I can say with certainty that his class alone helped me become a better English writer than all twelve years of my education studying English and English grammar.

The reason is that studying English seems pointless on the face of it. We all grow up with English speaking families. We live within an English-speaking nation. We learn the language through assimilation. No one ever teaches us to talk—we just learn it through exposure. Once you know a subject by heart, it’s hard to get motivated to learn the technicalities of that subject, because it’s hard to care about it. Who cares about prepositional phrases and the concept of conjugation? All of us use prepositional phrases and conjugate every time we speak, and we don’t need to know what they are to do it.

But when you study a foreign language, you are thinking about a subject that is totally new. You don’t know how to conjugate or what different propositions do to sentences. Suddenly, those technicalities become important because learning a language in a classroom is not similar to the assimilating fashion we learn languages naturally.

Still, what does it matter? I already admitted that I haven’t had an opportunity to use my German education since high school. I took French too. I haven’t met a Frenchman yet. I haven’t gone to Europe. So what’s the big deal?

Learning German and French (or whatever other language you choose) will help you understand the poetic capabilities of your own language. To really appreciate your own language and poetry, you need to know more than your default native tongue.

Again, not all of us are poets and writers. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that all there is to know in this world is a big puzzle. You cannot ever see the whole puzzle because this puzzle is not like a normal two-dimensional puzzle you piece together on your tabletop. Whereas those puzzles can be completed within a few hours of solitude, the real puzzle of life has a multitude of dimensions. It’s hard to make all the connections in the world, to see through all the layers of meaning and mystery. Understanding the intricacies of our lives is difficult if we never try to fill in the gaps as much as possible.

We should learn as much about every possible subject that we can because every time we learn something new, it makes old knowledge more meaningful. We cannot always see the connections, but they’re there. None will ever know all there is to know, but those who know the most about their world know that this world is truly a beautiful things, and that life has much wonder to offer us. That alone is the value of learning. The challenge we face in pushing kids to learn is not so much to choose their subjects better, but to get them to understand this philosophical outlook—to get people to want to learn.


* I wrote this article when I was still a full-time journalist. Nowadays, I do use Algebra regularly as a web developer and 3D artists/programmer.

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