Why do I need to learn this?

So a teenager asks you why you need to learn a particular topic. Strictly speaking there is no clear explanation for usefulness of the topic so what do you respond? This is what I would respond:

Why do children play? Is it useful? Why do they build lego houses when they will never need to build lego houses as grownups?

Why does the soldier do pushups? You can’t kill foes on the battlefield with pushups.

Why does football player lift weights? He can’t score a goal by lifting a weight.

We do lots of things we have no direct usage of. Common to all examples is that the activities are used to train something. Many actions require strong muscles or fast legs to perform. A child’s play develop their physical body as well as their brain.

That is what school is for. You learn many things you probably will never need. But you do it to develop your brain. Your brain is a like a muscle. Can you get strong by lifting easy weights? Of course not. You need resistance. It needs to be hard. You can not exercise your brain by only mastering easy topics.

If you are struggling in school with understanding something you know your brain is getting a good exercise. If you are not struggling and it is boringly easy that means, you are not developing. It means it is a waste of your time. Exercise means failure. We only improve through struggles and failures.

Doesn’t mean it couldn’t be made fun of course. You can wear yourself out completely playing a sport you enjoy. Ideally we can make you think about hard problems while still enjoying yourself. That should always be the goal.

There is another sports comparison. Nobody needs to run say a marathon. The reason people do it, is because it proves something about that person. An education or a degree is often the same. The employer might not need any of the skills you have learned through your university degree. But they need a smart, focused and dedicated employee. How can they know if you are?

You can not tell by looking at a person if they are good runners or if they have the stamina for a long run. Sure you could probably do tests like oxygen uptake, speed on a treadmill etc. But running a marathon is more than just physical traits. It is also about mental will power.

Likewise an employer can test your knowledge in an interview, but he or she can’t test your endurance. However having a university degree is a good indicator that you do.

In some ways higher education is thus a zero sum game. The higher the educational average gets, the higher education you need to get to stand out. It becomes a costly arms race.

So sadly you can’t skip an education just because it doesn’t offer obviously useful skills. Next time I would like to discuss whether there is an alternative. Can we step out of this educational arms race and focus mainly on needed skills?

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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