You Better Have an Answer…

I’m fired up right now.  Every now and then, the educational gurus on Twitter post statements that are detached from reality, throw blame (and guilt) at teachers, and offer an over-simplistic solution to a complicated issue.

This morning, a well-meaning educator reposted a statement from a conference they are attending.  They wrote:

If a student asks, “When am I ever going to use this?” we better have a legitimate answer.

On the surface, this is a wonderful statement.  Shouldn’t every activity we do in school have a legitimate purpose for and direct impact on our lives?

There is a problem that exists here, which is that we use this reasoning to punish teachers and to falsely enable students.  Punish teachers?  Oh, yes.  These statements are of hidden as “statements of encouragement,” but in reality are meant to move those “stubborn” teachers off their mark.

Back to the idea of having a legitimate reason/use for learning anything, we have all seen the statement about, “Why I teach music” (nod to Katie Wardrobe at who created this graphic):

Why I teach music

What do we do if a student says that they don’t care about being human, recognizing beauty, being closer to an infinite, having something to cling to, having more love, having more compassion, having more gentleness, or having more good?  Or that they can learn these things elsewhere? (reality check: they can–in lots of places).

I have to admit: this strikes close to home.  I have three school age students, and my oldest is failing classes with the reasoning, “When am I ever going to use this?”  We have empowered students to think that if something they are doing does not have a direct impact on their future lives, they shouldn’t have to learn it.  Adding to this, every adolescent knows everything (so did I, and so did you), and it doesn’t matter if you talk about the value of learning how to think, how to approach problems, or how to handle situations in life where you have to do something you don’t want to do.  Logic from my oldest: “That is AWFUL.  Why would I do something I don’t want to do as an adult?

I hated changing diapers.  I still had to do it.  There are lots of things that fall into this category for me…even going to school some days!  If I stop doing them…we’ll be on the streets as a family with no roof over our heads, no food, and no possessions.

This style of thinking also creates a false form of logic that says that only my happiness is important.  In terms of philosophy and religion, this is called hedonism.  At some point, this form of reasoning becomes hurtful to others, as we put ourselves and our own pursuit of pleasure above all else.

I don’t know about you, but I find my greatest meaning in life when I am doing things to help others.  Truthfully, that is one of the reasons why I write this blog and the other vocational (profession related but not a part of my paid job) tasks that I pursue on my free time.

As students are empowered to only do tasks that matter to their interests, it is any wonder that business owners talk about how hard it is to find workers with strong work ethics these days?

A good percentage of parents believe this way of thinking, too.  They don’t think their students should have to learn anything that they don’t want to, or that they shouldn’t have to learn anything that doesn’t have a direct impact on their future lives.

I don’t know about you, but I learned all kinds of things that have had no direct impact on my life today…but I don’t mind that I learned them.  I was forced into honors classes in high school (I tried to register for “standard” classes, but school counselors wouldn’t let me) and I learned plenty of things that I have never used in my adult life.

This thinking also strikes close to home in my profession where 50% of my students are forced into my class having to take a music class.  It doesn’t matter if I try to give them broad experiences in music beyond singing (ukulele, GarageBand) or even make the case that I want them to be able to sing in public (church, karaoke) or private (lullabies) at any point in the future with confidence and accuracy to pitch and rhythm.

With all sincerity, I can’t look at a student and say that their life will be a failure if they can’t sing a note, sight read (talk about an important skill in music that has limited impact outside of music making), or play chords on a ukulele.  I can’t say that they will use any of those topics as an adult.  I can tell you the benefits of all of them–but I can’t promise that you will use them as an adult.

I think a more reasoned approach is to make sure that we talk to our students about learning and how ALL learning molds us and shapes us, even if specific tasks are never used in adulthood.  Teachers used to talk about this all the time.  Parents (generally) held their kids accountable to behave decently and to make an effort to learn things.  And students (generally) respected the role of the teacher and tried to learn.  Sure…there were exceptions.  And the majority of teachers aren’t “super teachers” (there is another myth that every teacher has to be a super teacher).  Most teachers loved the subjects they are teaching, and wanted to invest in the next generations of humanity, so that those students could be human, recognize beauty, be closer to an infinite, have something to cling to, have more love, have more compassion, have more gentleness, and have more good.

Regardless of your political stance–the world desperately needs these things–which was true even before the most recent presidential election in the United States.

Please…be careful with those words of sage advice on Twitter.


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