How will I ever use this later in life? A defense for the purpose of school

by Mr. Sheehy

One of the questions I am asked most often by pessimistic students is how they are going to use something later, or whether they are going to need to know something. I respond in a variety of manners depending on the sincerity of the question, but ultimately, my answer is that how someone uses knowledge depends on his ability to transfer that knowledge to other experiences.

Let’s face the classic examples head on: you have memorized the dates of some event or the last stanza of some poem. How will you use those? You will not, unless you learn to transfer the knowledge. That process, ultimately, is more difficult than the memorization and requires more work from you. It would be easy if somewhere in the future someone gave you another quiz on that date or that poem; but they never will. Once the teacher forces you to take on the knowledge, it is your responsibility to figure out how to use it. Let’s follow a metaphorical example: I as the teacher helped you mine for the precious metal, and I even tried to open your eyes to see what you could do with that metal, but you as the student have to value the metal enough to put it to use in some way.

My juniors are reading Of Mice and Men and my freshmen are reading The Odyssey, and while I believe each student will come across a moment in life where she’ll enjoy knowing the characters and plots of those works, those kinds of moments will only be instances of seeing someone else’s precious metal and correctly identifying it. “Gold!” the student could shout, and while impressive at that particular moment, it certainly does not justify the mining effort. Those moments are not why I teach those books.

How can you use what we learn when we study particular books? By transferring the knowledge and skills from the studying experience to another experience. By taking the metal, the gold, and discovering that you can melt it into an earring. Maybe if you’ve read The Odyssey and truly engaged yourself during class, you will have attuned yourself to the presence of poetic justice in a story. By recognizing its power in The Odyssey, you can appreciate its role in The Lord of the Rings; you can be more satisfied that Frodo, a ‘weak’ hobbit from the Shire, was the one to cast the ring of power into Mt. Doom, destroying the ‘all-powerful’ Lord Sauron. Or you can recognize the downfall of Gollum not just as a freaky battle-scene but as a poetic and fittingly tragic end to a flawed being. That nugget of metal discovered during the study of The Odyssey, that piece of gold, can melt into a different shape and reappear in a totally different story, if you will carry it with you and dare to melt it.

The applications go on and on. By engaging in the themes of Of Mice and Men, my juniors will hopefully do more than remember that George had to shoot his mentally impaired friend in the head. Hopefully they’ll see a movie or read a book that deals with a similar theme – a theme regarding the coldness of the world and the way a person gets cornered into situations where dreams are deferred – and they’ll be able to remember the difficulties of George and Lennie. “Yes,” they can think as they watch Maximus face the world alone in Gladiator, “no one gives a hoot about him either. If he dies, the king will act just like Carlson with the dog and with Lennie. He won’t care.” And having interacted with the theme before, students may do more than recognize it easily; they may appreciate it fully.

My students ask the question, “How will I use this later?” Here’s my answer: ‘If you work hard and intelligently,’ you will use it by transferring and transforming it in other places. If we do not transfer our knowledge, all this education acts as something much less valuable: trivia. And that only helps us with board games.