Why Learn Anything?

Katy BurkeUncategorized

The making of a galactic parallelogram, NASA/JPL-Caltech

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I’ve been teaching English-ish classes for eighteen years…and that statement pretty much sums up the sort of English teacher I am: the type who gets a kick out of adding the suffix “ish” to a word that already ends in “ish,” not the type who corrects your grammar at dinner parties. That’s also probably why I had such a hard time explaining to a room full of thirty kids why they all needed to take English 11. I study language and stories because they’re wonderful. If you don’t think so, a) I don’t know what to tell you, b) I don’t even understand you.

But I had to tell them something. Year after year, come September, dozens of discontented, sweaty teens would flood my classroom wondering why they had to be there. In the beginning, when I was bright-eyed and one foot in my twenties, I convinced myself that they needed my class. They needed it because English is fundamentally about proper thinking and communication. “Even if you enter an IT field, you still need to know how to write a professional email.” This is the stock rationale I gave for many years. It made sense until we began reading Dickens, Salinger, and Fitzgerald. That’s when I’d lose the techies.

Eventually, I stopped giving any rationale at all, and by the time I left public education, I realized that no one can or should be pressured to learn something in which they see no purpose. At its best, learning is exhilarating; at its worst, frustrating and challenging, but it should not be pointless. For this reason primarily, I resigned from public education several years ago—I had been witness to the gradual erasure of its substance. During that time, I discovered Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC), where I’ve since been teaching classes on writing, story analysis, film analysis, the art of conversation, and more. Kids at PLC choose what they study based on their sincere interests, where they find purpose. I was relieved to discover a place where one’s talents and passions were given more attention than their deficits. My first impression of this approach was that there is great utility in it. Shouldn’t a teen passionate about filmmaking get straight to making films rather than labor over quadratic functions? Must an aspiring auto mechanic study Macbeth before getting his hands in an engine? Sensible folks can plainly see the answers are “yes” and “no.”

I welcome common sense in education, in kids prioritizing what works for them and seeing where that leads. Still, my understanding of the purpose of education has evolved further. “Where learning leads” is secondary to what is learned. If someone asked me today, “Why should I study stories or language?” I’d say, “Because they’re wonderful, and if you can’t see that, it’s worth finding out!” I could say that about many subjects, even math, which bored me to bitterness until I discovered that music is math that moves. Wow.   …I’m not suggesting we conform to rigid or conventional standards nor that we leave realism behind. It’s true; education is training, and there is great utility in it. Taking an English class really can help you write good emails, which frankly, can be the difference between employment and unemployment. But, as this English-ish teacher has rediscovered, learning is not merely a means to an end. The inherent value in what one learns is the point: the music in math, the symmetry in stories. If learning is imposed rather than roused, we miss this point and may even come to resent education altogether.

The prevailing complaint of our current education system is that it’s antiquated and impractical. An amusing meme expresses this view perfectly: “I’m glad I learned about parallelograms instead of how to do taxes. It really comes in handy this parallelogram season.” I still chuckle when I read this, and I wholeheartedly agree kids need more personal finance education, but I think this criticism is off-course. During my twenty-six years in public education (thirteen as a student, thirteen as a teacher), efficacy and efficiency increasingly became the priorities. I’ve seen piles of books (some new and barely used) thrown away and curricula rewritten on a yearly basis, while tests and rubric-measured evaluations swallowed class time bite by bite. It is not the overvaluation of content but its devaluation in favor of testable “practical” skills that has stripped education of its worth. We don’t need less content and more utility; we need less cynicism and more meaning. When we sell education as a means to industry, of course students will be disenchanted by a geometry lesson on the differentiation of shapes. But if we let learning speak for itself and unveil geometry as the art of interpreting shapes by which we better understand astronomy, the study of shapes in motion, suddenly parallelograms aren’t so dull.

This coming from an English teacher.

[Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]