What’s the Use?

March 17, 2008

I am often faced with the following question from students: “Why do I need to learn this, if it’s not related to what I need for my career or not important for my life?”

I never understood where this question comes from nor did I grasp the question sufficiently well to be able to offer an adequate or convincing response. Mostly my responses were specific to the question asked, such as, “This topic is really important because so many dollars and this many people are impacted by what happens with these ideas that we just learnt today”. But recently, the penny dropped and I think I have found a more general reply to this question. Its summed up in two words – “everything’s connected”. With this perspective, it becomes clear that everything is relevant.

And indeed it is. Taking too narrow a view of education can be very costly.

  1. Should not men learn about motherhood? Will it not make them better fathers?
  2. Should not social scientists be aware of the main results in the hard sciences? And the other way around?
  3. Should not the rich understand the poor? Can they really? If they did take a few steps towards this, the world might be a much better place. More than other things, being rich is not assured forever (though it may seem so to us lesser endowed folks). Learning what it is like to be poor might just come in handy when the good going stops.
  4. Should not the physically able learn about the handicapped? And they do. There are often occasions when we temporarily injure a limb or small appendage, and quickly realize how great the inconvenience is. Even though we never expect to experience a permanent handicap, sometimes it serves us well to experience the disability temporarily in order to empathize with the less able.
  5. Should not a poet learn some mathematics? Is there not poetry in mathematics? I know of no mathematician who would disagree. There is certainly mathematics in poetry, the notion of meter, rhythm and rhyme is intensely mathematical. Everything’s connected.

So, even when you never expect to experience something, for example, childbirth for men, that alone is not a sufficient reason to say that one does not need to learn about it. This I think, is abundantly clear, even in this analogy.

The chain of wisdom follows quite naturally.

  • Realizing that everything is connected means that nothing is irrelevant.
  • Knowing that nothing is irrelevant lends purpose to learning.
  • Motivated learning leads to deep understanding.
  • Profound understanding begets the wisdom of the ages.

Being curious in a purposeless manner leads to great wisdom.