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Why Should I Learn That?

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If you’re a teacher or a parent you’ve likely heard this question before. Perhaps quite often! “Why should I

that?” I’ve been thinking a lot about how to answer that question. But, it occurs to me that it is also important to look at what is motivating the student to ask the question in the first place. Sometimes, it is a genuine curiosity about why this particular subject is being taught. At other times I think it indicates a lack of interest in the subject which might be due to the manner in which it is being taught. I’ve concluded that in some cases students simply find my presentation of the subject boring and unengaging. But, in any case the question deserves a serious thoughtful answer.

It should go without saying that one of the worst answers to the question is: Because it will be on the exam. If this is the best justification you can provide for learning any subject then that subject is no longer worth learning. It is simply insufficient to say that the main reason we need to learn anything is so that we can pass an exam.

It is also insufficient to say that we need to learn something because it has always been taught in the past. Or because it will help you pass a class and get a degree. These are all empty vacuous answers.

I think the only sufficient answer to the “Why Should I Learn That?” question is one which shows the importance of learning that subject in and of itself. The answer should also illustrate what skills you could expect to master by learning the subject and what you might do with them.

Often students will ask the question in a slightly different way: Why is this relevant? Educators and parents are then tempted to show the relevance of the subject to the student’s immediate concerns. The problem with this approach is that it can lead to a dismissal of a subject which might be worth learning for other reasons.

Some subjects which don’t seem immediately relevant are still worth learning because they may be useful at some point in the future. In cases where we can’t answer the “relevance” question with immediate examples we need an answer that shows the importance of the subject because of the usefulness of the skills it teaches and the likely future relevance.

The simple fact about relevance that is often overlooked is that we can’t fully know now what might be relevant in our future. How could I have known in high school that I would end up teaching philosophy online? My interest then was in studying medical technology and there was no internet. So, any study of philosophy, history, or computers might have seemed irrelevant to me at the time.

So, learn as much as you can even if it seems irrelevant. Perhaps especially if it seems irrelevant. You never know how important that knowledge might be.

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