WHEN am I EVER going to use this?

Dear High School students,

What’s the point of all these ridiculous assignments your teachers keep piling on? THIS.

I’ve had many years worth of conversations with students–as a teacher and as a youth minister–about their schoolwork; usually about how hard it is. And that’s fine. We all take tough courses. Lord knows I took my share.

The recurring theme I’ve noticed through many of those conversations goes something like this: after they bemoan and rant about what an ogre their teacher is and exclaim that not even Einstein himself could pull a D in this class, eventually the student in question will utter words to the effect of “I mean, WHEN am I EVER going to use this?” This is usually the exclamation point in their airtight case as to why they should be absolved of said difficult coursework. At least this gives them right to complain about it. And I confess, I was like this too. I even chuckled at the Twitter post that said “I never learned how to open a checking account, how credit cards work, or buy a house, but thank God I can graph a polynomial function.” Hilarious.

But the attitude, if not the wit, catches my ear, and doesn’t sit well with me. Allow me to humbly offer a suggestion to you (mostly high school) students. There is the distinct possibility that there is more going on than what you can see or even perceive.

Let me suggest that the difficult courses in high school, particularly the higher sciences and maths, have at least two main purposes, not one. The first is to teach you the skills of the discipline. The second–and this bit is lost on 99% of high school students–-is to teach your brain how to intake, handle, work with, manipulate and process certain kinds of information. It’s giving those particular areas of your brain a workout. Said another way, the classes in high school are a bit about the material, but more about how to process the material; how to flex your brain muscles. The material is the weight.

Your brain will likewise get a workout from volleyball, theatre, art, and music. And like real muscles, you use it or you lose it. The classes which are the most difficult are working out the parts of your brain that are the weakest, hence the difficulty. The Information Processing to Disciplinary-Specific Skill ratio is about 70/30 in high school, give or take. The ratio flips to about 30/70 in college, the theory being that by the time you get to calculus in college, your brain is relatively adept at organizing and processing the data, so you get to do the fun stuff in the lab. In grad school, the ratio is 5/95, and you get to do your experiments on live humans.

So no, it’s not likely that you’ll ever need to use 9.8 m/s per second (physics) or need to figure the surface area of curved object (calculus). But I guarantee you’re going to need to know and maneuver how objects move through space when you’re traveling 70 mph and a flatbed trailer full of sewer pipes unleashes its fury toward you, all going different trajectories and speeds, heading toward the surface area of your face. You’ll be thankful that part of your brain has been tested. And you may never need to balance another chemistry equation as long as you live. But you better know that if you spill Clorox on ammonia, you just made mustard gas, so you’d better vacate the area, and pronto. And you may never actually perform MacBeth. But I guarantee one day your wife will appreciate the time you spent writing her a sonnet on your anniversary. Are you starting to get the picture? If you are blessed with teachers who love you enough to bust your tail, then honor the brains you’ve been given and learn. When you look back, you won’t remember the easy teachers and the blowoff classes. You’ll remember the ones that put you through the grinder. But more than that, learn HOW to learn. That’s a skill you’ll use all your life.

But there’s a bigger, more troubling issue here. It’s the attitude that says, “If I can’t perceive the immediate value of a thing, than that thing is not worth my time, effort, and energy.” The implications of such a philosophy are scary and dehumanizing if taken to the extreme. If that philosophy takes over how you navigate life, you will be in for a ruinous and empty existence, because you will judge and perceive things only as to how they have immediate value to you. Such a person is a self-absorbed manipulative narcissist, and that’s a best case scenario.

This world is not about you, nor should be your education. There are so many things in this world that you will never know until you take a step of faith. What if God is asking you to learn something without knowing why you need to learn it? What if he’s got plans for your knowledge about which you know nothing? And what if the test for whether not you can handle the big plans down the road is whether or not you can handle the small tasks now? Even Jesus said, “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. (John 7:17 NIV). Meaning, you have to choose to do the will first before God will give you any insight as to the person Jesus. It’s not Seeing is Believing. It’s Believing is Seeing.

The answer to this, of course, is to learn things and learn how to learn things that have as much or more value to others than they have to you. This is how you live out the philosophy and theology of Jesus in the classroom. You learn things, not so that they will benefit you immediately, but so that they may benefit others over the course of your life, and possibly benefit humanity long after your life. However good your knowledge is, if it ends with you, it is wasted, and worse, selfish. The classroom is vital, but it was never designed to be the destination. The first step in sorting out coursework, or any progress for that matter, is to figure out the difference between the goal and the tool to get to the goal. The tool is not the goal. The tool is the tool. Learn to turn the data into the experience of serving and blessing others, and you will discover a whole new world of learning and knowledge.

So how do you do that?

Aye. Now your thinking.

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