Why Do We Have to Know All This Stuff?

by Peter Goertzen


“Why do we have to know all this stuff?”

Sure, sometimes students are just grasping for a reason not to care about their homework, but it’s actually a good question that deserves a thoughtful response. I briefly addressed this issue in a previous post here and now I’ll expand on those thoughts.

First of all, the Bible heartily endorses knowledge but takes a dim view of ignorance. Several passages in the book of Proverbs are explicit on these points. Knowledge is said to be more valuable than wealth (Proverbs 8:10—you could maybe print this verse on your tuition invoices), and a multiplier of strength (Proverbs 24:5). The gathering of knowledge is a sign of wisdom (Proverbs 10:14, Proverbs 18:15), while those who hate knowledge are called fools (Proverbs 1:22).

Secondly, school is like weightlifting. People don’t lift weights because they often encounter barbells that they must lift in the course of their daily activities. People lift weights to grow stronger, enabling them to do things they could not otherwise do. Similarly, many of our learning exercises in school are important not for their own sakes, but for developing abilities that will later be applied to diverse situations. In the grown-up world, nobody’s days are peppered with biology quizzes to study for and vocabulary words to learn. Nobody’s boss starts the workday by saying, “Today I need you to diagram a bunch of sentences, copy this week’s spelling list, and solve some algebra problems. If there’s time in the afternoon you can work on your book report.” But the skills and understanding that we develop at school through such activities powerfully assist us in the business of life.

And we must not be presumptuous about what that business will consist of, or what knowledge we will need. In some ways, my own life since high school has been pretty much what I might have expected, but much has been unforeseen and unforeseeable. I figured I’d get a job after graduation, but I couldn’t have guessed that I’d make airplane parts out of sheet metal. Besides basic arithmetic, this work required a thorough understanding of decimals, fractions, positive and negative numbers, and the x- and y-axes of the Cartesian coordinate system. I hoped to have a family, but I didn’t plan on facing decisions about treatment for my children’s asthma and allergies. My high school biology and chemistry classes gave me a good base from which to make these decisions. A well-rounded education equips us for life’s surprises.

These utilitarian considerations are only the beginning. While most of us could live comfortably with only the most rudimentary schooling and the technical know-how needed to earn our livings, a rich store of knowledge helps us live productively in ways not easily measured with the yardstick of material well-being. Exploring nature and the deeds, experiences, thoughts, and feelings of humanity across time and space broadens and deepens our understanding of our world, ourselves, and our neighbors. It prepares us to analyze information and evaluate new ideas. It helps us make sense of our lives and live with eyes open instead of shut.

Christians should be especially aware of the value of academic skills and knowledge beyond the narrowly practical—they have opportunities to benefit from them every time they read the Bible. While its essence is comprehensible to anyone with basic literacy, the Bible is a complex, sophisticated body of literature from distant times and places, and a firm grounding in grammar, the study of literature, and history are tremendously helpful to the Bible reader. Want to follow Paul’s thinking through one of those really long sentences? That’s what sentence diagraming is for. Want a better understanding of books like Job and Ecclesiastes? Become a skillful reader of poetry and philosophy. Wonder why Jonah was so opposed to preaching in Nineveh? Recall what the Assyrians were like.

Sometimes our skeptical students have a point, and we need to rethink our curriculum. Every year I teach US history, for example, I tighten my scope a little bit more, trimming trivialities to allow for more thorough treatment of important topics. High school students don’t need a battle-by-battle narrative of the Civil War. A brief account of its broad outlines is sufficient, and frees up time for the more significant matters of the war’s causes and consequences. If you find yourself struggling to explain the value of an item of study, even upon later reflection, maybe you shouldn’t bother with it the next time.

By no means have I given a comprehensive set of answers to the question at hand. Share your own answers, or ask about how to respond in specific situations, in this thread on the forums.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Peter Goertzen

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