Why Do We Have to Learn This?

posted June 22, 2011

It’s time for a little test. I want you to think back to the last time you solved a quadratic equation using the quadratic formula. Take your time, and continue reading once you’re done.

So, when was it and why did you need to do it? Is the quadratic formula an essential part of your life? If so, are you a rocket scientist, engineer, or statistician?

I love math. I’m very partial to all things mathematical, but I have no trouble saying that there is absolutely no reason to learn the quadratic formula in high school. I have even less trouble saying that your ability to use the quadratic formula as a teenager should not partially determine your future options. Yet this is exactly the case for American high school students. And while our students are generally struggling to demonstrate knowledge of mathematics, they demonstrate great achievement in the field of knowing that this shit is useless. And they’re absolutely right. Let’s take a look at some of the causes for this disillusionment, how it impacts our students and society, and what we can be doing to correct the issue of student disinterest in the high school math classroom.

Why are we learning this?

I know an absolutely fantastic math teacher named Leo. On the wall in his classroom is a poster (from some school supply company) with a a picture of an angry teacher and the title “10 Questions Teachers Hate.” One of those questions is “why do we have to do this?” The fact that such a phrase is ubiquitous enough in the classroom to make it onto this poster is a good indication that students fail to see the inherent value in what they are doing and feel that their time is being misappropriated. Of course, we need look no further than the exercise at the beginning of this article to see that the question has merit. “Why do we have to learn the quadratic formula when it is quite literally meaningless to do so?” would be the Extended Director’s Cut of that question, and “because it’s useful” is obviously bullshit.

So why do we have to do this? The “official” answer to this question has changed over the course of history as the perceived function of the American educational institution has mutated. While education in America was originally a means of socialization, the view that education is a matter of civil responsibility gained traction (largely through the efforts of enslaved or, later, pseudo-enslaved African-American population, which typically held progressive views of the significance of education) until the age of Ford, when the need for workers began to outweigh the need for citizens. So the answer has changed from “because proper gentlemen must,” to “because this is how we assert our freedom as citizens,” to “because you’ll need it for a job.” The current state of affairs is even more confusing, because while we don’t actually need to know the quadratic formula for most jobs, we pretend as if we do. Thus, the current “official” answer is this: “you have to do this not because it will help make you a better citizen and not because you’ll ever actually need this information. It’s useless bullshit, but your ability to learn and use the quadratic formula in spite of its overwhelming uselessness and irrelevance will demonstrate that you are a winner, so you’ll be given more opportunities for college, money, and power as a reward.”

And that, kids, is why you have to fucking do this.

This isn’t working

The problem with providing such a contrived justification for learning math is that it will clearly never work. Think of “learning math (like the quadratic formula)” as the labor and the whole “job, money, college, power” payoff as the “product.” The current labor-product relationship suffers from a few fundamental flaws: 1) The labor is not directly responsible for the existence of the product 2) The labor is not necessarily responsible for the existence of the product 3) The labor and product exist in distinct and unrelated domains

And in greater detail…

          1) The labor is not directly responsible for the existence of the product

The road between “learning the quadratic formula” and “job money power etc.” is a long and winding one. You learn the formula, demonstrate the knowledge on a series of tests, some authority (a teacher, or the state/testing service for standardized tests) grades those tests, other people see those scores and those people then give you the product. The labor is so far removed from the product that to use the product to justify the labor is absurd.

      2)   The labor is not  necessarily responsible for the existence of the product

Would money, power, college, and jobs exist even if you didn’t learn the quadratic formula? They sure would, and there are other ways to get them.

      3)   The labor and product exist in distinct and unrelated domains    

This is the real issue. There is literally no natural connection between the labor and the product. The connection between the two is entirely arbitrary, and thus entirely unjustifiable. Relating mathematical fact to career prospects doesn’t make sense because it can’t fucking make sense.

I’ve been a high school teacher for two years, and I have a rule that all classroom policies exist to organically serve a need. Why can’t we chew gum in class? “Because gum ends up in the carpet.” Why do we have assigned seating? “So I can mix skill levels and separate disruptive groups as needed. It also helps when I’m learning names.” Why don’t we get any points for the homework assignments? “Because you can use homework as notes on quizzes, so if you do the homework and correct it as instructed, your grade will organically improve.”

Nothing in my classroom happens “just because,” yet that is exactly the justification we give for teaching any fucking thing at all. Learn the quadratic fucking formula just be-fucking-cause. If you do, we might reward you with something completely unrelated to mathematics.

Changing the tune

We are thus faced with three choices: change what we teach, change why we teach, or change both. If we agree that the goal of education is jobs, money, and power, then let’s at least have a curriculum that matches that mindset. If we admit that education is one big game, then lets teach the fucking game.

But my guess is that you think education is more important than that. My guess is that you know that education is, above all else, a process which should result in open-minded critical thinkers who can process input, generate a rational response, and clearly communicate their opinions. My guess is that you know that education is the best safeguard against tyranny. If we want our educational institution to match that message, then we need to shift away from focusing on meaningless skills. Facts are forgotten because they were never any use to us anyways. I tell my students that if they come back to see me and forget how to factor a quadratic that I won’t be offended, but that I’ll cry if they don’t know how to work backwards to solve a problem, analyze a statement for logical inconsistencies, or describe how two different ideas are related to each other. Facts don’t matter. The time we spend teaching facts could be used to get students involved in their communities to see what is actually needed of them. It can be spent perfecting the art of analysis, synthesis, and communication. It can be used to help build skills like pattern finding so they can see why some ideas work and some don’t, logic so they can tell when they are being bullshitted, and management/cooperation so they can work with other people to solve actual problems.

After all, if our students are smart enough to know that they’re being lied to by the educational system, then they’re smart enough to learn how to get shit done. We need to stop saying “just because” and give our students an education that speaks for itself, no questions asked.