Education: The Learning of Skills We Will Never Need?

By Tom Magliozzi

This Rant and Rave originally aired as commentary on NPR's All Things Considered on April 4, 2001.

Hear the commentary. (click and scroll down to "Algebra")

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It was "back to school" night at my son's school--when parents get to spend 15 minutes in each of their kids' classes while "teach" describes what the course is all about. Despite a growing sense of despair, I sat there quietly in my son's math class. On the board was the following description:

 

"Calculus is the collection of techniques that allow us to determine the slope of any curve and the area under that curve."

 

And all of my being wanted to cry out: "So who gives a rat's patootie!?"

This was the simple event that provoked what I think is an epiphany of sorts. There I was, sitting in my son's math class, when it occurred to me that I had hardly ever had occasion to use any of the math I had learned in high school.

Furthermore, I had NEVER had occasion to use the higher mathematics that the high school math had prepared me for. NEVER! (My son is now in college majoring in government and politics. The likelihood of his ever needing or wanting to determine the slope of a curve or the area under it is virtually zero. Have you had occasion to use this knowledge lately?)

Why did I--and millions of other students--spend valuable educational hours learning something we would never use?

Is this education? The learning of skills we will never need?

Later, as I thought about my "epiphany event," I concluded that I had been wrong. It wasn't true that I had hardly ever had occasion to use the math I had learned in school. I HAD indeed used that math: I had used it as preparation for all the other math courses I had taken. But I had never used that math for any useful purpose either! (And I went to M.I.T. I was educated to be an engineer and I worked as an engineer for many years. Even at that, I hardly ever had a need for these math courses. What about all those people who majored in art history? Or accounting? Or just about anything else? Why had they all been subjected to "calculus . . . the collection of techniques, blah, blah, blah . . . "?

So here's my conclusion.

The purpose of learning math, which most of us will never use, is only to prepare us for further math courses . . . which we will use even less frequently than never.

The answer I would probably get from math instructors is this: "You may never need it, but it teaches you to think."

You mean to tell me that there aren't enough useful subjects that could be used to teach me to think?

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I ended up with these thoughts:

Education ought, first, to help us understand the world we live in. As much of it as possible, including flora, fauna, cultures, governments, religions, things (buildings, sewer systems--you know . . . "things").

Then it ought to help us to cope with that world. And in the process it ought to help us become good, kind, empathetic people.

Education should be preparation for life, not preparation for more school!

Tom Magliozzi was a college professor for more than 30 years. With his brother, Ray, he is cohost of NPR's Car Talk. These and other thoughts on education are in their book In Our Humble Opinion.