Are the skills we learn at school useful in the adult world?

21st March 2016

I was recently intrigued by a letter to a national newspaper in which a parent asked why we learn the things we do in school? She was of the opinion that it would be far more useful if we learned subjects and practices that would have a more direct bearing on being able to live our lives as functioning adults, than worry ourselves with such non-essentials as Trigonometry or Literary Criticism.

It is not difficult to understand the point that she is trying to make. After all, I think it is fair to assume that, especially in the modern age of calculators and the internet, on a day to day basis, most of us use minimal maths, virtually no science, and rarely care, when reading, to pinpoint the evidences of onomatopoeia.

So why not teach children maths only in regard to the situations that are likely to arise in which they might need to employ it? Such as: counting change; working out the amount of national insurance and income tax that they will pay; and helping them grasp the cost of living? In many ways, I suppose this is home-economics: just not of the fake-baby, egg-poaching kind that I remember doing myself, and which I have to say, didn’t leave me with much enthusiasm for adult life.  Honestly, as a twenty-three year old who still lives at home, and other than University, always has, how much do I really know about being a ‘grown-up’? About budgeting, economising and ‘making it on my own?’ The answer: approximately…diddly squat!

Would I, then, have found school more interesting if it had been more relevant to the life that I am going to lead? Do I now lament that I understand Pythagoras when I could have used the same brain-power to accomplish a full-awareness of local area rent-rates, or even, god forbid, exactly how much I’ll need to be making before I can move out? I’ve got to be honest: not really.

And what about the other things we learn in school? Do I regret knowing what Juxtaposition and Oxymorons are? How to analyse Keats and Browning; or even having being forced to read a book as utterly soul-destroying as Lord of the Flies. The honest answer is no. I don’t, and I think that perhaps that is the point that this understandably disgruntled parent, however fair her comment may have been, has missed from her analysis of education today.

The truth is that some of us –not all of us but some of us- actually like learning. And I am one-such geek. I could jump with glee when I understand a literary reference; when I get an answer right on University Challenge; and, especially, when I know something that my parents don’t.  In fact, at any given opportunity I am learning, and it is the stuff that I know, whether or not I use it each day of my life that makes me who I am. And is this not true for all of us?

Just as the Greeks had Paideia, there is a certain level to which our learning these things is necessary in order to function as an adult, not just looking at the practical sense of adult life, but also the intellectual, social, developmental one, where we retain a positive attitude to learning frivolous things, because they might just end up being kind of important.
And so bring on the boredom and seemingly irrelevant equations, methods and language tools. Because without them, for one thing, I wouldn’t have been able to write this article.

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