Would you rather learn about the wonders of budgie ancestry or how to balance a budget?
Put yourself in my position.
It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon outside. I’m in a stuffy, low-ceilinged room. There’s a dog-eared textbook on my desk, open at a geometry revision chapter. Around me, my peers are struggling just as much as I am to work up enough motivation for the tasks in front of them. Pencils are flicked, phones are checked, eyes are rolled. Even our teacher - someone for whom trigonometry is a job description - has a faraway look. Unlike her, I certainly can’t envision using these functions in any future career I undertake. And not for the first time, I ask myself: why do I have to learn stuff at school that I’m never going to use in real life?
Whether or not mathematics is your cup of tea, I’m willing to bet you’ve posed the same question at some point. Be it French, chemistry, English literature or art- most people have studied at least one subject that they find not merely uphill, but seemingly irrelevant to their future plans. Moreover, thanks to vast economic and social changes in recent decades, more people than ever are questioning the usefulness of traditional Western schooling.
After all, there’s plenty of evidence that doing well in school and prospering as an adult aren’t always connected. A quick Google search will reveal countless examples of people who made a huge mark on the world without making high marks in school- mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, physicist Albert Einstein, astronaut John Glenn and Apple founder Steve Jobs among them.
According to philosopher and School of Life founder Alain De Botton, the reverse is also true. “More often than seems entirely reassuring, we come across people who triumphed at school, but flunked at life.” What’s more, he suggests, this shouldn’t surprise us: “School curricula are not reverse-engineered from fulfilled adult lives,” he says. “Rather, they’ve been influenced by all kinds of slightly random forces over centuries […] by, among other things, the curricula of medieval monasteries, the ideas of some 19th century German educationalists, and the concerns of aristocratic court societies.” Put in that context, it’s little wonder many people feel that the system is overdue a redesign; one which could, say, better prepare pupils for the challenges of modern adult life.
Why, its critics ask, do schools take for granted that acquainting teenagers with Shakespeare and the periodic table is more important than helping them acquire skills that will have direct use in almost any future path they choose? Classes dealing with personal finance, say, or creative problem-solving. Mindfulness, coding, ecology, philanthropy or the art of conversation: the possibilities are endless. Put simply, perhaps education should focus less on what you can know, but more holistically on the person you can become.
Yet some experts are wary of such arguments. After all, to paraphrase the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, the craving for (apparently useless) knowledge is as natural to humans as the craving for food and shelter. If school courses were altered to prioritise life skills, there might not be sufficient room left for the bizarre, beautiful, astonishing or otherwise enriching “pointless” knowledge which school is uniquely suited to help us explore.
In support of this idea, former Oxford University Chancellor Andrew Hamilton cites research by his university’s Department of Earth Sciences which concluded that out of 426 dinosaur species studied, those with low body mass had the best chance of survival. Accordingly, they became birds and thus did survive. “Now,” he says, “unless you are a budgerigar wishing to trace your family tree, that information is of precisely zero value. But it’s brilliant research, and somehow I feel better just for knowing it.”
What do you think? Should learning help us develop our practical skills, or should it allow us to expand our knowledge far beyond the demands of daily life? Regardless of which view you take, it’s worth thinking about the areas of your school life that feel challenging or uninspiring, and considering whether to invest some time working with a tutor, who might just be able to help.
Whether you treasure knowledge for its own sake or you itch instead to prepare yourself for the world beyond school, working one-to-one with someone who can support you in areas you find challenging can be a great way to achieve your goals- whether those involve starting the next Apple, becoming a premier league footballer or a world class academic.
De Botton, A. [TheSchoolofLife]. (16th July 2016). “Success at School Vs. Success in Life.” Youtube [online] [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Egxm5QuW9o&t=86s] [accessed 09/08/2019]
Massie, A. “Study for its own sake can lead down a glorious path- it’s never useless.” (9th October 2014) The Daily Telegraph [online],