“Well, I didn’t do my homework,” J said.
“And why not?” I asked, becoming more frustrated with each passing moment.
“Because I had to work!”
“And what time did your job begin?”
I looked at him puzzled. “So, it takes you two hours to get from school to your house and then to wherever you work?”
Silence filled the room. The eyes of everyone in the room settled on J. He took a deep breath and then carefully spoke.
“I had algebra homework.”
I could hardly believe he had said it. “Algebra homework?” I sputtered. “Are you serious? So, are you telling me that you chose to do Algebra homework instead of English?”
D, one of the loudest students in the class, piped up, “Mr. F, you can’t make us choose which homework we’re going to do!”
“What?” My eyes locked on to him quizzically.
“You can’t tell us that we have to choose which homework is more important. We’re not choosing between classes!”
I was in utter disbelief. “He’s the one that’s choosing!” I motioned toward J. “He is the one that decided that Algebra homework is more important than English homework. I don’t believe you should choose. I believe you should do all of your homework!”
J protested, “But I know how to read!”
As disappointing and sad as it may be, conversations like this one are going on in classrooms around the country. Many students today are uninspired and apathetic. Their desire to learn has been stamped out by a “one-size-fits-all” education system that smothers creativity and places the memorization of information for an ‘exam’ above everything else.
For the students of today, learning isn’t about becoming a better person. It isn’t about growing as a human being in understanding, wisdom and virtue. It isn’t a good in and of itself. For them, learning is always a means to a pragmatic end. You don’t have to spend more than a few minutes in most classrooms before the protests begin:
“Why do I have to read this story?”
“Three pages? Are you kidding? I can’t come up with stuff to write three pages! How about one page? Or half a page?”
“This is a stupid waste of time!”
“When am I ever going to use this?”
When students ask, “When am I ever going to use this?” I’m tempted to parry with, “When are you ever going to use the hours you spent playing video games or watching pointless television shows or stalking people on facebook?” Unfortunately, most students today simply don’t get it. They believe the only reason we go to school is so that we can get a job.
They don’t realize that we learn so we can become wise. We learn so we can make better decisions in every area of life. We learn so we can solve problems (whether we’ve seen similar problems or not). We learn to become more virtuous. Learning’s sole goal is not the finding of a well-paying job. The goal of learning should be to make us better people.
When I think about the generations of people who have gone before me, I find people who devoted themselves to becoming better individuals. There are countless examples throughout history. Get out a book and read about Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Isaac Newton, or any number of others. For instance, by the time Lady Jane Grey (King Henry VII of England’s great-granddaughter) died at age 16, she was well versed in Ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and several contemporary languages. Today, many American students can hardly understand English by the time they’re 16 (and almost none of them can write it).
John Adams once, quite famously, said, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” Unfortunately, John Adams wasn’t quite prescient enough to bring his statement to its full conclusion. So, in closing, I’ll do my best to finish his quote…
“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order that their children might study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain in order to give their children the right to sit on their ever growing rear ends while they waste their lives away in front of a glowing box as everything we’ve ever worked for fades from existence.”
So, when are we ever going to use this?