The Value of Learning

Everywhere I turn, it seems, there is a discussion about what is really wrong with American education and What We Should Do About It. I, like others, think I have an answer.  Let's start by getting rid of the phrase:
I/he/she will never use it.

As in, "What's the point of learning _______ ? I/he/she will never use it!"  That would be for reading literature, learning algebra, dissecting a frog, or any endeavor that is not to someone's liking.  And really, on a day-to-day level, what more do you need than to know your letters, count your change and tie your shoelaces?  Hence, there is no respect for learning and no respect for intelligence.  [I could go off here on the deplorable state of Gifted education, but I won't.]  If you don't value something, why would you want it?  Why would you seek it?  Why would you encourage others to seek it?

We Americans, we're very practical.  My 4th grade son is learning about the western expansion.  It's like we've never gotten passed the 1800s.  Don't take anything ya can't use.  Ya might have to dump it before ya cross the O-hyer Rivah.  [I don't know what accent that is.  It might be Hollywood Westernese.]

Here's what every Korean knows: All knowledge and learning is good.  I'm not even sure they understand it; they just know it's true.  I'm sure it has to do with the Confucian thought brought from China.  I don't know much about it, like The Korean does, except this:  In the olden days, you rose in society by passing the National Civil Service Exam.  Even if you were born in the wrong class, you could be smart and diligent, learn, and take the test.  These tests were going on when Italy hadn't even had their Renaissance.  So, it's an understatement to say this is deeply rooted.  Americans think we can get ahead by being the next American Idol, buying lottery tickets or getting in the NBA.  In fact, when someone is getting a degree in English Literature, the first thing you're likely to hear is, "What is he/she going to do with that??"  or, "What a waste of his/her parents' money!"  But Koreans?  We get ahead by studying.  In fact, no matter what a Korean may think about a person, all you have to do is tell them he/she went to an Ivy League school and said Korean will stop saying anything except "Nnnng" and "Aaaah."  Tell them the person got a degree is Mathematics or Physics?  They'll swoon and want you to marry their son/daughter.

I'm sure there are theses about learning and the brain and all, but this, I know: 
Learning stuff makes your brain stronger.

Would you say to a fullback not to lift weights because he won't use barbells on the field?  Ridiculous, right?  Exercising your body prepares you to run faster, carry more, throw harder.  That's what your body is for: to DO stuff.  Your brain?  It's to THINK stuff.  To KNOW stuff.  Exercising your brain - the weightlifting with drills and memorization, music, poetry, the quadratic equation - primes your brain to think faster, learn more, solve harder problems.   And what if you learned something just for the beauty and appreciation of it?  It doesn't matter whether you're "smart" or not.  It applies to every brain. 

My college had a slogan, something like "We don't teach you how to do something; we teach you to do anything."  I love that.  That's why you learn stuff, not because you're going to use that particular task at your industrial, assembly line job.  With every formula you memorize, and solve, even incorrectly, you learn building block by building block the beginning of how philosophy, beautiful words, colors, animals, the stars -- are created, developed and understood.  You begin to understand not only the wonder and beauty of what you learn, but the very important lesson that THERE IS MORE.  And that maybe, you'll want to learn it.

There's a saying, "When I was young I thought I knew everything.  Now that I am old, I know I know nothing."  Or some such.  It's as important to know something as to know that there's more; that is, that you don't know everything.

We need to accept that learning is to be human, to be the best we can be.  We need to value learning just for what it is.  Our model for education is over a hundred  years old, designed to train our children for their city jobs in the factories of the Industrial Revolution.  Reading Riting Rithmatic.  Changing the system won't help until we change our heart.  Education is about strengthening the brain; that control center of our being:
Not just to do something, but to do anything.
We have to value learning.  Because everything you learn, you will use it.  Just not in the way you think.

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