It’s only a matter of time. Maybe it will happen in the middle of another futile attempt to explain the difference between direct and indirect objects. Maybe it will happen while pointing out that no, alliterations are not the same as allusions, neither of which are related to allegories or analogies, oh and by the way, none of those have to do with archetypes or antagonists, and who on earth named all these literary terms anyway?
Sooner or later, that inevitable spirit of mutiny will sweep through the room. It will take just one brave student to voice the question. The one that’s been eating at everyone since roughly fourth grade. The one that, once raised, will instantly unite an army of disgruntled teenagers in one accord, echoing the words like a medieval battle cry: “When will we ever use any of this stuff?”
It’s the teacher’s great nemesis. Dreaded. Loathed. Feared. The proverbial arrow to the heel of our Achillean instruction.
And it just so happens to be a great question.
The kids in my high school English classes are practical human beings. Many of them already have part-time jobs. Some of them are building side hustles. They’re thinking about the future. They’re striving toward financial independence. And they’re perfectly justified in wanting to know what the long-term payoff might be for these minute details they’re being forced to learn each day in school.
Time is a limited commodity, even at seventeen. Which means that the skeptic’s question is a perfectly sensible one. It’s not about rebellion or resistance. It’s about responsibility. The hours pile up quickly in the rearview mirror, and nobody wants to have spent them running around in circles that don’t ultimately get them anywhere. It’s an honest question deserving an honest response.
When will they ever use this stuff? Probably never. Most of my students will end up being nurses or programmers or real estate agents or mechanics or beauticians, and it’s highly unlikely that a coworker will frantically run up to any of them on a random Thursday afternoon and demand that they correctly recite the rules of when to use a semicolon and when to use a comma.
And yet before they gather their belongings and walk out of the classroom, I like to tell my students a little story about an ambitious youngster who wants to make the football team. He has some quickness, and he can catch the ball rather consistently. But there’s one big problem. He happens to be scrawny as a twig.
So what does he do? He does what any driven, aspiring young football player would do. He hits the gym. Squats. Push-ups. Bicep curls. Deadlifts. Day by day, he begins to pack muscle onto his diminutive frame. And over time, the kid gets strong. Broad shoulders. Stout legs. He’s looking less twig-like and more trunk-like.
And guess what. The work pays off. He makes the team. Starting tight end.
When the first game rolls around, it’s his number that gets called on a crucial third and six with the team trailing by a touchdown. The quarterback drops back to pass, he fires the ball over the middle, and this newly muscled young man extends his arms to make the catch. Meanwhile, an angry defender is closing in on him quickly, eager to cause significant bodily harm and (hopefully) jar the ball loose.
Now here’s the vital question. At this precise moment, do any of the hours spent lifting weights in the gym really matter? Is he actually going to use any of that relatively boring, monotonous work that he spent so much time doing?
In one sense, no. Nobody will be stopping the game to trot onto the field with oversized barbells to see how much weight he can curl. Nobody will escort him to the nearest squat rack to have him bang out a few reps. Strictly speaking, in this on-field situation, he’s not going to use any of the exercises he performed over and over again in the gym.
And yet, that’s not really the whole story, is it? What kind of grip will his hands have on the ball? How will his body respond when the linebacker lunges into him? How far will his legs be able to carry him before he stumbles to the turf? These questions have already been answered by the months of training to which he has repeatedly submitted himself.
If the young man is able to catch the ball, spin away from the 235-pound linebacker, and power ahead for the first down, it will be the result of countless lifting motions in the gym, none of which he’ll replicate on the field. But he doesn’t need to replicate them in order for them to be useful. All those squats and curls and crunches have transformed him into the sort of person who can respond to the physical demands of the moment. And as that football hits his hands, that is exactly what he does.
Do you see where this story is going?
Learning grammar rules (or math equations, or biology terms, or historical dates) may not be directly applicable to many of the careers that today’s students will eventually pursue. But in learning all of these things day after day, maybe their mental muscles will be stretched and strengthened in ways that will prepare them to excel in their various fields. Perhaps the intellectual discipline of structured education will empower them to be the sort of people who can communicate with others, solve an unexpected problem, learn a new skill, apply their creativity, and adapt to change. They don’t have to use the things they’re learning in order for their learning to pay off. Even if they forget a vast majority of the details (and they probably will) the long-term personal transformation of learning those details will almost certainly remain.
This is a lesson that every student would do well to learn. But its relevance extends far beyond the classroom.
Regardless of our age or field, the vast majority of us will spend large portions of our lives doing things that are not immediately beneficial to our professional or financial success. Things like washing dishes. Feeding children. Paying bills. Sitting in traffic. Studying philosophy. (Or was that just me?)
As efficiency-obsessed Americans, this might drive us crazy. But it doesn’t have to. Because every single thing we do, even the most mundane, is a formational practice with ramifications for our entire lives. In that sense, we never really leave school. We never graduate from the opportunity to make tiny regular investments into a future that will always be somewhat uncertain.
Had the scrawny wannabe-athlete just practiced catching footballs every single day, he’d probably get pretty good at it. But without the monotony of the gym, he never would have been ready for the game-changing moment when it finally came his way. He would have lacked the all-around strength to succeed. In being overly specialized on one particular skill, he would have ironically become less equipped to execute it when he most needed to.
This is why I’m perfectly happy to “waste” my time reading books and going for long runs and putting thoughts like this one down in writing even though not many people will end up reading them. Because in some small (and perhaps presently unknown way), these seemingly unproductive activities might just make me a tiny bit more reflective. Or more resilient. Or more present. And those qualities will slowly but surely do something to me as a person that might just make me a better teacher, a better husband, a better father.
So when will we ever use this stuff? Whatever this stuff might be? Probably never. And yet, probably every single day.
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