by Christian Lingner, currently a senior at College of the Ozarks
Anyone who has spent time in an educational institution or setting has heard time and again the refrains of The Apathetic Student, usually expressed in a phrase like “Why am I being forced to learn this stuff, I’m never going to have to use it” or “I don’t want to have to take this class, everyone knows I’m not a [insert subject] person.”
I am more than guilty of using such arguments, especially when staring into the bleak expanse of a hazy chalkboard lined with numbers and graphs and symbols undoubtedly invented for my mental harassment. Math came easy until around eighth grade, when algebra slapped me in the face, in effect removing all numerical computing ability from between my ears. I felt like I had been reading a novel with the middle two thirds ripped out, and on the far side of that literary chasm I found myself in an oblivion of plotlines and sub-narratives I would never disentangle. What else was I left with but to throw up my hands and say, “Well heck, when am I going to actually have to use this anyway?”
I’ll never forget how those words melodically rolled off my tongue that first time, and soon I found myself in the blissful world of Perfectly Justified Indifference. I didn’t want to be an engineer or math teacher, so all I had to do was make it through class with a grade that suited my GPA needs, pass the parental grade-card inspection, and my career in arithmetic would be left in the rearview.
Once I had officially taken up this cudgel of lazy complacency, I nearly took pride in my apathy; math class became nothing more than an intriguing session of seeing how accurately and how often I could deduce the correct answer without having any knowledge of why I should care or how I got there. Teachers would ask to see my work and their eyes would widen, almost admiringly: For there on the page was both the evidence of my complete mathematical ineptitude and the correct answer time and again. I dubbed myself master of shortcuts, of all things clever and cavalier.
This approach proved advantageous for a while, at least until I encountered the wide array of torturous implements my College Algebra professor had at his disposal, with which he continuously prodded and seared my flabby grey matter. Requiring I step to the front of the class and write my work on the board, I was asked to go a step further and explain the why and how of each step in my calculation. By the end of the semester I clung to a B- through the benevolence of extended math lab hours and, without a doubt, the intervention of a supernatural being bent on empathy toward the weak of mind.
My guess is that most people of any educational background, and therefore most people, can relate to this confession in some way. No matter their preferred justification, nearly every student I have encountered struggles to stay motivated in classes and subjects they don’t feel a particular affinity toward, and eventually stop caring altogether.
Notwithstanding the fact that people are undoubtedly affected by their upbringing and the modes which they are taught to think from a young age, as well as the possibility that some individuals possess an amount of intrinsic tendency toward some subjects, the wide-reaching problem of academic apathy is simply the manifestation of students’ overall lack of curiosity about the world in which they live. If a person is not inhibited by a legitimate learning disorder (which those undoubtedly exist and hamper some people’s ability in various areas), the statement “I am not a math (or english, history, science, etc.) person” is simply erroneous and a justification for laziness.
Why one eighteen-year-old freshman finds in structural engineering the answer to his soul’s acutest yearnings, while his roommate finds that college algebra makes staring at the ceiling something to be acutely yearned for, that is a question beyond the scope of this article and my personal understanding. However, I would venture to say that most people could learn something about anything if they have curiosity, and curiously is cultivated by care and love.
Think about someone you care about, and then sift out all of the “useless information” you know about them or their areas of interest, because it makes your conversation and experience with them more interesting and meaningful. If you didn’t take the time to inquire after their favorite TV shows, books, politics, hobbies, dreams, etc., what else would you talk about? I’m not a romantic comedy person, so to speak, but my sister’s love for that genre has resulted in my cultivation of a running list of film titles, actors and actresses, so when the time comes, I can converse on that level with at least stumbling competence.
Now, since we are all members of the human race and inhabitants of this planet (if there is a reader which does not fall in either of those groups, please reach out to me via whatever communication apparatus at your disposal: hologram preferable) I would propose that a desire to understand the human race and the natural world should be intrinsic to each of us, driven by a curiosity about our surroundings and a love of our fellow man. You may recognize that you are not a “literature person” in much the same way that I know I don’t appreciate math to its fullest extent, but that doesn’t mean you are justified in acting as if you cannot understand it; all you are actually saying is that you will not, or have not the will, to understand.
The reason for this lack of willingness to understand the subjects which do not come easy to us originates in a deep misconception about education. After giving your major, people routinely ask, almost as if scripted, “Well, what do you want to do with that?” which translates immediately to “What kind of job is that going to get you?” To be clear, I am not about to go off on a rant supporting fiscal irresponsibility and the pursuit of a degree on the grounds of mere personal interest. However, I think it is important to reject the presiding educational reductionism which narrows the purpose of learning to the confines of one’s chosen 9-5. Instead, we should think of education in terms of personal growth, seeing each class, lecture, and assignment as an opportunity to be become better at living. While our occupations are important to take into consideration when choosing a major or college or next book to read, we need to remember that our fundamental, full-time occupation is simply being human.
The goal is then not about you as an individual, but you as one of many. As you learn and grow you become a better equipped member of society and contributor in your vocation. And, while it is important for one to specialize, the reduction of education to academic specialization is also a harmful misconception. Yes, you want to be marketable, and the clear path to success is to be especially good at a special something. I get it. However, another goal, or at least byproduct of education, is that it makes you a more interesting and relatable person. Have you ever talked to someone you have nothing in common with? Probably, but then again, probably not for very long.
People who think to themselves “Why do I have to learn this, I’m never going to use it” are probably right; they are never going to use it because they are exactly the kind of people who won’t learn it to begin with. I’m not saying you need to know all the ins and outs of quantum chemistry in order to have a lively conversation with a physicist, but if you are the sort of person who refuses to be diligent in your Gen-Ed Chemistry course then your inability to be conversant in something even auxiliary to matters of science will put a perpetual damper on your relationship (that is, unless they are conversant in your hobby of reading convicting articles about errors in education).
Edmund Burke once wrote, “The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human, is curiosity.” Curiosity is essential to human nature, just as floating defines a boat. Without it we might as well not exist, but with it our purpose is made possible. Discovery, progress, kindness, love, humility, prudence; these distinctly human virtues and capacities (among others) stem from “a strong desire to know or learn something,” and the beauty of this definition is that something can be literally anything and everything. Curiosity is one of the few things in existence that one cannot have too much of; a greater abundance of curiosity only results in an even greater abundance of joy.
This doesn’t mean you have to give up on a practical degree if you enjoy reading Pride and Prejudice, or you should quit accounting because you found your fine arts elective a pleasant experience. But, it may mean that you devote bus rides and weekends to Jane Austen, or devote evening hours before the easel, simply because you enjoy it. Formal education is merely a means to the end of learning, and learning is a means to developing a fulfilling, enriched life. Learn, not because you want something from it, but because from it you might become something. And that something might have a name; your name, in fact.
We also recommend “Curiosity Killed the Cat, but It Worked Pretty Well for a Monkey” by Kyle Rapinchuk.