Why School? Part 2: Common yet Incomplete Answers

My Dear Students, 

Since we are asking the question, why do I have to go to school, I think it is worthwhile first to look at many of the common answers given in answer to that question. I have compiled some here. 

Perhaps the most common is the answer that appeals to the future. It has several variations. There is the college variation: “You have to go to school and work hard so you can get into a good college.” There is the job variation: “You won’t be able to get a good job if you don’t do well in school.” There is the responsibility variation: “You have to be able support yourself financially, and you can’t do that if you don’t get good grades and go to college.” The “dreams” variation falls in this category, too: “School will help you achieve your dreams and goals.” And of course there is the McDonalds argument: “You don’t want to flip burgers for the rest of your life, do you?” (which, by the way, I dislike, since it seems to imply that there is an inherent lack of dignity in this kind of job!).

Another contender for the most common reason cited is the obligation answer. It has a couple variations. One is the parental command: “You have to go because I say so.” Perhaps the most cynical of all comes in response to the government’s mandate of attendance: “Well, I can’t legally drop out until I’m 17.”

Less commonly quoted, but perhaps more commonly felt, is the pleasing people answer. This one can range from looking for validation to seeking to honor others by living up to their expectations. Some variations include “I want to make my parents proud of me” and “I want to please my favorite teachers.” 

Finally, not to be neglected, but probably rarely spoken aloud, are the pride reasons: “I want to compete with everyone else and come out on top,” “I want to show everyone else how smart I am,” “I get my significance from my success in school,” “I want to make a lot of money and be famous, and I have to go to school to achieve that.”

Some of all these answers are obviously better than others. 

It is certainly true that doing your best in school will help your financial future, and to provide for yourself and others is a sign of responsibility and character. Having goals is also commendable, and school can certainly be a part of the process of attaining those dreams. Doing what your parents (and the government) require is good as well. Even wanting to please people can be good at times as long as it does not get out of balance. I don’t have anything favorable to say about the pride reasons, but I am certain that we all fall into variations of these at times and need forgiveness for our pride.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, though these answers have their merits, they are incomplete. 

None of them really explains the reason for the subject matter itself; all of these reasons suggest that the things you learn in school are for the sake of getting you something–whether that be financial stability, career success, approval from others, or self-satisfaction. None of these answers that I have listed really addresses why learning itself is important.

Therefore, if we accept these as the primary reasons for school, we start to view learning as nothing more than a prerequisite to higher and greater things. Because our purpose is to get something, achieve something, or do something as a result of our schooling, we tend to start caring less about how learning can shape us than we do about what we stand to gain.

What is more, these answers do not give us any reason to study those so-called “useless subjects.” Think about how many times we have used the “it’s useless” argument against some disliked topic in school. 

We say, “I’m never going to have to solve for x once I become a writer; why do I have to do algebra?” “Latin isn’t spoken; I’ll never use it!” “I don’t want to be a scientist, so I shouldn’t have to do labs.” “I’m never going to have to write essays for my job!” 

It is only natural that we would say these things, because the reasons that we give for going to school revolve around what we can get out of school. By our own logic, we are right to reject those “useless things”: if the reasons I’ve listed above really are the reasons to go to school, I think it is quite fair that you should be excused from those “useless” assignments and classes. If they don’t get you where you want to go, by all means, do away with them.

But here is where we must back up and take another look at the reasons for school. We shouldn’t “do away” with these “useless” assignments unless we are quite sure that there isn’t some other reason for school that we have not yet mentioned. 

As we explore this in future posts, I think that you will begin to see that there are indeed some other, deeper reasons behind school–reasons that our society has largely forgotten, but that we desperately need to remember.