Why School? Part 6: When Learning Seems Useless

My Dear Students,

I have three more reasons for school that I would like to share with you. I will cover one each in these final three posts of the series.

Learning for Its Own Sake

Today, the reason that I will offer in favor of school sounds a little bit like a logical loop–almost like one of those definitions that uses the word it is defining. By contrast, this reason is actually very profound–but like many profound things, we run the risk of laughing it off before we really understand it.

Here is the reason: school is important because knowing is good in and of itself. Or, to put it another way, school is worth our time for the simple reason that knowledge is worth having.

Totally a logical loop, you may be thinking. At least give me a chance to explain, if you would.

We will understand this reason better if we can put aside our tendency to try to find the use and the gain in all things. We often insist upon the need for something to be useful in order for us to want to bother learning it. 

By contrast, this reason suggests that we do not need any reason to learn other than for the sake of learning. Learning truth is a good thing that needs no justification other than itself. 

Put another way, it is better to know true things than not to know true things. Therefore, time spent learning true things is time well-spent. God made us to learn and to know truth.

If you are not persuaded, maybe an example will help.


Imagine a little boy walking in a park. He looks at a rose and, being naturally curious, asks what it is. 

We answer, “a rose,” and find it pleasing and good that the child has learned something. We never for a minute think with a sigh of relief, “thank goodness the child now has that useful knowledge for his future.” Whose career (other than that of a florist) depends on the knowledge of what a rose is? Our satisfaction in that moment rests solely on the fact that the child did not know but now does.

We are pleased and satisfied in this moment because, in our hearts, we know that knowing needs no justification. We know that it is just good that the child has learned something true.

I will offer another example. Imagine someone who knows three languages, can do calculus with ease, has made three new inventions, writes JavaScript for fun, knows all local tree varieties and bird calls, has memorized a Shakespeare play, and paints incredible artwork. Don’t we inherently admire this person? To be sure, we may have a sort of “dude, seriously?” moment, and if we are jealous, we may try to put the person down, but really, don’t we look at this level of knowledge and just naturally know that it is impressive and good? 

By contrast, we are sad when we hear of someone who is unable to learn to read–not because we think the person is less important or valuable than we are, but because we know that it is, by the laws of nature, better to know than not to know, and we wish for the sake of that person that he or she could learn to read. 

Our Reluctance and Our Nature

Still, even if we see in these examples that knowing is good, we hesitate to apply this principle to ourselves. We feel that it is not worth the time and certainly not worth the effort to learn challenging things if the point is simply to know them. Aren’t they going to help us some way or gain us something? Knowledge itself often seems an unimpressive prize for our endeavors. We demand something more glamorous and refuse to be satisfied by learning itself (unless we can brag about our knowledge, which is another pitfall altogether).

Our rejection of learning is sometimes aided by school. After years of boring classes, monotonous busywork, and painful textbook-reading, many people will not be eager learners. What is more, not all our schools and teachers themselves articulate persuasively why all this work matters. They may be able to persuade the ambitious among us that we need good grades to get into college; when it comes to convincing the rest of us that poetry, the life of King Henry VIII, and Latin declensions are worth our time, they often could do better.

Such reluctance to embrace learning for its own sake–brought about by our own desire for useful things and engrained by years of meaningless tedium in school–is not easily overcome. We are busy people with many real responsibilities. We feel as if taking the time and effort to learn “useless” things merely detracts from “our lives.” We would rather play a game or hang out with friends than exert the effort necessary to learn something that has no tangible “pay-off.”

However, we cannot deny our nature. The fact of the matter is, God has made us to know, and He made us to know more than what is strictly useful to us. Our frustration at the effort-to-perceived-gain ratio cannot change the reality that we were made to learn–and we should not want to change that reality. Knowledge is a gift. Truth is a gift. Let us all pray for the endurance, energy, and enthusiasm to learn things that are not useful but that are good.

I will add one more thought here:

It is definitely not “cool” to accept the fact that learning is important and good. It just is not. I think this is unfortunate, but it is certainly no surprise given human nature. Therefore, I am aware that you may refuse to accept this reason for learning on the grounds that it is not “cool” enough. I wish that we were not so dependent upon the approval of others, but freeing ourselves is much easier said than done.

I encourage you to try to look beyond your appearance and your popularity; look beyond yourself; look for what is good and true. Let the pressures of the moment and the intensity of the need to be admired pass. Be content in truth. I am not saying you need to drop everything and proclaim the wonders of learning to the world. I am just asking you to pause and to wonder: Maybe learning could be worth my time after all.