Why School? Part 7: Coffee and Life Skills

My Dear Students,

For this second-to-last blog post on the purpose of school, I will finally concede that school should be useful after all.

If you have read my other posts on the purpose of school, you may be thinking, I knew it! Sooner or later she had to admit that school should be useful! Goodbye, Latin!

That is not, however, exactly what I am trying to say. I still firmly believe, as I wrote before, that there are reasons other than usefulness that school is important. I have never said, however, that usefulness is bad, and here I will explain why I think usefulness is, in fact, a good reason (among other good reasons) to go to school.

In school, you will (or should, if you go to a good school) learn skills and knowledge that will be very important for you to have as you move into the adult world and take on adult responsibilities.

To understand some of the ways that school may prepare you for your future, imagine with me a day in the life of a future you who is married and has an adult job. 

You wake up in the morning and remember with a cringe that you need to let your boss know about a problem that is going on at work. You grab some breakfast and swing by your favorite coffee shop to pick up a cappuccino. As you drive to work, you try to figure out exactly how you are going to bring up this topic with your boss. You figure an email is the right place to start, but how exactly are you going to word it?

All you can think about is the time in English class when you discussed tone and word choice, and you know that what you currently want to say sounds very whiny and immature. When you get to work, you type up a draft of the email, but the bad tone is still there. You revise it a couple times (wow–rough drafts are actually real-world things), adjust the whiny tone, and replace the immature words. 

You click send. A little while later, your boss replies, “Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. I am impressed with how you handled this difficult situation.” So you dash off an email of immense gratitude to your English teacher–just kidding. That isn’t necessary. But you do feel pretty happy that you put your communication skills to good practical use.

After you make it through the rest of the morning, you get a call from your spouse, who wonders if you could cut back on your cappuccino consumption since it is really taking a dent out of your cash. “What?!” you think, but then you pull up the budget you made on Excel (thanks to your computer class), and you quickly do some calculations to find out the average amount that you spend on those delicious, jittery drinks each month. Your spouse was right; it’s time to cut back on coffee–or at least make it at home. 

Math may have been a struggle, but you are grateful that the part about averages stuck with you.

Just as you are trying to shove today’s cappuccino cup deeper into the trash so you won’t have to dwell on that nagging guilty feeling, your boss walks in with a question (but it’s one of those boss questions that is actually a command). “Hey, can you pull some of this information together for a presentation tomorrow?” 

There’s only one answer: “Sure thing.”

You look at what your boss meant by “some of this information” and instantly a not-so-pleasant memory comes to mind: your high school history papers. You have flashbacks of highlighters, notecards, jumbled-up paragraphs, late nights–and you don’t really feel any more confident now than you did then. But, you do know that back then, when it came down to it, you pulled yourself together and turned in some decent papers. 

So, once again, you read, you summarize, you explain, you paraphrase, you write–and you pull together a pretty respectable presentation complete with professional-looking PowerPoint slides. (Once again, thank-you, computer class.) 

Your life goes on; you consume fewer cappuccinos and spend more hours at work. 

One day, you find out that your daughter has a chronic, though not life-threatening, disease. As you make your way from doctor visit to doctor visit, you find yourself incredibly grateful for your knowledge of biology. If you did not have an understanding of how the cell worked, of how the human body worked, and of basic nutrition and chemistry, all this complex information thrown at you by your daughter’s doctors would completely overwhelm you. As it is, you are able to navigate the appointments with confidence and even ask the doctors key questions that help your daughter obtain better treatments. 

Okay, so this whole story may sound a little hokey, and it probably is. But at the same time, the concepts that I have included are not hokey at all. You really will need to know how to communicate well in order to do your job well–whatever that job might be. You really will benefit from the information-processing skills that you learn in history, and you really will use at least basic math skills more than you think. Your children may not have chronic diseases (I hope that they will not!), but you will have medical questions of some kind at some point, and you will certainly have to choose how to take care of your own body.

There are many skills beyond the ones that I have mentioned that you will learn in school (hopefully) and that will definitely be useful to you in your life. You will learn how to speak in public. You will learn how to ask good questions. You will learn how to type (hopefully). You will learn how to think clearly and how to discuss your ideas with others. You will learn how to use correct grammar so that you sound like you know what you are talking about. You will learn how to listen and how to work with other people. You will gain foundational knowledge for the courses and programs that you will encounter in college. If you do not plan to go to college, hopefully your school offers some training classes that can help you prepare for your field of work.

Thus, though subjects do not have to be useful to be worthwhile (see my previous post), it turns out that many subjects are incredibly useful. At the end of the day, is the usefulness of education important? Absolutely. Is usefulness everything? Absolutely not.