Rules For Life – Making Us think
by Ken La Salle
You see it happen every year, a chorus rising out of homes and schools around the country and even around the world. “Why do I have to learn algebra?” it asks. “Why is this important? When am I ever going to use fractions? This is stupid!”
And they seem to have a point. Algebra? Fractions? When was the last time you needed to know the quadratic equation? Now that we have calculators on our phones, which we all basically carry wherever we go, why should we learn any math at all?
This month, we’ll talk about math. Oh, don’t worry. It’s not the kind of math you forgot about two weeks after you learned it in high school. No. Instead, we’re going to get to the bottom of that perennial cry. Why do we have to learn that junk, anyway?
It might come as some surprise that the answer has little to do with numbers and much more to do with comfort. As in your comfort.
I like to think of algebra and calculus and geometry and all of those math classes that I grew to hate so much in high school as “Comfort Shocks,” classes and lessons that are not designed for what we retain, as you might mistakenly believe. When you think of those classes you hated so much – or, if you’re still going through it “classes you will hate so much” – it’s a mistake to think of them only in terms of what you retain. Education is not all about retention.
If you take a minute to consider all the lessons from your childhood that meant so much, such as socialization and manners and fair play, none of those really require a whole lot of retention. You don’t say to yourself, “Well, I remember when Jimmy Santos got mad at me and…” Instead, you have an aggregated experience, the collection of a bunch of mistakes you and I and most people made that we can draw upon.
Learning math is not just about learning math. It’s true: calculations are usually not that important in everyday life. What math, along with any other class you find uncomfortable or intrusive, teaches you is a different way of using your mind. A new way to think. The benefit to this is that people who learn to think in new and creative ways can then apply those new thinking skills to other parts of their life that are more applicable.
So, sure, you may never use the Pythagorean Theorem, but thinking in this new way – so outside of the box that you can’t even find the lid – helps provide you with an extra dimension in solving life’s problems that require creative thinking.
When we find ourselves settling into our comfort zone, it feels nice. I won’t kid you. It feels great. But life is never about comfort for very long. As you grow older, you learn this. Life can throw curveballs at you better than any major league pitcher. And those pitches never come the same way twice. And, quite often, you can get thrown out after just one strike. Life requires new ways of thinking to address new problems. And maybe you won’t solve problems with trigonometry but learning to push your mind into thinking in new ways will prepare you to solve problems that come at you in new ways.
As much I hate to say this to the old folks out there, this does not end in high school. We should all be learning new things that shock us out of our comfort zone as often as we can manage, because the problems that life throws at us do not end with adulthood. No, they just get harder.
So, the next time you hear someone complaining about some new thing they have to learn, remember that it’s not the thing that’s important. It’s not the math or the language or the technology or whatever the thing is that the course is about. Rather, it’s the learning that is essential.
And the learning should never stop.