Why Learn Algebra? The Secrets of Education That No One Told You

Sad and Bored Schoolboy

As we enter the back-to-school season, I want to address an all-too-common attitude that derails the academic experience for many students. I was the expert in this mindset so I know it well. I call it the “just get the grade (or credits)” attitude. This attitude is formed when a student does not understand the larger purpose of an education. They filter their future through the lens of their very limited life experience. One can spot this attitude by the words students use to describe their school experience. Common phrases include, “Why do I have to learn this?” “When will I ever use this?” “This is so dumb.”

This attitude kept me locked into a small world. It wasn’t until after college that I learned how I had missed out on fantastic opportunities to sow seeds that would produce greatness in my future. If you find yourself saying similar things during your school day, let me rescue you from this deadly attitude by giving you a bigger picture of what the educational process can do for you if you attack each subject with the right attitude.

First, you must understand that you lack perspective. As a high-school or college student, you haven’t walked on this planet long enough to judge whether or not a certain discipline or field of study is pointless. You just stopped wearing Spider-man pajamas! (Or maybe you haven’t.) You’re not qualified to make that judgment! For each class you take, brilliant people have poured hundreds or thousands of years of blood, sweat and toil to wring out the secrets of that discipline. When you open that textbook or sit in that lecture, you stand on the shoulders of giants. Who are you to say that their lives and research was pointless? Only the small minded would make such a statement. Michelangelo craned his neck for four years to give us the Sistine chapel (reluctantly, because his passion was sculpting), Madame Curie – at the cost of her life – discovered the principles of radioactivity. Isaac Newton discovered Calculus in order to better describe concepts like gravity and the orbits of the planets. They poured their lives into the foundation of these disciplines that you now stand on.

Second, a complete education enables you to correlate the facts, principles, and concepts between each discipline. You CANNOT predict when you will benefit from these correlations.

When I was in the Flight Instructor Academy, they taught us that learning takes place in levels. From low to high – Rote, Understanding, Application and Correlation. When you adopt the “just get the credit” mentality, you sentence yourself to the lowest level of learning – rote. Your brain works best when it can take your knowledge of American literature and correlate it with antebellum history and correlate that with modern slavery and correlate that with the theory of law, with principles of public policy, with principles of foreign policy…we could go on. The educated person CAN go on. But too many people cannot even build a bridge between two concepts because they haven’t learned deeply enough. They learned enough to know what word to put in the blank on the test, but not enough to really benefit from that knowledge — or benefit others with it. Educated people know something about the various kinds of problems tackled in psychology, theology, philosophy, physics, literature, and mathematics. They understand how people in all these fields arrive at conclusions and how these fields relate to each other.

Third, when you know more, you CAN know more. Part of a quality education is having a reliable storehouse of information from which to draw upon. Like a rolling snowball, as you know more, your brain finds it easier to absorb information because it associates information together. Bits of information that you think of as useless, your brain makes useful.

Fourth, by hacking through the jungles of each discipline, you will learn about yourself. You will learn what you enjoy and what you do well. Jobs that involve responsibility and higher pay depend on self- management skills. These include knowing how to manage time, resolve conflict, set goals, conquer stress, and learn new skills. Education is a place to practice such skills.

Fifth, in life, you will face problems. Not the carefully-crafted and sanitized problems of the classroom, but the wild, untamed, and unmerciful dilemmas of the real world. Because of how the areas of life interrelate, if you lack critical information in one area, say economics, your problem solving skills will be sorely hampered. Nothing will help you more than a large body of knowledge stored in your brain that you can correlate into a meaningful whole. All that stuff you thought you would never use becomes suddenly useful.

Sixth, learning is like lifting weights for your brain. Even apart from giving you a reliable storehouse of knowledge, learning will train your brain in critical thinking skills. When faced with real world problems, knowing how to solve a quadratic equation may not help you. But the critical thinking skills you learned while studying and solving these equations will help you. Professional athletes don’t find themselves bench pressing or curling on the court or field. That does not mean, however, that the extra strength gained from weight conditioning is useless to them. You will find each subject becomes useful and builds your brain in different ways. Learning different languages enables you to communicate better, improves your vocabulary, and obviously produces dividends as the world becomes a global village. The sciences will help train you to think clearly and test out what you believe. Scientists get the privilege of thinking and discovering the thoughts of God after him. Classes in English, speech, and drama will show you how to speak and write so that people will listen to you. If you want to be an expert, out-read your peers. If you want to be their leader, out-write them. 

History gives your life a context. It teaches you what mankind is like, and what happens to nations that forget or ignore God. Biology will help you marvel at the wonders of life God created and economics shows you the secrets of wealth and how people react to it. It gives you insight into raising your standard of living, running a business, saving, and investing. Government shows you how nations form. You learn how they spend your money. You learn how America tries to walk the tightrope between liberty and law; and what part you play in the democratic process.

Lastly, a good education allows you to enter in and contribute to a larger world. It allows you to understand and speak about the biggest questions of life, “Where have we come from?” “What gives life meaning?” “How should we live?” and “What is our destiny?” Your voice will enter in with our finest scientists and artists and it will span centuries and cross cultures. Doors will open up to a universal conversation about the nature of truth and beauty, knowledge and compassion, good and evil – ideas that form the foundation of our society. Ignorance will imprison you to a world of pop culture, vine videos and the Teen Choice Awards.

The world needs more from you. So buck up and study hard. The seeds sown into your life may not bear fruit for many years. But when they do, they will feed you and the world.

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