When Will We Ever Use This In The Real World?

So much of education is about the “how” of things. We want someone to teach our kids how to be a businessman, how to be a finance guy, how to be a lawyer, how to be a doctor, how to teach, how fly a plane, how to build an engine, how to invest, how to be a therapist, how to train dogs, how to write well, how to fix cars, how to make a latte, how to design a building, how to negotiate a deal, how to be a good husband, or how to communicate love. When we do not know how to do something we tend to ask questions. We look outward from ourselves to find somebody who does in fact know how to do something. This is knowledge as ability.

Knowledge as ability is great. It is very useful.

But nobody remains a mechanic, a plane-builder, an investor, a dog trainer, a businessman, a latte-maker, a therapist, a building designer, or a husband unless they find a value in what they do that goes beyond practicality. A woman may fix bodies all day long, knowing it’s practical, knowing its usefulness, knowing her paycheck will be good at the end of the month, and simultaneously detest being a doctor. Ultimately, then, we don’t want knowledge of how to do things merely for its usefulness to us or to others, or for its contribution to our perseverance.

Still they persist, “When are we going to use this in the real world?” Question them right back. “Well what, after all, is the real world?”

I think that by “real world” almost everyone means the economic one. Logically, this entails that what is most real and most relevant in education are those knowledge-abilities that currently have market value.

Once, my sixth grade math class thought they had cornered me when they asked, “When will I use the Pythagorean theorem a single time in my future job, huh?” While there’s certainly a more serious defense of the Pythagorean theorem to be had, I noticed my sixth graders betrayed themselves. The things which they poured themselves into with all their hearts — indeed, the things in their real life that they gave the most value to (and hence learned the most about) — were never done on the grounds that they would some day have market value. They engaged in sports, friendships, reading Twilight, and playing video games because they thought them to be intrinsically and self-evidently valuable.

My sixth graders’ question presented an important pedagogical opportunity that unfortunately I didn’t recognize at the time. I see now I should have turned the question of use-value into a dialogue about values themselves, for this would be the precise means by which we might have ended up drawing near the real world. I’ve seen this in classes where I’ve entertained objections to a major test or the reading of a book no one wanted to read. The second the students thought the value of the test was really up in the air (and they might not have to do it!) their desire to get at the truth and articulate good arguments for their beliefs tripled in the blink of an eye. The dialogue appealed to their real sense of reality, namely, that tests are absolutely not intrinsically valuable.

Herein lies the irony. What is most hated in school are exactly those subjects, teachers, and pedagogical practices that have reduced learning to knowledge-abilities for the sake of some distant market value the students have no felt connection to. I’m afraid in some cases we’ve became so alienated from the true spirit of learning for its own sake that our sixth graders mistake market value as a better reason to do what market value has made them hate.

I would like to suggest that in life and in education, our learning should be rooted in a felt sense of what is intrinsically valuable. We should learn to know what is worth knowing for its own sake as opposed to learning for the sake of some extrinsic end.

Historically, philosophers have called this “knowing for the sake of knowing”, or “knowing as an end in itself.” I would like to suggest that knowing for the sake of knowing precedes and makes possible knowing how. I would like to suggest that when we separate the two we become alienated from the world and from ourselves, and we substitute external ends for what should be intrinsically felt purpose.

I contend that if it weren’t for people who loved knowing for the sake of knowing, then there would be no engineer, no dog trainer, no latte-maker, no therapist – indeed, that none of the things we know how to do would have been discovered or established without people who loved knowledge of things for their own sake. I call these people philosophers, broadly conceived.

The first welder did not come about by a man bringing a blow-torch to a stack of metal just to see how he could manipulate them for market value. A welder came about by a man who meditated upon the substance of metal and fire, by trying to see them and know them for what they are. In his meditation, possibilities emerged that otherwise could not have been brought about. The first boat maker meditated upon the qualities of water, buoyancy, balance, wood, and human form. A profound possibility emerged as he thought about what captured his thought. We must declare the first welder and the first boat maker philosophers.

However, a complication immediately arises when reality reveals its secrets to those who love it for its own sake. Others can imitate them, manipulating metal and fire in a nearly identical ways to the philosopher, and they can do this without ever having loved metal and fire for their own sakes. The philosopher loved metal and fire before it became useful to them. Their worth was intrinsically felt. The manipulator “loved” metal and fire only after it became useful for them. Indeed, one can have power without love of things themselves. One can use and manipulate while avoiding knowledge of the very things in one’s hands.

This, I think, is where most of our educational thinking ends up. We want clever manipulators more than we want philosophers. We want our kids to know how to write well not because writing well is intrinsically valuable, but because one may need to write good emails in their place of work. We fret about the highest rated schools but fail to see that philosophers can come from any school.

Philosophers love knowing for the sake of knowing, and manipulators merely enjoy the temporary goods afforded them by learning to manipulate what the philosophers have known truly. We must use the word manipulate here because manipulation is an ability to alter, change, or use without a proper relationship to what is being altered, changed, or used. There’s not a proper care afforded to the thing first.

This matters.

One consequence of merely knowing how to do something is that your enjoyment of the world is greatly diminished. Yes, rigorously following a recipe will give you temporary real world benefits. Even me, an impoverished cook, can manipulate food while following a recipe and turn out something pretty good. But so long as I or anyone else is hell bent on following recipes over loving food for its own sake can ultimately only be a follower and imitator to the philosophers who created the recipe in the first place. The manipulator’s enjoyment is diluted because it is mediated by another’s direct knowing. The one who only knows how will never experience the full joy of being a creator and lover in their own right. In bad cases, followers and manipulators become reduced to mere consumers.

Pursuit of knowing how severed from knowing for its own sake is a covert love of power. It blinds us to the things we hold, and it holds from being happier.

“When will we ever use this in our real life?”

Each time this question comes the educator stands in the presence of a profound pedagogical opportunity. What the student is really communicating to you is that they don’t feel like the philosopher they were created to be. They are tired of imitation and don’t understand market value. And most likely, you the teacher are also standing in a place of imitation and manipulation despite your best intentions. I’m not saying you should eliminate the Pythagorean theorem from the curriculum. What I am saying is that each educator, in their own life and in their own spaces of teaching and learning must return to the real world — the one that’s worth knowing for its own sake. If you’ve found it, your students won’t even think to ask about when they will use their knowledge of it, because they will feel down to their bones its intrinsic worth.

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Jacob Carr