“I’ll never need to know this stuff in the real world, will I?”

Why Do I Have to Take this Course?

An old friend in Versailles, Kentucky recently wrote to me.  He is a High School math teacher who is tired of hearing the question from his students, “Why do I have to take this course?  I will never use it.”  This, of course, is a common lament heard by teachers around the world but it seems to be growing in intensity.  Students pose the question as they believe it will have no bearing on their lives, particularly due to technology.

Some people question why their children have to memorize multiplication tables since there are so many calculators embedded in computers and smart phones.  This would also suggest the end of the slide rule and the abacus.  Others question the need to teach spelling as spell checkers will automatically correct errors, and speech recognition software can be used to read text.  I guess the future of printed books is dim, right?

The reason for learning these basic concepts is simple:  so people do not become dependent on a particular technology and can carry on manually, and; so they can appreciate the effect of technology.  To illustrate, I taught system design for many years.  My students learned to define information requirements, and from these specifications, decompose a system into its business processes, work flows, and software.  The exercises were conducted manually and in teams.  At the end, they had produced a complete system design, all remarkably similar.  Afterwards I would then show them how this process could be automated using deductive reasoning.  When the computer generated the system design, they understood completely what it had done.  Not surprising, the computer produced design was no different than the human’s.  Again, the intent was to teach the principles and mechanics so they could do it themselves, and so they could appreciate the need for automation.

The obsession with technology though is becoming overbearing.  For example, computer graphics programs are having an adverse effect on illustration and artwork in general.  Computer Aided Design (CAD) has become an integral part of drafting and blueprinting.  Interestingly, I know of a helicopter firm which lost power at its headquarters.  Consequently, the company came to a complete standstill, particularly in the engineering department where draftsmen had no idea what to do without the aid of their computers.  As an aside, I do not believe any of them understood what a “French Curve” was.

When I was young, I was proud to master the multiplication tables.  As kids, we turned it into a competitive game.  I also developed my love for reading at the local library.  The ability to grasp concepts and ideas is essential for human curiosity, creativity and problem solving.  By becoming dependent on technology though, we arrest our mental development.  It’s one thing to implement technology based on concepts we grasp, quite another to effectively use technology without an understanding of the concepts.  By doing so, we will not challenge the results produced by technology, thereby leaving us exposed to critical error.

So, to the students of my friend’s high school class in Kentucky, “Why do you need to take this course?”  No, you may not need it in your professional lives, but you need it to become a thinking and active member of the human race.  Even though technology may do the work for you, these classes are critical for your personal mental development.  It ultimately provides you with the ability to “carry on” when your technology fails you.

Keep the Faith!