Why it’s good to learn “useless things” in school

If I had a penny for each time I heard or read someone’s complaint about “the useless things we had to learn in school,” I would have enough money to build my own school.

I will say this: I used to be the one doing the complaining. A lot of it.

Although today, richer with several years of experience, I’m complaining about something entirely different. That is, in many areas, I didn’t put in as much effort as I could have. I didn’t try to understand the material being taught to acquire that “useless” knowledge.

I now realize that, from a scientific perspective regarding memory and thinking, those “useless things” were not really useless!

Before I explain my change of attitude, let me make a short disclaimer. 

There is no doubt that schools are not perfect, and in many cases are just bad.

One major problem of our educational system is that our students are not taught why they should study. It’s not surprising, then, that many people finish their education with the mindset that it was absolutely pointless.

Surely, many subjects could be taught in more fascinating, engaging, and accessible ways.

Teachers themselves could use some improvement, both on the basis of content and in their attitude towards students. I’m not saying there are no great and competent teachers. I owe a great debt of gratitude to a couple of them myself. It’s just that there could be a lot more of them.

At the same time, the disadvantages of our educational system need to be fixed, without negating the system as a whole.

Memory and the process of education

Alright, so why do I think that getting an education in seemingly unimportant topics, such as the digestive system of coelenterates or the coal deposits in Kamchatka, is a good thing? (Especially when you could just Google these topics in a matter of seconds?)

The point is the human brain works like a network. Each memory becomes another element in this network, making it much easier to both memorize new information, and to recall past information. That’s why well-built, wide-ranging, basic knowledge—even if you’ll forget most of its elements—becomes the foundation upon which you can later achieve amazing things.

The effect of a memory network is so strong that when you learn new information on a variety of topics, you can predict what you’ll remember more. You will also retain more detailed data about topics you’re already familiar with. In the world of knowledge, the rich get richer. The more you know about a specific area, the more you will continue to learn.

Sure, a major part of this network will remain unused, but this is the price of flexibility in the modern world. If you want to be prepared to adapt to a wide range of different situations and to be able to learn new things as an adult, you need a well-built base.

That’s why I regret not working hard enough on all those things in school. Because today, having some knowledge about them would make it much easier for me to learn new material. It would have been an investment from which I could benefit greatly today. Of course, I can try to learn new things today, but this process will be much slower—mainly because I don’t have as much spare time these days as I did in elementary school.

Thinking and the process of education

It would be great if we could be taught critical thinking in school, but this is not the argument I’m trying to make. I’m talking about the fact that the more knowledge you possess, the greater chance you have of identifying faulty reasoning, scammy deals, or fantasies made out of thin air (at a time when there’s no shortage of them on the Internet). Often you’ll just catch something accidentally—something that doesn’t fit into the rest of the story, so you are automatically more skeptical (which is reasonable) about the whole argument.

Furthermore, in most cases, you need to understand some things ahead of time in order to keep going forward. That’s why this “useless” knowledge is not so useless. It’s like the scene from The Karate Kid where Daniel has to wax Mr. Miyagi’s car. (It’s just a movie, I know. This is no way to learn karate.) Some things, seemingly pointless, must be done in order for them to merge into a bigger whole.

Stage magicians practice single movements hundreds or thousands of times over until they are perfected. Then they are connected into elaborate tricks that make the audience feel as though they’ve witnessed something truly magical. The same goes for learning those “ridiculous” mathematical equations—this is just something that you have to do in order to have the chance to achieve something bigger.

Not everyone will become a theoretical physicist. But you won’t have much of a chance of becoming one by starting with the books on the subject of quantum physics. You need to understand more basic phenomena first, and it’s best to do this when you have the time and ability at a younger age, when you are exposed to a mass of information that you can connect to this knowledge.

Yes, many such “foundations” are going to waste. Similar to startup business investments, many of them fail. But those that are successful will earn for themselves and the unsuccessful ones. You may not think so at the time, but that seemingly pointless information teachers force us to comprehend in school will be beneficial in the long run—if you take it seriously.

Photo by Emanuele Bresciani. (CC) BY-NC.

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