By Dr. Eugene Maier
Physicist Fred Raabe heads the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, briefly called Ligo. Under construction at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Ligo, when completed, will search for gravity waves. Although many physicists believe they exist, none has ever been detected. Ligo hopes to change that.
Commenting on the usefulness of such an endeavor to a local reporter, Raab said "If you ask me for a practical application for gravity-wave research, I can't think of one. Come back in 100 years and I'll tell you what the practical application was." He pointed out that the pioneers working in quantum mechanics and special relativity 100 years ago had no inkling of the modern technology that would evolve from their work, "I'll guarantee you that if you go back and talk to the guys who were doing that work, they never dreamed of any of that stuff."
Raab's comments, it strikes me, need little changing to provide an appropriate answer for that 13-year-old in middle school—and any other student—who wonders, "What good to me is all this stuff I'm supposed to be learning?" The truthful answer: "Nobody knows. In 50 years you may know. What you learn now is likely to impact your life in ways neither you nor I imagine. Some of the particular things you learn in school you may never encounter again, but there's no way of knowing which these will be. All in all, becoming educated, through whatever means, will enhance the quality of your life."
That answer, accurate as it may be, is not likely to satisfy many teenagers. The trouble, I think, is the answer runs counter to that which the existing culture provides. The popular view expressed in the media, political chambers and many educational agencies is that the purpose of education is to get a good job—one that ensures financial security—ignoring the fact there aren't enough such jobs to go around. The situation in mathematics is especially woeful, where many teachers attempt to justify learning mathematics because of its utility in later life, ignoring the fact that most "real-life applications" of mathematics cited in textbooks exist only in the minds of the authors and many of the topics encountered in school math are infrequently encountered in life outside school.
Rather than promoting education as a preparation for a future many students won't ever realize, I suggest we view education as an end in itself. That we as a culture value and support education whatever the future holds. That we recognize that becoming educated is as natural a human pursuit as learning to walk and learning to talk. That developing one's innate intellectual capacities, talents and interests is as much a part of the process of becoming a mature human being as developing physically.
Given that stance, the focus of school becomes educating for now, not training for the future. The school curriculum becomes driven, not by someone's list of what children need to know to "succeed," but by what educes and develops children's existing abilities. It accommodates their interests and honors their instincts, intuitions and insights. Engaged in such a curriculum, children will be so absorbed that, like the scientist searching for gravitational waves, future utility is of no consequence. And fifty years later, if they do happen to reflect on the value of what they learned in school, I suspect they will be surprised at all the ways it enhanced their lives, whatever their economic circumstances.