12/16/2011 09:27 am ET | Updated Feb 15, 2012

Learning for Learning's Sake

In the halls of my school, I constantly hear, "This stuff is completely useless," or "When am I ever going to use this?" These dreadful phrases remind me that as technology grows, so does the amount of information that we need to learn. Not that long ago, only select groups of people could receive education; but as we learn more about the world, the need for others to be on the same intellectual level in order to move forward has driven the existence of universal schooling. Although this is a revolution in itself, the progress of standardized education has paralleled the pace of the growth of technology.

In this day and age, the amount of necessary prior knowledge is tremendous. In other words, to be able to live in this world, we have to learn a constantly expanding set of basic skills before we can even consider the skills necessary to progress. To be able to make the next iPhone, you need to know how the older version works. Similarly, to progress in most fields today, you need to understand the knowledge that already exists. But because of technology, the preexisting knowledge we need is growing at an alarming pace.

To give students the basic knowledge they need to progress, educators are forcing upon them a large amount of complex information. It used to be that if you wanted to go greatly in depth in a subject, you would go to college, but a lot of that material has been moved down to high school. In AP and other advanced classes, students are being fed college-level material that is sometimes perplexing.

In school, teachers reveal the entire educational spectrum, perhaps expecting us to be fascinated by it all. However, everyone has different interests, and students don't expect that they will enjoy every single class that they take. Although human beings are curious by nature, why aren't we enthralled by the inner workings of thylakoids -- whatever those are?

Humans in general are curious. But why do students seem apathetic about the many classes that they take? I think that students want to know more about the workings of the world, but what prevents them from diving into physics -- or any other class, for that matter -- is the effort required to attain the reward of knowing more about the complex world in which we live. Of course teenagers are curious; however, the conditions at which we agree to slake our thirst for knowledge are somewhat contradictory to what we are really willing to do to get there. If they know that the effects will benefit them, most people will go ahead and conquer the unknown... Yes, we're curious, but whether or not we decide to pursue the truth is often a matter of inevitable human laziness.

Most students don't understand why in the world they must take such a wide variety of classes -- in fact, they don't want to take them. "Why do I need to take Earth Science?" they ask. "Sorry, but staring at rock charts for hours isn't fun." There are plenty of reasons why a student should take a variety of courses throughout their education, and most have to do with prior knowledge.
The human brain learns by making connections. Learning in this context does not pertain specifically to academic learning, but here it is all-encompassing, including things as simple as how to control your limbs. If there is more information in your brain, then it is easier to learn, because you have more things to which you can connect new information. By learning about rhyme and meter, you can learn more about music. The same goes for everything, for everything is connected.

You can't know what something is until you know what it is not. But in a more specific sense, you can't know if a class is worth taking unless you've taken it. Many dismiss the MBA as a proper waste of time, but you can't know that it's a waste unless you've gone through the program, and picked out the benefits and fallbacks for yourself. Not everyone is the same, and some people benefit from certain things more than others do.

But taking different classes doesn't just help you define what a subject is -- it allows you to see the world in a different way. Learning about different subjects helps you see the world from different perspectives. It helps you feel an overwhelming sense of awe when observing the simplest of objects. For example, if you look at a pen, you can realize a number of truths; it is made of atoms, polymers. Your average plastic pen also supports itself by following the laws of gravity, and its shape is determined by math. The pen is also a symbolic object. In English, it is the starting point, the paraphernalia, necessary to write and share what you think with the world. The pen applies to history, reminding us that widespread literacy was never as common in the past as it is today. We can do so many things with a mere object, something that lacks emotions. I wish that students would feel the dumbstruck sensation of realizing how profound our world is, feeling the shock of, "Wow. This world is truly amazing." Students should see that by taking a variety of classes, they are opening their eyes to an enlightening understanding of the crazy wonder that we call the world.

The number of perspectives from which we can see the world is infinite. But to be able to see any of these, we must know enough about the world. The learning involved in this starts when we are born. We learn that we can make noise, move, and eventually change a situation. But these skills are very simple; and sadly, what used to be a worldly perspective is no longer that. The world is made of everything, but to be able to see the different ways in which it is put together, you need to have experience in different subjects. The benefits of seeing the world in a different way is that doing so can allow you to adapt to changes, and realize how to please people whose minds work in different ways.