01/07/2013 03:54 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

Who Cares?

As the spring semester begins for most college students, I want to offer a simple suggestion that may greatly enhance your education: Ask "who cares?"

(Sure, it may also get you into trouble... so, hey, you didn't hear this from me.)

When I suggest this in class, most of my students don't know whether to take me seriously. But I persist: if your professor can't answer the "who cares?" question about what you are learning -- stand up and walk out of class.

The point I'm trying to get across is that learning is not simply yet another lecture or reading to get through. Why, for example, do we learn calculus or Mesopotamian history or about the Cuban missile crisis? Sure, calculus helps us to study change, Mesopotamia is considered to be the "cradle of civilization," and the Cuban missile crisis altered the post-Cold War strategic balance of power that we continue to live with today. But, seriously, who cares?

Yes, we can trot out clichés about not repeating history or about becoming informed citizens or simply about stretching our brains. Kind of like the news stories that suggest that the elderly play Sudoku to prevent early dementia. But should I really be paying tens of thousands of dollars a year to my local university if I could gain as much from staring at YouTube or doing the crossword puzzle?

So I tell my students that they deserve more from their education. They should, in fact, demand more. They should raise their hand -- in any class, at any time -- and ask "who cares?"; now, to be clear, they should do so politely and not because they're trying to cover up for the fact that they haven't read the assigned text. But if they ask the question in good faith, I tell my students, they deserve an answer.

What is so fascinating about this simple two-word question is that it flips the pedagogical equation, forcing the professor to explain why what is being studied has relevance and meaning. Rather than the traditional model of the student as a passive listener, such a question positions the student as the one seeking knowledge.

This may make some professors deeply uncomfortable. Professors are experts in their particular areas of study. They care deeply about what they do. Heck, they've spent years and years studying it, reading hundreds of articles and books about it, probably even dreaming about it.

But to make knowledge "come alive" requires a whole other set of skills, what educational researchers call "pedagogical content knowledge." We can't just say "you need to know this" or "it's good for you." Rather, it is our job as teachers to create those learning moments that help us make sense of complex realities, that clarify without oversimplifying, that disturb our assumptions and force us to think through new ones.

So go ahead, ask away.

But be forewarned. For if your professors can answer the question, and answer it well, then your education is in your hands. You are in control of your future. And I can then ask you the same thing about your own reasons for being in college: Who cares?