“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
It’s the dreaded question: “When are we ever gonna use this?”
This starts an exasperating conversation wherein I feel like I have to somehow argue the validity of my career and my contributions to society. This conversation ends up with me tired and annoyed and the student unconvinced that school is anything but a game, a hurdle that he must jump before finally being an adult.
The idea of this conversation haunted me while I was studying to be a teacher. “When are we ever gonna use this?” Back then, I imagined students asking me this question and I couldn’t think of a satisfactory answer. I feared that I would be unable to convince students that learning is inherently valuable. I knew that I didn’t remember everything I learned in school. I knew that, beyond the world of academia, knowing how to properly cite an essay wasn’t that important. I knew that a person could still live a full life without knowing what the green light in The Great Gatsby represents. It took some serious thinking and a few years of teaching to feel confident when students ask this question.
Albert Einstein has the answer: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
Knowing the quadratic equation is important. The Great Gatsby is maybe even more important. Truly significant learning isn’t about remembering facts and figures. While remembering formulas can help solve specific problems, understanding Jay Gatsby’s hopeful quest for Daisy can help students appreciate the feelings, motivations, and actions of others.
True education is learning perspective.
This belief guides my English classes. I don’t expect my students to remember the name of the suitor in “A Rose for Emily” or the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I expect them to maintain their horizons which the stories have broadened. As their teacher, I give them a peek into someone else’s life and world, even if fictional, and my hope is that they, as students, accept the story and hold onto the deeper meaning—the empathy.
Now, when students ask me the dreaded question, I have no doubt or hesitation in my voice when I tell them that although they might not use this particular story, the very act of reading it and understanding it will prove valuable. I explain how, fundamentally, practicing reading and writing will make them more competent, literate adults and citizens. I explain that reading and discussing stories deepens their compassion and understanding of the human condition. I explain that writing about the story will create connections between themselves and something other than themselves.
I’m not positive that they listen to the whole speech. In fact, I’m confident that most don’t—that they groan and tune me out because I’m a teacher and of course I’ll defend my class work. But that’s okay with me. Sometimes they’ll listen, and if I know anything about teenagers, it’s that they can tell when adults are being sincere and when they aren’t. I am hopeful that my passion and sincerity will nudge them towards appreciating literature, or at least appreciating shared stories. Sure, they might not remember everything we read together, but perhaps they’ll grow with each story.
Alyse Garcia teaches English and Composition at Perry High School. Writing bios gives her anxiety.