I’m Never Going to Use This

I’m never going to use this.

This statement is the battle cry of the reluctant student. It’s hard to argue with this objection because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The problem with the claim is that we never know what we are going to use.

I’m a bit of a romantic about education. It broadens horizons. It exposes people to new topics and perspectives. It creates opportunities. I believe all of these things. I’m also a realist, and I know that some classes are a drag for some students. (And some classes are a drag for a lot of students.) But if you are one of those students feeling dragged down, or a parent of one of those students, I hope you will consider eliminating “I’m never going to use this” from your reactions to a class. It is counterproductive to entertain that thought.

Here’s an example of something one is “never going to use” in professional adult life: reading Shakespeare. Today I led a pre-college session introducing promising young people to marketing careers. One of the exercises we did was to read some detailed job descriptions for entry-level marketing jobs. I asked them to put checks by the phrases that they understood and underline phrases they had questions about. This wasn’t just a class exercise. This is a good way to approach a job description in a job search: with an active and curious mind.

What were we doing? Close reading. Working our way through dense, difficult language. The descriptions were written in English, but with a healthy dose of industry-specific lingo. There’s a certain skill to reading between the lines. It felt like deciphering Shakespeare.

Educators try to strike a balance between building specific, concrete skills and imparting concepts. I teach in a business school. Concepts, and their cousin “theory,” have a bad rap among students. But we are doing our students a disservice if the specific, concrete skills are not working to support some more abstract skill, like close reading or quantitative fluency or critical thinking. The more abstract the skill, the longer the shelf life and the broader the application.

Even if you don’t know how you will use something being covered in a class, you will be happier and more motivated and probably perform better if you accept that there is some chance that you will, indeed, use it.

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