When I taught history to American students in a U.S high school, I would often get laments like: “I am never going to need this material, why do I have to learn it?” and, “Is this going to be on the test?”
For years I struggled with the attitude behind these words. It represented a very different perspective than my own about knowledge and life in general. It was foreign to my way of thinking.
During my teen years, when I stumbled into difficult predicaments, I developed a repeated response: my situation was due to my ignorance of some bit of information or wisdom that was obvious to most people, but not me. Had I just known more I could have avoided the pain that I had experienced. Why had I not been smarter?
My standard internal answer became: I do not know enough.
Ignorance was painful. This attitude drove me to find answers. That meant I would read books with questions in my head, searching for a solution. If I ran into someone who was an expert in the area I was thinking about, I would pepper him/her with questions to learn their thoughts and perspectives. If I saw a movie or read a book with a parallel story I would compare and contrast the two events to see if I could see things through different eyes.
I still have that reaction when I trip up and make a mistake, and when I fail. I sometimes spend weeks, months and even years with questions in my head, searching for understanding.
Now, with the Internet and search engines, I have the opportunity and, at my age, time to explore a myriad of questions. I spend a great deal of my time researching – increasing my knowledge base.
With time I came to understand that I was being too hard on myself. We all find ourselves in situations where we do not know the answers. That is part of the human condition. We walk about in a fog until we gain enough experience to see the patterns of what is happening. Paradoxically, I realize that I am different from most people in that I get caught up and consumed about finding answers. Most people do not think that hard.
After hearing my students question the relevance of what I was teaching again and again, I developed answers for them: For the students who stated, “I am never going to need this material, why do I have to learn it?” my answer became: “How do you know what information you will need in the future? None of us knows what lies before us – what we will need or not need to know. So learn as much as you can about everything so you can be prepared when faced with the unexpected.”
For the students who asked me, “Is this going to be on the test?” my response was, “Maybe, and even if it is not, you might find the information useful in some practical ways in your life. You need to have faith that I have experienced a few more years of living than you have, and I am trying to prepare you to be ready for the unknown.”
King Solomon summed it up nicely in Proverbs 2: “If you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as hidden treasure… then you will understand what is right and just and fair – every good path. For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you.”
Ignorance is not bliss. It hurts.