“Why Do I Have to Learn This?”

It’s better to learn now, than not know it when you need it.

Why do I have to learn this?” “Will this be on the test?”

These are questions I heard often as a high school social studies teacher. I heard them thousands of times over my public high school career. It took me about 25 years to come up with an answer that satisfied their concerns. If you have been a secondary student, a parent, grandparent, school counselor, or anyone dealing with American school children, read on.

These questions reflect the mindset of adolescents who struggle to see the big picture and the relevance of what is being taught in our public schools. Adolescents tend to inhabit the “intense present”—the now. Most aren’t thinking far ahead. They are impatient for simple, quick, easy answers that bring them closure, not realizing that life is not always that clear, simple, or black-and-white.

It took me a long time to figure out how to answer their questions because for me learning was a joy and a challenge—it was brain candy—and still is. I didn’t understand why they were so narrow in their thinking. When I learned something new, I figured I could use it someday in the future, in places I knew I could not even conceive. Life is interlinked and interrelated. It’s all connected.

After my high school teaching career, I taught international high school students at Green River College for ten years. Only from the Russian students did I hear the above questions. The reason is that Russian and American culture are very similar, and even though we fought a Cold War with them for 46 years, we didn’t trust each other because we could see ourselves in them and they could see themselves in us. Like magnets, likes tend to repel.

Most of my students at GRC were Asians who had been steeped in Confucianism where respect for education and especially for teachers was a chief value of the culture. Their cultures were also authoritarian and patriarchal. The authority figure commanded, and you obeyed—or else. You were conditioned to do what you were told. As a teacher, that’s why I always liked having Catholic or LDS students. Their religious upbringing made for strong family values and obedience to those higher on the hierarchy.

American students and adults, too, on the other hand, tend to rebel against being told what to do. All you have to do to see this is to view the response and resistance to mask wearing and COVID vaccinations among many Americans. I can almost hear them silently screaming as I pass them in the supermarkets, wearing no masks: “You can’t tell me what to do! I’ve got my rights.” As a young teacher coming out of an authoritarian cult, I learned that I couldn’t just tell my students what to do. I had to ask them lest they become rebellious and disobedient.

“Enough philosophy and culture! Tell us your answer to the above questions!”

Okay, here it is: I simply said, “In your lives you don’t know what is going to happen to you in the future or what knowledge you are going to need. It’s far smarter to learn the information you are being given even if you see no immediate use for it. Then you have a memory bank like a savings account that you can draw from when unfamiliar situations arise. You can withdraw from your account because you have stored up knowledge for the future.”

This approach worked for most of my students after only one time. It succeeded because I had helped them to see the bigger picture and to take a long-term view of the future. There were some students like me who just liked learning for the sake of learning, but for the rest of them, they needed something more. My statement brought them clarity and perspective.

Thirty-or-so years later, I received comments from former students. They told me, “Now I understand what Mr. Elfers was talking about.” My encouragement to create a memory bank of information finally had harvested an interest payment. I think this approach will work for your children, grandchildren, and your students if you are a teacher or counselor. It might even help you to understand yourselves better as an adult. It might explain why you had difficulty learning when you were an adolescent. Learning is like brain candy. You just have to acquire a taste for it.

“For many students, school is an obligation, not a joy and a privilege. This means you have to ‘sell’ learning to them.” —Eric Jensen