If you've ever been a student you may have asked the question, "Why do I have to study this?" Our good friend Vanilla, the man with the string shortage, has retired after a career in education. He told me that this was the most frequently asked question in the math classes that he taught.
I recently helped the granddaughter of a friend with trigonometry. Her first question was, "Why do I have to study trigonometry?" I didn’t have a ready answer. Later, I searched online for an answer. That turned into an exercise in disappointment! Who would be satisfied with answers like these?
1. It's the next unit in the book.
2. The curriculum committee says you have to.
3. It's on the SAT.
4. Mathematicians find it "elegant."
5. In case you ever need to know the height of a flag pole.
The “Why” question is one that I had wrestled with as a student. It was never satisfactorily answered. Those five responses are all poor responses to the question IMHO. They are true, at least the first four are true, but they are not designed to satisfy the questioner.
In our most recent session I had a paper sack sitting on the table. A folder clip held the top closed and a post it note on the side had "Why?" written in large flowing script. Inside on separate strips of folded paper I had printed reasons 1 through 5 from the list above. From time to time the girl would glance at the sack, but she never said anything about it. I answered the questions that she had brought with her and we discussed the effects of crosswinds on an airplane's flight path and related topics.
She looked at sack again. I asked if she remembered her first question. She did with a tiny prompt and I confessed that I hadn't given her a good answer to that question. Now it is was time to talk about the question.
I shook the sack and she reached in and pulled out #1, then #3, #2 and #4. As she read the first three answers, she would say, "That's true." I would respond, "But not satisfying." Her response? "Right!" As she read #4, her dad (an accountant) said, "Hey, that what they told me."
When she pulled out #5 and read it, she reacted with scoffing laughter. (I was pleased that the ridiculous answer came out last.)
After that I explained that you can divide reasons to study a given topic or subject into at least two reasons:
1. You need to know this. Reading, writing and arithmetic are needful to function in our society, for example. An engineer will use trig and calculus on the job.
2. You will enrich your world if you know this. These are topics that are not entirely essential, but they give you deeper insight into the world around you and how it works.
There is yet another reason why we read about and study topics. That is when something is interesting or fun for us. Would you have given a different answer?