“Teacher; why do we have to learn this stuff?”


My Classmates, 1964 – Linsly (Military) Institute, Wheeling WV

Not sure how I can make the obvious sound somewhat thoughtful, but here goes.

At my 50th high school celebration this week-end, I remembered many questions of my high school classmates, “Why do we need to know this?” Usually that queston was associated with math, but no subject went unchallenged.

If you are going to teach math, you should study it. If you are going to be a lawyer, you had better know English. But what else? I wince when I hear Neal Degrasse’ Tyson say “hopefully”, and archeologist and scientists fracturing their syntax. Someone at their high school let them down.

A trial lawyer who is erudite has power. He knows psychology, philosophy, science, and literature. He knows how civilization evolved, how our legal system developed, how mankind’s conception of the self, and others, changed, how species interact with their environment or become extinct. His vocabulary and knowledge of literature, and perhaps music, is vast. She is curious and always looking for new ways to accomplish tasks

And, scientists who knows the history of what they are studying, and of the world, have an edge over those who do not. They have read the biographies of the great scientists, and learned how scientific development influenced and was influenced by, war, political change, art, and religion.

The most cutting edge, brilliant, minds are the point at the tip of the needle of humankind’s development. They are the Newtons and the Einsteins. Perhaps, for these brilliant thinkers, we just throw away the mold and let them pursue whatever they want; but what of an average “smart person”. There are millions of us, and we tend to run the world.

Such a person is more of a person, and certainly more productive and more influential, if they are consumed by curiosity and driven by lots of energy. My guess is they tend to be much more accomplished than the lazy or unimaginative smart guy. Think of Donald Rumsfeld who did not care one whit about the destruction of the treasures of the cradle of civilization in Iraq. Pretty smart guy, but he did plenty of damage. Big brain, small heart.

Finally, we get one shot. One pass through in life.

That reality is so shocking that some religions invented reincarnation and some eternal life. I say why not try to get it right? And, how better to do that than to learn absolutely as much as we can about pretty much everything?

If you are smart enough to visualize tiny, tiny things, or vast time and distance, or Zeno’s Paradox of how a moving arrow can occupy a point in time AND be moving, why not think about those things instead of how a sports team you have followed for 40 years is going to do this year. Simple answer, there is much a thinking person can learn from sports; even situation comedies. There should be room in every life for plain old recreation.

There are interesting things about puzzles and games, especially baseball or chess. They occupy the mind, and feed our competitive appetites, but, for me, they don’t teach me new things. I own the biography of Virginia Wolfe, and one of these days, by damn, I am going to read it. Biographies of famous people give me a clue about how to negotiate my own path in life.

Watching other people live, of course, teaches. Those ahead of me, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older colleagues, like John S. Holy of Holy, Hunter, and Morris, who practiced law until he was 90, teach us much.

So, what is my answer to “Why should I learn that?” is:

Because you are going to live a long life and you do not know what will come in handy.

You have others who rely on you who need you to be wise and capable.

“God” gave you something that 99.9999999999999999999999 % (give or take a few 9’s) of all living creatures do not have, self-awareness and empathy. One of my “can’t helps” is we have those traits for a reason, so, darn it, use them!

Think, feel, try, laugh, do not fear to fail, and lead. That’s about the best I can explain it.

This post was written by Burton Hunter

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