15 Comments

  1. Do people actually blow off certain subjects in school because they won’t be “useful”? Or is it just because they’re lazy?

  2. I have seen educated adults ask challengingly, “When have you actually needed / used algebra in real life?” Generally they put in a clause excluding working in science or in mathematically advanced professions (social science research, finance…).

    I have offered answers about adjusting recipes for different numbers of people. The response to that has been, No you don’t need to write an equation, it’s just a problem in ratios-and-proportions, which is taught in elementary arithmetic.

  3. That “when have you actually used…” question could be applied to pretty much every high school subject, but is usually applied to algebra and a foreign language.

    English (now language arts)? You learned to read and write in elementary school. History? It’s not clear that many of us are applying whatever lessons history may be able to teach us. Chemistry? Biology? Haven’t need to dissect a frog in quite a while. Phys Ed? Obesity rates would suggest that didn’t take for many of us.

  4. Biology class is far more than just learning how to dissect frogs. Dissecting frogs gives insight into how animals operate. And since we are animals, it gives insight into how we operate. Which is important for anyone to know because it helps keep us healthy.

  5. I learned nothing from Phys Ed in school. Not because that’s impossible, because my school was terrible.

    I’ve used every one of those other topics.

  6. I think before you can answer people about where they use algebra, you need to first distinguish between learning algebra, and learning algebra: memorizing a bunch of formulas without the first clue of what they mean in the real world, even if you get an ‘A’, yeah, you will never use algebra in ‘real’ life (Feynman describes his university physics students in Brasil as these types of learners); but if you “learn” algebra as a tool, a way of seeing the world, you will use it almost every day of your life, even if you don’t realize it.

    I would say the best example is what I was bitching about in a prior thread, that Aldi mixes and matches calculating price per pound and price per oz. with no rhyme or reason except possibly malice — in order to compare prices, you need to do algebra, even if you’re unaware you’re doing it: assume you know that 16 oz = 1 lb, then you know that this product costs 45¢ per oz., and you need to know if that is greater than or less than the competing product, which costs $7.99 per lb. You need to solve for either x or y, that is either how much the first item is per pound (x = .45 * 16) or how much the second is per oz. (y = 7.99 / 16). In this case you might intuitively “see” that 7.99 is basically 8, which easily divides 16, so you instantly “see” that the second product cost just about 50¢ per oz., so the first product is cheaper, but that doesn’t mean you’re still not doing algebra! And if you don’t trust the store’s calculation, you need algebra even more to take the price, divide it by the weight to get the price per weight, then multiply that by the weight of the second product to get a price you can compare with the first one.

  7. The motivation for the people crowding that aisle may not be because the information is now highly useful, but because they now find it interesting. That could happen with any topic, from foreign language to chemistry or physics. The popularity of “A Brief History of Time” wasn’t because grasping astronomy and quantum physics became crucial to their lives. The same is true with the ubiquitous “learn to speak a foreign language in 3 weeks” programs.

  8. My work life was spent as a reference librarian in a university arts/humanities/social sciences library, so all of my high school and college courses in those areas indeed proved useful, over and over again. And I agree with Lark that algebra proved useful in situations such as he described (and in general for teaching me organized ways of thinking and of attacking problems — and besides, it was fun). Music proved “useful” only in showing that I was pretty much tonedeaf, so I shouldn’t try singing in public. Physical education proved “useful” mostly in reminding me that I really really wanted to have a career that didn’t involve having to be doing physical educationish things ever again. And the high school class that perhaps proved most useful of all to me was . . . typing.

  9. I would hope that most of that bookshelf is Civics. But I guess that’s an awful lot to hope for.

  10. I’m not a native English speaker, but I studied at a secondary school where English was used as a medium of instruction (as an after effect of colonialism). Now I work as a translator and have to deal with source materials of a wide variety of subjects, so almost all subjects that I learnt in secondary school are now useful.

  11. On the Eyebeam comic, what’s lacking is the ever-present water bottle beside each person exercising.

  12. I didn’t teach in a high school, but rather in a vocational college. Our teaching had to start with answering, “here is why you need to know this.” because adult learners are particularly likely to decide not to expend any effort to learn if they don’t foresee the benefit of doing so. Fortunately, in vocational education, the reason for learning things is “you want to be able to do the job, right?” and this is fairly easy to “sell”. The hard part is conveying “you can trust me to tell you what you REALLY need to know how to do” without having to say those words. (the secret is to know what the heck you’re talking about. If you have THAT, sounding convincing isn’t very hard.)

  13. I use the accounting I learned in high school (and before that from my dad and after that in college and more from my dad).

    I use stuff from chemistry and physics classes when doing things around the house.

    I use the history I learned as the basis for learning more history as it was much more interesting (and made more sense) than it was it school.

    Definitely use the home ec class skills – both for cooking and sewing thing such as Covid masks, 18th century repro clothing and air conditioner cover (for inside the house) over the past several years. Embroidery though I started learning before I started school. Art, as bad as I was, lets me design my own embroidery pieces.

    In English classes I learned to sepll correctly (that was how spelled spelling before the teacher worked with me).

    And certainly I use reading – which I learned in school.

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