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Why Go to School?

(C) 2003, Don Mize


Suppose you lived in a society where authority figures assigned your work.  When
you went to your assigned job, you were given tasks to perform.  You were given
a schedule, paid nothing, required to be on time, and you were constantly
evaluated.  If you failed, you were required to repeat the task the next year.

Suppose you occasionally asked why you were assigned a certain task, and you
were told that you would understand it better by and by.  The task was good for
you, would help you succeed in the real world, and would be appreciated
someday.  So you put in your eight hours on meaning-less tasks only to be given
more work to do at home.

For years I have asked parents, “How would you like to live in such a world?”  
They always reply, “I wouldn’t.”  I then point out that this is the world of the
student. They do not choose to go to school; they are required to go to school.  
They do not understand why they should take certain subjects; they are assigned
certain subjects.  They are constantly evaluated, under pressure, and, if they
complete their work, they will be assigned more.  No wonder so many students
withdraw emotionally and wander through classes.  We can do two things to help.

First of all, we can take their job seriously.  We can stop calling their problems
imaginary, stop telling them they are experiencing the best days of their lives, and
stop pretending only adults live in the real world.  Most students are evaluated far
more often than their working parents.  Both parents and students have more
work assigned than they can do, experience conflict, and deal with unreasonable
demands.  Both parents and students are under pressure, and both must cope
with stress, anger, frustration, and lack of motivation.  Both parents and students
live in the real world.

The second thing we can do to help is to relate today’s task to life rather than to
some nebulous future.  Every subject teaches four skills that will be used for a
lifetime: how to read; how to write; how to think; and how to learn.  Reading is
obvious, for we live in a society in which we must read constantly even if we are
reading a computer screen.  All of us need to write well enough to communicate,
and some work demands advanced writing skills.  Less obvious is the fact that
school is designed to teach us to think.  In a constantly changing world with
changing problems, we must learn to think things through and choose workable
solutions.  Thinking is a life skill, not merely an academic one.

Equally important is learning how to learn.  When a student is required to take a
foreign language or to take a dreaded math course, he must learn how to learn
that material.  Some students find math easy, but literature, history, and sociology
awkward. In learning how to learn something “unnatural,” a student improves an
important skill.  I’ve never been able to prove to a student that she will use
algebra someday, but I have been able to show students that learning how to learn
algebra will help them succeed in a changing world where learning new material is
a daily necessity.

Even tests are important, for we need the skill to “bone up” for a specific
situation.  I know a young man who was applying for a job, and he needed to
review and relearn some material to make a good impression.  Like studying for a
test in school, he had to prepare and perform under pressure.

School is life.  Students work hard and face many demands.  We need to
appreciate their job, remember how we hate to bring work home, help them
develop coping skills, and assure them the effort is worthwhile.  We forget
information, but the skills of reading, writing, thinking, and learning how to learn
are life skills we use every day.
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