I was reading again yesterday about the tension in higher education between offering students the kind of college experience that has its eye on preparation for a profession and the kind that is intended as pure academic exploration and edification. (Here’s the piece I read.)

I can’t help but wonder if this dichotomy wouldn’t all but disappear if we were more honest with ourselves and with young people (before they reach college age) about which things we’re insisting they learn for job preparation and which we’ve decided they should know just for the sake of knowing them.

In order to offer this distinction we’d first have to figure out for ourselves which we think are which (not to mention if there are any we might conclude are actually neither).  We tend to get flustered when kids ask us questions like “Why do I have to learn this?” because often we’re not sure.  Or we think we’re sure but when we call forth the response we’ve heard a thousand times from our own parents and other authorities, our voices wobble a bit because the words don’t entirely ring true.  “Algebra is important,” we’ll say, “because, uh, it helps you with problem solving and… abstract thinking?”  Behind the wobble is the suspicion, for example, that maybe algebra didn’t seem to help with problem solving or abstract thinking, that many of us learned those things somewhere else or not at all, and many of us also came away from algebra with little more than the clear message that we weren’t good at math.

We want kids to listen to us and respect us, and of course we want them to be ready to live full productive adult lives.  But we’re often confused about why and when they do and don’t listen; we’re confused about what exactly fosters respect.  Young people listen most intently not when we’re saying what we think we’re supposed to – in as strong a voice as we can muster – but when we consider the actuality of things, even if it means we have to fumble around a bit to find our footing in what’s real and true.  When we respect kids enough to let them see us grappling this way, they can learn to manage nuance themselves.  They’re less likely to tune us out and more likely to engage with us on questions of how to spend their time, what to strive for.

With a rising adult generation available for inquiring and striving this way, I don’t think we’d ever have to choose between learning for learning’s sake and learning for employment’s sake.  The two could march along together, more likely interdependent than mutually exclusive.