When Am I Going To Use This?

At some point during each year that I taught, a student, struggling with the material, would ask the timeless question, “When am I ever going to need to know this?”  Now that I’m in vet school, the teacher in me laughs at the irony as I overhear my classmates saying the same thing.  “Why do I need to know the names of the carpal bones?  Why do I need to know the names of the muscles?  Isn’t it enough to know where to cut and where not to cut?”  They point to the upperclassmen, and even the residents and doctors we’ve met who don’t know the names of the processes of the bones of the forelimb and they lament – Why? Why do we have to learn this when successful individuals before us have forgotten it?

I can sympathize with my classmates just like I empathized with my students before.  It’s easy to get lost in the details and forget why anyone would care about the minutia.  When pinned in the clutches of a looming exam, I, too, find myself slipping into the “I’m never going to use this” blues.  However, I came to an important realization as a teacher, and this realization has remained true in this new segment of my life:  We CAN’T know when we’ll need to know this, and THAT’S why we need to know it.

Our society is changing so quickly that my generation is faced with an unprecedented need for flexibility.  When I was in high school, learning chemistry, I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me that I would be teaching chemistry nine years later.  The possibility wasn’t even remotely on my radar.  However, my experience showed me that, in a world where you change careers every few years, each and every piece of information you possess is a potential asset.  You can’t know when your rudimentary knowledge of chemistry will become your big break in journalism and enable you to land a job writing for a science magazine.  You can’t know when your vague familiarity with Latin American art will lead to a conversation with a stranger that gives you the connection you need to advance your career.  Any piece of information could be the key to impress someone, get their attention, and give you a leg up.  True, it’s entirely possible, and even likely, that you will go your entire life without using any one particular detail, but with the amount of inherent uncertainty in the course of our lives, don’t you want to give yourself every advantage?

If that’s not enough, there’s also the fact that knowledge supports additional knowledge.  Something might make sense in physiology only because of something you learned in anatomy, or something in immunology might be easier to understand because you really learned the detail of that histology lecture.  None of these benefits are immediately apparent because you can’t clairvoyantly know when understanding one thing will help you understand something else in the future.  The interconnectedness of knowledge enables you to help yourself learn something by learning anything else.

Life is a long time, and every time I hear the prediction about how many times my generation will change careers, the number is higher.  Think of how many more options we have now than our parents or grandparents did, and then consider that the rate of change is increasing.  We have very little concept of what our world will be like in twenty years, but it will grow from the information base that exists now.  For that reason, it might be drudgery to memorize charts and tables, but I try to do it optimistically.  If I can’t know what I’ll need to know in the future, I can at least comfort myself by building an arsenal of knowledge against an uncertain future!

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