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Why ‘useful’ is not always useful!

Using the term 'useful’ in education winds me up hugely. Why? Because I do not find it very helpful. It is often very narrowly conceived, very subjectively employed, and, frankly, at risk, therefore, in my opinion of ruining something very simple in education, joy and passion.

I see posts all the time about education not teaching anything 'useful’ for adult life. But what is meant by that? If you mean, education could build more encouragement and building of individual resilience, confidence, courage to fly and be who you are, take risks, then I would absolutely agree. Crucial lessons! And I also wish I had had a little more of that.

If what is meant is that cooking, budgeting, mortgage planning, functioning of government both nationally and locally, could be built into the school curriculum (not necessarily 'examined’ perhaps), then yes, there is a place for that. We had Home Economics classes at school and I learnt a variety of skills. My only caveat here is that much of this is learnt at home, too and that we shouldn’t conceive of education as happening only in school.

However, if 'useful’ is being used in the sense of 'well, what was the point of studying Macbeth, I haven’t used it in my adult life?’ Well, neither have I (actually, I read that one on my own, I had to suffer Romeo and Juliet at school), not in the sense of being immediately applicable in every day situations. But has it enriched me as a person? Yes. Has it actually informed my perspective? Yes. In fact, I have jus slightly contradicted what I said about it being immediately applicable. Okay, so it’s not going to help me drive, do my shopping, get a mortgage, cook. However, when one hears about terrible crimes and deeds motivated by revenge or ambition, one can surely reflect that Shakespeare has given us a deeper and darker truth? A play might be for entertainment, but that does not make it irrelevant or devoid of a takeaway message. What is wrong with being able to look out on a beautiful autumn day (as I am now doing as I type) and feel the truth of Keats’s beautiful, 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’? Education IS undeniably about equipping us for life, but that should not be defined simply as learning how to survive or get through the day, or only learning about subjects which reflect trends of the moment.

'Useful’ can also be very subjectively applied if someone simply doesn’t like a subject and does not see it as useful to them. However, that is a poor criterion for judgement. It might be the subject that gives someone else the spark and encouragement to fly.

Education must also help us to learn about what it is to be human, how we respect and interact with others, how easily we can slip into the more harmful traits of our nature. Here, there are no better teachers than Socrates, Greek Tragedy, Shakespeare, to name just a few. However, it can also help us appreciate the beauty of the world (as with the Keats’ quotation above), and, therefore, hopefully nurture our desire to protect it.

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