The Most Important Subject Isn’t A Subject

The goal of education isn’t knowledge. It’s the love of knowledge.

When educators gather together to discuss various ways to stimulate people’s interest in learning, these discussions are often based on the false assumption that people aren’t already interested in learning in the first place.

There is no such thing as a human being that isn’t curious. People are innately inquisitive. In fact, a case could be made that when we’re children, we’re annoyingly curious. I’ve never met a single adult whose energy and passion for learning was capable of outlasting a child’s. Children can ask questions to no end. In the absence of any authoritative demands, children can come up with all sorts of questions about random things we didn’t even know one could ask questions about. And they don’t stop doing this until they learn to suppress this instinct.

How do they learn to suppress their natural sense of wonder? In a few ways. For starters, they learn from our impatient and frustrated reactions that asking too many questions can be a very easy way to irritate people. Secondly, it’s pretty easy for adults to respond to questions (especially if we don’t know the answer) as if the question isn’t really that important. But those are just a couple of possibilities that are only obtained in some cases. The most powerful factor in killing the curiosity of children is the systemic way in which we compel them to place their interests on the backburner in order to study the things we (adults and authority figures) believe are important.

For instance, to the average adult mind it is much more important for children to learn something like math or science than it is for them to read comic books, mystery novels, or learn about the history of baseball. The logic is obvious. Subjects like math and science are clearly more relevant to practical concerns like getting a job or being a responsible human being. But this is precisely where we need to question our longstanding assumption about what is really important in education: What is the most valuable thing for a child to learn? Is it math, or science, or history, or technology, etc? I think the answer is a compelling “no.” The most important thing a child can acquire is a genuine love for learning, a sincere uncoerced passion for seeking knoweldge, and an unflinching confidence in the benefits that come from opening their minds to new perspectives.

in the essay “On Listening” in Moralia by the Greek-born philosopher Plutarch, we find the following insight:

For the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth. Suppose someone were to go and ask his neighbours for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his innate flame, his own intellect,

It seems that our dominant conception of education is still largely influenced by the “mind as vessel” metaphor of knowledge acquisition. Our job as teachers and responsible adults, we suppose, is to deposit the right kind of information into the minds of young learners. We are the fact-dispensers and they are they vessels into which we pour our wisdom. Moreover this process is seen to be an intrinsically valuable one. That is, we see ourselves as being justified in taking this approach even if our students never show interest in what we try to teach them. Should we experience any failures in getting them to embrace our fact-dispensing efforts, we generally interpret those failures as being due to a learning disorder, a character flaw, a lack of proper priorities, or a stubborn unwillingness to submit to authority. The primary problem with this metaphor (and the approaches to teaching it inspires) is that it underestimates how much a person’s knowledge can be devalued by their failure to clearly see the relevance, value, and beauty of such knowledge relative to their own freely chosen goals.

The mere possession of knowledge can never be a substitute for a heartfelt passion for learning. There are possibilities born of love that can never be duplicated by actions that are born out of a sense of duty. If a person loves to read, loves to ask questions, loves to purse information, loves to do research, they push themselves to learn whatever they need to learn, no matter how difficult it is, when they see that knowledge as a necessary condition for creating what they want. Such people don’t have to be motivated by grades, credentials, fear of being put in detention, or the stickers and stars of school teachers. A person who loves what they know and who is genuinely curious for understanding more will make more interesting connections, be more committed to exploring new possibilities, and be more likely to creatively apply their understanding of things in comparison with those who simply learn to become masters at passing tests and completing assignments based on what other people consider to be important.

I think we need to spend less time trying to figure out how to make people interested in learning and more time developing an accurate understanding of how naturally curious human beings already are. There are no uninterested and unmotivated human beings in the absolute sense. There are only people who are uninterested and unmotivated in relation to topics and activities that we believe they ought to be interested in. What would happen if instead of asking children to make their interests subservient to our adult learning agendas, we challenged ourselves to make our own infatuation with “important” subjects subservient to a child’s already exploding sense of wonder? What would happen if we treated every subject as if it were less important than the fundamental agenda of creating spaces that support, nourish, and amplify young people’s innate understanding that the pursuit of knowledge can be fun, invigorating, positively addicting, and self-empowering?

Instead of fighting for new methods that will stimulate people’s interest in things they clearly aren’t interested in, why not invest our time and energy into starting with what people (including children) already care about and using that as the bridge to new areas of learning? Why not challenge ourselves to earn other people’s interest (including children) by becoming masters at understanding their priorities and catering our learning agendas to their passions and goals?

“TK are you honestly asking me to make math seem relevant and fun to someone whose worldview is limited to asking for toys and cookies?”

Yes! That’s exactly what I’m asking you to do.

More importantly, I’m asking you the following question as well:

“What gives you the right to assume that your understanding of math (or anything else) is truly legitimate and actually important if you seriously aren’t able to make it relevant to someone who’s only interested in eating cookies and playing with toys?”