“When are we ever going to use this in our real lives?” is a question many students are known to ask their teachers when trying to memorize a certain fact or understand a particular concept. While it’s true that many students will not use the Pythagorean theorem in their careers, and while it’s unlikely that they are frequently going to be asked to recite the preamble to the Constitution in their adult lives, there are underlying skills and concepts involved in mastering these skills that will serve students well long after they graduate, even if they don’t realize that at the time.
High school aged students may not think that committing names, dates and facts to memory, as they are often asked to do in history classes, is not a valuable use of their time. And while it’s true that knowing exactly when the Great Depression began and ended won’t necessarily help someone understand the causes and effects of this difficult period of American history, understanding where the Great Depression fits in the overall narrative of the American story is important.
Likewise, it hardly matters which novels students read in high school (though no American should graduate high school without reading To Kill a Mockingbird), but the act of reading literature, of deciphering subtext, of recalling particular details and making connections between fictional worlds and real events. For example, when students read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, they should concurrently learn about the McCarthy era, the blacklist and the House for Un-American Activities. The art of a time period is frequently inspired by the events that occurring during the artist’s life. Musicians, painters and writers were frequently displeased with what was happening socially and politically, and would use their art to reflect their frustrations.
Not every work of literature is a direct response to a social or political event, but every one is a product of the time it was created (even if the work itself has achieved “timeless” status). Someone born with the exact same DNA as Jane Austen would not be able to write Pride and Prejudice in the twenty-first century because she would not be constantly bombarded with the fact that the only way for a woman to achieve independence is to marry a wealthy man. The limited options available to women was very clear to the single Jane during her lifetime, and she appears to have vented her frustrations in her most famous novel, but an intelligent, talented woman living in the present day would have a lot more opportunities to distinguish herself without a husband (in most countries, at least). Every novel can be a little history lesson for a careful reader.
It’s unlikely that explaining these things to a fifteen-year-old will make him or her any less reluctant to study The French and Indian War or read The Iliad, but the knowledge that these activities actually do teach students skills they will use in their real lives should provide teachers with some degree of comfort.