Why Learn Anything?

It's not too late to drop the class.
It’s not too late to drop the class.

“Why do I need to learn how to draw Bode plots?”

This might have been the toughest question a student ever asked me.

“Because I just spent the last 30 minutes talking about it and it’s going to be on the final exam.”

The truth was, I had no idea. I hadn’t drawn a Bode plot since I took analog circuits as an undergrad. Not a single one of those students will ever have to draw a freaking Bode plot unless they decide to pursue a career as an analog circuit designer, in which case I would advise them to begin filling out their Centrelink* applications right now. And I would like to think that even Australian semiconductor companies have access to the luxury of computer systems these days.

I received similar questions during my brief tenure as a university lecturer:
“Why do I need to learn to code in assembly?” Because you might go work for one of the 3 companies left on the planet who require that. “Why do I need to learn the Fermi-Dirac distribution?” Because you might hate your parents and decide to become a physicist. “Why do we need to learn binary arithmetic?” Because your calculator might break. Oh, and we’re going to build a microcontroller later in the term.


Here’s an excerpt from Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick (highly recommended). This was a much better response from a high school math teacher whose students always asked, “When are we ever going to need this?”

    Now I say, “Never. You will never use this.”

    I then go on to remind them that people don’t lift weights so that they will be prepared should, one day, [someone] knock them over on the street and lay a barbell across their chests. You lift weights so that you can knock over a defensive lineman, or carry your groceries or lift your grandchildren without being sore the next day. You do math exercises so that you can improve your ability to think logically, so that you can be a better lawyer, doctor, architect, prison warden or parent.

    MATH IS MENTAL WEIGHT TRAINING. It is a means to an end (for most people), not an end in itself.

So, kids, you really need to draw Bode plots to foster the self-loathing that will plague you for the rest of your careers as an engineer, so that you can become a more pliable employee, spouse, parent, or doormat.

*Centrelink is the Australian equivalent of welfare checks.

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