There was once a cynical man who lived alone at the end of a rural road. His closest neighbor was about a quarter mile away. The cynical man was very practical, and very literal. He only saw the need to practice things that had a direct connection to his day to day life. He sat in his front lawn each morning under his big oak tree, and read his newspaper for the weather report, the stock report, and the classifieds because these things affected his daily life. It irritated him to to no end that his nearest neighbor, each morning, would rise and go for a run to the nearest gym, about two miles away.
"Why do you do this every day?" the cynical man asked him once.
"Because I want to stay in shape. It's healthy, " the neighbor responded.
"What exactly does this workout let you do?"
"I can lift about 400 pounds right off the floor. Because I run, my endurance level is higher and I can do more activity. My heart and lungs are in better shape. There are lots of benefits," the neighbor replied with a smile.
The cynical man shook his head. "That seems like a lot of work for something I can get just by eating right and doing a little moving around. I see no way this is important to your everyday life. I mean, when are you ever going to need to lift 400 pounds off the floor? We have tools that can accomplish that sort of thing. Why work so hard?"
Some time later, the cynical man was sitting on his front porch, under the shade of his big tree, when a sudden gust of wind brought a loud crack above his head. Before he knew it, a huge branch fell from the tree, and trapped him, pinned to the ground. He pushed and pushed, but it would not budge. He knew his neighbor was gone for his morning exercise, so he watch and waited for him to return.
After almost an hour, he could see a tiny dot moving closer and closer, so he yelled "HELP!" The neighbor heard him, and began to sprint to help him. The neighbor ran over, looked at the branch, squatted down and lifted the it, with great effort, off the cynical man.
The cynical man thanked his neighbor profusely, and then asked, "How were you able to lift that log? It was so heavy."
The neighbor smiled, and said, "Yeah. It was about 400 pounds."
I have to give credit here, the idea for this parable came from a pastor friend of mine several years ago, Glenn Shock. He had heard the concept from someone else, a math teacher, I believe years before. So the moral comes from them.
Students often ask "How can I use this in real life?" They cannot see how algebra will help them in life. Or how knowing who signed the Declaration of Independence is beneficial. My friend once shared that a math teacher (I think) once told him that math is a lot like exercise- yeah, you will rarely need to sprint real fast, or lift a lot of weight without aid, but exercise keeps us in shape to be able to do it if we need to. Math is mental exercise, algebra is weightlifting for the mind.
In turn, when we study science and literature, we learn key analytical skills that help us assess situations and personalities and motives of those things and people around us. When we read Shakespeare, it helps us understand the non-fiction people around us better, when we solve for X or understand how chemical solutions work, our brains can solve day to day things like how a system works or why sugar won't dissolve in ice tea effectively. You know, important things.
Those seemingly random things that students complain about are in fact extremely relevant. The hard part of our job is getting students to develop the patience to understand that they often won't know just how relevant until the moment requires it.
By the way, in Psychology, we call that "Latent Learning."