Yesterday a homeschool family came in to choose some materials for their high school senior. You will realize from the fact that they are just choosing materials in November that this was not a dedicated homeschool family. They also had an interesting philosophy: namely, they did not want anything that the student would not “need to know.” She dismissed algebra and geometry with a wave of her hand, history without even waving, and literature entirely.

I tried to suggest that she might enjoy some of the classic works (Ivanhoe, for some reason, was the book that seemed most likely to enchant her, and I pressed it into her hands, but she gave it back quite firmly) and even that a nice overview of world history might be handy for understanding current events. I suggested that she might want to go to college some day, and that she might like to have a smattering of knowledge so she could conduct conversations with people. “If you are at a job interview and someone makes a remark about Shakespeare,” I hazarded, “you won’t want to feel lost.” “I have NO interest in Shakespeare,” she told me firmly. And I could see that she would not be interviewing for the kind of job that involves airy persiflage about literature. Art, music, foreign languages, and science were all turned down as well. “If you read something in the paper,” I said, “a basic knowledge of statistics can help you know whether or not to change your behavior because of it.” Nope. They left empty-handed.

Later, as I checked in stock for the holidays (and admired the Empress’s order of Thai toys, including “Bumping Sumos” and the wooden monkey game which prepares children for “your lifelong practice of hammering away at fixed objects”), I thought about this idea of need-to-know education.

After all, how many things are there that you really need to know? You need to be able to do all sorts of things, including basic reading and math and whatever physical skills your job might require. You probably need to be able to do household things like cooking and sewing on buttons and keeping some reasonable level of order in the house, changing diapers, training animals, repairing things, driving a car — although it is possible to pay people to do all these things, or even to marry someone who can do them for you. You need to be able to get along with people, to whatever degree your personal life goals require it. If you intend to do something for pleasure besides watching TV and shopping (the two main recreational activities in the U.S. today), then you might need some skills there.

But even if it can be said that you need some skills, do you actually need to know anything at all? In the course of my work day yesterday I had to use basic math skills, and I needed to know the name of the shape arrived at by slicing up an octahedron (I resorted to calling a mathematician or two, and have determined that there is no such word). We were considering using an article in our newsletter (the same one for which I needed that nonexistent word) until the paragraph in which the author claimed that many immigrant children “are not fluent in their native language” and “do not know the constructs of their own language.” So I suppose I needed to be able to read, and to recognize that the author’s claims were false. An apostrophe issue arose, and I know the rules on that, which was handy, but of course we could have looked it up. I needed to know where things were in the store and how one baby doll differed from another in terms of child development. I had to be able to keep up my end of conversations with customers, which ranged from women’s rights (in reference to baby dolls) to crafts to dogs to humpback whales — but I suppose I could have gazed blankly at all those people as they made their conversational sallies. I would not keep my job, but I could work at some other place.

After work, I needed to know the traffic laws of my state, and where my study group was meeting, and some songs, or how to follow the printed music. Then I needed to know how to read a knitting pattern. But again, all these things are skills rather than knowledge.

Aside from being able to converse with people, a fifth grade education would probably have sufficed for all the things I actually needed to know. (I am assuming here that the average fifth grader knows that everyone is fluent in his or her native language, that being part of the definition of “native language”.)

What then is the value of knowing all kinds of other stuff? Potential is one, at least for young people. “You might want to study physics,” I pointed out to the unwilling student. It is axiomatic that young people should learn all they can, because you never know what you might need to know about for a future choice. But, hey, I might want to study physics, too. You never know.

And pleasure is another. My family’s motto could be, along with Kipling’s mongoose, “Go and find out.” It seems natural to want to know things, to enjoy learning.

Our UPS lady once arrived with boxes while we discussing an article we had read which claimed that there was no longer any value in studying the works of Shakespeare. She said that her high school study of Shakespeare had been the beginning, for her, of a lifelong love of the theater. She goes to Shakespeare festivals. It is a source of joy in her life. That’s worth something.

You might also want to play trivia games some day. Or talk with people. Or think about things, to keep yourself amused while you use those basic skills learned before fifth grade.

This is not a homeschool thing, by the way. There is a school of thought in public education which holds that the amount and kind of information needed for modern life is incalculable, so all that can usefully be taught is the skill of finding things out. This is a good skill to have, but it still seems sort of like agnosticism applied to education.

Fortunately, a little boy came in with his mother and told me all that he knew about whales, and how he had decided to build a model whale for his school project. He was very excited about it, and particularly about the fact that the assigment required an index card with facts on it. He and his mother liked the idea of making their own modeling dough, and we had quite a lively discussion of how they might represent krill, barnacles, and the whale’s blowhole. They bought $75 worth of books, only one of which was specifically for the project at hand. It restored my faith in humankind.