That’s a darned good question your student asked: “When are we going to use this?”
There is a conceit implicit in philosophical progressivism that a “well rounded education” is a foundation of a ‘full’ or ‘rich’ life. Like most philosophical progressive beliefs, this one seems buried quite deep in our structures and our educational goals. Isaac Asimov wrote a short story many years ago the name of which I can’t remember which has as its premise that all of a future society’s educational efforts were directed at discovering the ideal job for each individual and training them for that profession. There is something in our national belief system which is intensely uncomfortable with such a process. Perhaps it’s the “All men are created equal” thing. But ‘all people are equal’ means in this usage that no one is ‘better’ or more ‘worthwhile’ than another, not that we are all the same. There is an belief in our society, implicit or sometimes explicit, that life has a starting line and what we are entitled to is an ‘equal start’. But the ‘race’ described seems to be towards a particular, narrow definition of success, the “American Dream”: to become wealthy and successful. These three, usually unspoken, assumptions keep us stuck in our educational philosophy, a philosophy that is leaving quite a few kids behind.
Sorry for being long winded, I’m thinking as I’m writing to some extent. The point that I’m working towards is that it is possible to imagine an entirely different school system, one built on Asimov’s vision of finding the truth of each child and preparing them individually to be successful in their livelihood and their life. This cuts against several strong cultural biases, but those biases are ones that could stand some scrutiny. In Japan, for example, it is believe that every employee from the janitor to the CEO is equally valuable, they just have different jobs. There are some cultures that place spiritual ‘success’ as the highest goal and view material success as in impediment to spiritual achievement. It’s really not such a long journey, but as a culture we’d have to become ok with the idea that fulfillment is a higher and more realistic goal that preparation for a race that, by definition, only a few can win.
Back to your student’s question, I agree with you, needing to know it to graduate is a weak and alienating answer. Our students deserve a better answer. I think it’s assumed in the elite circles where these things are decided that ‘in the long run’ the value of such education will be clear. But two things are true. One, it does no good to hold this as a pedagogical goal if by having it as a goal we drive many children from the system before they get to ‘the long run’. Two, it is far from clear that many of the things we teach will be useful to many of the students. It may be that the ‘long run’ assumption is wrong.
I have a vision of thousands of kids standing in front of the Board of Education holding signs saying “Teach us something useful!” That’d get the conversation started!