But When Will I Ever Use This?

When I was an undergraduate Electrical Engineering major, I often wondered, “When will I ever use this?” Whether it was calculating a surface integral, solving a homogeneous differential equation by hand, determining and graphing the convolution of two signals, performing a discrete Fourier transform using pencil and paper, or deriving the EMF equation of a synchronous generator, I often wondered just when I’d ever actually apply what I learned. To this day, I can tell you with certainty that I haven’t done any of that stuff in my professional life.

But I can tell you with just as much certainty that studying these things I’ve never used has benefited me immensely.

Convolution. I could do this twenty-five years ago.

Most athletes do weight training. No offense, but even bowlers do. When was the last time you saw a bowler do the clean and jerk at a bowling alley? They lift weights as part of their training because it makes it easier to hurl a sixteen-pound ball repeatedly across sixty feet of grease. They don’t lift weights just so they can answer “yes” when asked “Do you even lift, bro?”. They lift because it makes the rest of their task seem more natural, more automatic.

Most guitarists practice a variety of scales. I don’t, because I lack discipline and inevitably succumb to turning the distortion way up and jamming away like a Slash wannabe. But most serious guitarists do. When was the last time you heard an enjoyable guitarist play the C# minor scale in Mixolydian mode straight up in a rock solo? Honestly, I wouldn’t know if I heard it, and most rock guitarists wouldn’t know when they played it, but they still might practice it, because it makes their fingers move more nimbly, and helps them find fretboard patterns that help them break out of the pentatonic box.

I so often hear Computer Science students ask why they have to take Discrete Mathematics or Calculus. I hear them wonder aloud, very much like I did, why they have to learn language grammars and Backus-Naur form, or Big-O notation, or mathematical proof. Computer Science students who don’t want to develop software often ask why they have to take programming courses, and some even leave the major because, of all things, programming is about the last thing they want to do or even learn. Programming to them is what Stokes Theorem was to me. “When am I ever going to use this?”

Your brain is like the muscle that hurls a sixteen-pound ball sixty feet across a greasy wooden lane. Your brain is your fretting hand, spryly fingering all the notes across an esoteric but unexpectedly rocking passage. You train that muscle, you exercise that fretting hand, so that you can make what would otherwise be hard easy. You train that muscle, you exercise that fretting hand, so that you can do the unexpectedly difficult tasks precisely and with regularity. You train that muscle, you exercise that fretting hand, so that you can play on any lane, jam in any key. You work on things that lack immediate or even discernible application because it improves your ability to tackle the immediate and master the discernible.

The truth is that much of what you learn in the course of pursuing a four-year degree, you will never directly use again. That’s ok. You’ll use it in some other way.

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

2 thoughts on “But When Will I Ever Use This?

  1. paul j kaiser
    April 7, 2019 at 12:42 pm

    As a former bowler and your mentor, i must inform you that the bulk of lifting weights for bowlers is hoisting a beer bottle to his/her lips!

    1. April 8, 2019 at 8:38 pm

      I always wondered where you got those biceps!

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