Five years ago I was tutoring orphans in a local hospital. One of them asked me the following question when I tried to ask him to solve a quadratic:
Why do I need how to solve a quadratic? I am not going to use it for my future job!
This question is, largely not mathematical. Substituting 'quadratic' with 'linear forms' or 'calculus' or 'Hamlet' would not make much difference since the specific knowledge is not used on a day to day basis in most occupations except academia. But I feel puzzled as how to justify myself that 'learning quadratics is important enough that you must learn it'. At that day, I used a pragmatic argument that he need to pass various qualification exams to get to college, and after college he can find a job he wants. But this feels self-defeating - we are not learning for the sake of passing tests or getting high grades. I do not know how to make the kid understand that "knowing how to solve a quadratic is interesting and knowing how to solve higher degree ones can be awesome" - because knowing $(x-p)(x-q)=x^2-(p+q)x+pq$ is not very interesting to him.
Since I am still puzzled over it I decided to ask others who may had similar experience. What do you say when others ask you "what is the benefit of knowing $xxx$ theorem? Will you respond that "knowing $xxx$ is helpful/interesting because of $a,b,c,d$ reasons?"(thus refute the utilitarian argument), or arguing as this post that some knowledge is essential to know for anyone?
My father asked me "What is the importance of proving $1+1$ (the Goldbach Conjecture)" when I returned from college. I do not know how to answer as well even though I know the history behind the conjecture. Now I am going to become a teaching assistant, I think I should be able to answer such questions before I am at the stage and someone ask me questions like "Why do I need to know calculus"? again. So I post this at here.