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Why Math

April 1, 2018

 

According to an (admittedly unscientific) survey of my high school students, there is no conceivable reason for them to learn Algebra.  Additional questioning indicates no need to learn math at all. I am a contrarian, however, and would provide a rebuttal to my students’ well-made case against math.

 

The biggest attack my students make against algebra is simply that they won’t use it in “real life”—whatever that is.  And maybe they have a point.  I rarely see custodians, fast-food workers, or grocery store check-out clerks use much algebra at all.  But gardeners might need to know math in determining optimal garden sizes or shapes.  Carpenters obviously use math when calculating the amount of compressive force exerted on a load-bearing pillar, as well as in determining the best angles to use in a chair they might build.  Accountants obviously need to have a good working knowledge of math, as do scientists.  Even lawyers find that they use math more than they might have expected earlier in life!

 

Students also claim that there is no need to learn math when there are calculators that do everything anyway.  And again, they are correct… to a point.  If all somebody needs is to add a few large numbers together, why not grab the Casio and be done with it?  But I would argue that advances in calculator technology have done more to harm math education than almost anything else.  It is not uncommon to see high school students that do not know multiplication tables and who are stumped when they have to use negative numbers.  So if they have an academic question on a test—think the classic “4 x (-75) = ??” sort, those students are fine.  But if they have to think on their feet—“If I borrow $75 from 4 different people, how much do I owe?”—they are lost.

 

One of the strongest reasons that a strong math education is important has nothing to do with what most students think.  The real reason to learn math is to learn to think critically.  Unlike English or History, which can allow many students to skate along by arguing subjective points, math requires an attention to detail, to precision, and to logic.  Solving 3x + 6 = 0 for x can be done in a couple different ways, but there is only one right answer, and all the hand-waving in the world can’t change that.  It’s this combination of rigidity and freedom that makes math wonderful—although there may be one correct answer, the paths one can take to reach that answer are plentiful.

 

The other key reason to learn math in school?  Simply put: You’re in school!—you still have the potential to be anything.  Sure, Karen might hate math in high school, and Gordon might be certain that he wants to be an artist, but nothing is yet set in stone.  Later in her life, Karen might decide that she wants to program to earn her bread and cheese, and having a mind well-trained in precise, logical thinking will be so important to her.  Gordon might enter research science, where math is part and parcel of everyday life. (Or, even sticking to the art world, it will pay to know about the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio, Gordon!)

 

The fact is, math can be challenging for people, especially as they transition from elementary- and middle-school math to high school math.  (I sometimes make the distinction of calling the former “Counting”, the latter “Real Math” or just “Math”.)  But the alternatives to learning math should be appalling to anybody who values education.  Being uneducated, or even just under-educated, in math can shut you out of entire fields when it comes to making a career choice.  Despite my students’ arguments, a weak understanding of math can actually leave you at a disadvantage in that “real world” they allude to.  And, possibly worst of all, a mind that is untrained in math is quite likely to be untrained in logic and critical thinking altogether.


Fred Krafcik teaches Algebra at an I-Zone school in Memphis, TN. He has also been a research scientist and a lawyer. He holds a BS Biology, an MS in Immunology, and a law degree. He loves math.

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