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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Why Math Matters

I have done many things in my life, including teaching math at the college level.

The perennial question that math students ask is, "Why do I have to take this course? I will NEVER use this kind of math in real life."

Now, a lot of teachers will try to pretend that the student will actually use math. Heck, I tried to pretend that for a couple of years myself. But we all know it isn't true. Very few people outside of engineering use calculus. Calculus was required for my computer science degree, but I can honestly say I never used it for anything. At most, I've used a bit of algebra and a taste of geometry, and that's about it. Most people will never use the math they learn in school.

So why do so many college programs still require math?
Simple. Math is a marker for "meta skills." In order to do math well, you have to be:

  1. Organized, 
  2. Good at documentation,
  3. Good at detailed work,
  4. Good at following and trusting a procedure.

Those four skills are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to employers and to you.
You can't pass algebra unless you have those skills. In order to do any advanced math, you have to:

  1. Learn many different procedures, 
  2. Choose the right procedure from a multitude of different possibilities,
  3. Be able to determine why your chosen procedure is or isn't correct for the situation, 
  4. Be able to execute the chosen procedure correctly,  
  5. Write down everything you do, every step of the way in an organized fashion so in case you DO forget anything or HAVE chosen the wrong procedure, you can find the problem and fix it quickly.

When every phone is a calculator, and life really doesn't involve much math, nobody really cares if you know math. Learning math is most assuredly not the point of math class.

However EVERYBODY cares about whether or not you have the skill sets listed above. The easiest way to teach those skills and demonstrate you have those skills is to say "I got an 'A' in algebra/geometry/trig/calculus."

You will do many jobs during your lifetime. All of them will have specialized procedures. The more you train your brain to quickly learn (seemingly) arbitrary procedures, the more jobs you will qualify for, the easier it will be to earn a living. THAT is the point of taking all those math classes. People want to know you have those skills. Math is the fastest way to prove you do. It is also the most straightforward way to teach you the skills if you don't have them, because math is nothing BUT those skills.

That's why every decent college program requires math.
If you're in a program that doesn't require math, you aren't going to college, you're going to a very expensive and pretentious grade school for grown-ups.


Anne Welch said...

My father started working through partial differential equations as he got older, hoping to keep his mind sharp. So there's that to look forward to.

As someone not mechanically inclined, one of the most important educational experiences I ever had was taking an adult education class on bicycle repair. I learned the mantra: “lefty-loosy, righty-tighty” (except for the reverse thread on the left pedal). One night after we had taken apart the whole drivetrain cleaned it, greased it and then screwed it back together again, I set off for home in a snowstorm. I had a moment of real panic when it occurred to me that I was riding on my own work. Aren’t we all.

Staberdearth said...

While one may not remember much about the specifics of math courses, the simple immersion in the field leads to a better understanding of how things work as translated into numbers and the manipulation of them. It's nice to "know" or be aware of what one does not remember and then relearn it if necessary. It sucks when one does not know what one does not know. Your vista of possibilities is then severely narrowed.

Liberal arts students often aplogize for not being inclined beyond their training. I wonder why? Most of us technical types still had to take liberal arts courses to fulfill our degree requirements.

Anne Welch, above, took the chance to stretch herself with what appear to be very self satisfying results.