I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics for Teachers yet I never really used the knowledge I got from it except for about 3 months when I had to substitute for a Trigonometry class in senior high school. When asked about how I handled math when I home schooled my son, I tell people that I gave him the basics then let him do a lot of figuring out himself. When people ask me if I think math is a necessary subject in school, I ask them how much of their high school math do they honestly remember. And I’m asking you now, how much do you remember of your high school math? Have you ever, since you left school, needed to apply the quadratic equation to anything? Or had to recall the Pythagorean theorem? Or had to calculate trigonometric functions?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying math in high school isn’t important. I’m saying we’re focusing on the wrong things.
The subject per se teaches us information that will most likely be useless to us when we begin our professional careers. Sure, we’ll need to add things up, calculate our taxes-that takes some subtraction, pay our bills, and so on and so forth. But besides the basic operations-addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division, how much math do we really use, unless we’re in a field that requires applied mathematics? We learn long methods and short methods of solving problems, but once we graduate, we use calculators, spreadsheets, or accountants. Even our tax forms tell us how to calculate our taxes step by step. No need to recall how it’s done. And if we can’t follow those steps, there are very helpful people who’ll do it for free or for a fee, your choice. We don’t need to calculate things like resistance when we buy surge protectors and appliances, or tensile strength when we put up a laundry line. The manufacturers have done that for us. Even cash tills in retail stores total the bill and add the appropriate taxes or take away discounts with the punch of a single button.
So why do we still teach math in high school? One major reason, of course, is that it will provide the foundation for higher mathematics in case we need to take that up in college. Without high school math, we probably wouldn’t cope very well with subjects like statistics, probability, and calculus. On the other hand, colleges also offer basic math subjects like algebra and trigonometry, which really is a repetition of what is taken in high school. (This is a redundancy that I might dwell on in a different essay.)
The more important reason, is that math is a discipline that teaches our brains to organize information in specific ways. It teaches our brains a logical process that it uses to recognize problems, rearrange the information we know, and find valid solutions to those problems. Even if the problems aren’t mathematical, the logical process we use is. Because of math, our brains have acquired a standard operating procedure for finding data, organizing it, and making it easier to understand. We may not remember the theorems and formulas we had to memorize and apply in high school, but our brains have already made connections based on that knowledge. That is why, even if I am not a practicing mathematician-never have been and probably never will be-I’m still grateful for the training I got. It gave my brain the best mental calisthenics I could ever ask for, and I’m certain that my brain is working better now because of that.