Why is it important to study math in high school? Most adults never use algebra, much less geometry or trigonometry. Finding an inverse tangent, proving two angles are congruent, or finding the solution to a quadratic equation are not necessary to balancing a check book, filing you income tax, or even completing do-it-yourself projects around the house. Who needs higher math?
That’s the real question. As adults, some students will enter careers where they will need higher math skills, if not on a daily basis, at least to understand what they are trying to accomplish on the job. No one knows which students will enter a career requiring higher mathematics when the students are just entering high school. It is not even possible to guarantee which careers will exist five years from now.
Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, keypunch operators where among the highest paid careers for individuals coming out of high school. Essentially a skilled clerical position, keypunch operators typed information onto punch cards which was then used fed into a computer. Before desktop computers, the mouse, graphical user interfaces and the Internet, punch cards were the main source of input to computers. Earning as much as $10 an hour in an era when the minimum wage was barely $2 an hour – the equivalent of making $35 an hour today – it was a lucrative career. High school graduates in the early 1980’s could receive vocational training as keypunch operators and look forward to high paying jobs. By the mid-80’s, those jobs were gone; victims to the rapid advance in technology.
With more and more manufacturing utilizes robots, the ability to control operations from distant locations through the internet, and the increased use of mathematical models and computers to solve distribution and delivery problems, understanding the working environment increasingly requires some understanding of higher mathematics.
Learning higher math is not only useful for the world of work, however. The problem solving skills learned in algebra are useful in tackling any complex problem. Creating proofs in geometry is the only place in most high school curriculums where formal deductive reasoning is taught. If teenagers are not required to take geometry, they should at least be required to substitute a course in logical reasoning. Learning to read and interpret graphs is essential to gathering information in today’s information flooded world. These skills are necessary just to be an informed voter in a democracy or an informed consumer in a capitalist society.
Will it always be possible to get through life with the elementary arithmetic of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing? Probably. But increasingly, some understanding of higher math is necessary to understand the world of work. And the skills learned when encountering higher level math can be put top work in a variety of areas during a lifetime. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, ask not what math can do for you, but what together you and math can do to improve your world.