When will we ever use math in real life?

Scott McLeod wrote a great article about taking the ACT again (he is an education professor). Basically, the state of Iowa wants to make the ACT a requirement for high schoolers. Scott challenged some of the deciders to take the test. Jason Glass took him up on the challenge, provided Scott also take the ACT. They did, and Scott writes about it in the link.

I really liked the article, but I have a problem with one sentence:

My biggest concerns about the math test relate to the fact that much of what is assessed is math that – and I think I’m safe saying this – most of us will never use again (how many of you have needed to calculate the cosine of an angle recently? how many of you have needed to determine the formula of a circle on a standard coordinate plane?)

I actually do not disagree with this—I agree that most people will never think about a cosine again after graduating. However, I think that this is a dangerous quote for him to write (and I will tell him that in his comments). Most of my readers will probably agree that it is important for citizens to be mathematically literate, so I will not belabor that. My issue is that Scott has a double standard for mathematics.

Why is mathematics singled out for its lack necessity in “real life?” I gave myself one minute to think of a list of topics I learned in school that I never use in my non-professional life:

  • Playing the trumpet
  • Understanding The Tempest
  • The treble clef
  • Understanding the causes of the Civil War
  • Understanding how a bill becomes a law
  • Understanding the effects of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act
  • How to speak Spanish
  • What happens when an iron rod goes through your head
  • How to make paper
  • The structure of an atom
  • What happens when you shoot a blowgun at a monkey

I use almost nothing that I learned in school in my non-professional life, save for my reading comprehension skills and some writing skills (and my skills from my 9th grade Introduction to Keyboarding class; that class definitely paid off). Granted, some of these skills could be useful (Spanish, in particular), but they aren’t currently in my life. If we demand that mathematics be useful, it seems like we should demand that everything be useful.

The irony is that mathematics is useful; it is just that not everyone needs to know it. While most people do not ever use cosines, they should be happy that someone knew how to use cosines when creating their iPod/television/wireless signal/etc.

I suppose that one argument is: most people may not play the trumpet/read Shakespeare/do art, but some people might later decide to do it as a hobby. If that is the case, we should be offering classes in beer, sex and World of Warcraft to high schoolers.

I think that it is worth asking whether mathematics should be taught, but only as part of the larger question: Why do we educate people at all? What are our goals? If mathematics fits into it, great. Otherwise, we should change things. But I think our goal is not “teach students things they will use every day in life.” Otherwise, Shakespeare and art are out; Microsoft Word and changing diapers are in.


13 Responses to “When will we ever use math in real life?”

  1. Hitchman Says:

    Hell, Yeah!

    (plus, those school districts that get too close to offering a class in Beer and Sex –called health class– often make parents nervous.)

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Theron!

      Yeah, we would hate to teach anything that makes parents nervous. We need to keep the kids inside the bubble (note: I will have kids in school in a couple of years; this comment does NOT apply to me—keep my kids in the bubble I created for them).

      Are you kind of in the middle of all of this, being in Iowa?

  2. Hitchman Says:

    Hell, Yeah!

    (Of course, some schools try to offer a class about beer and sex—called health—but that makes parents nervous.)

  3. Hitchman Says:

    I am not “in the middle” of this. I have colleagues whose research and public service work is more about K12 education, but I am only the lowly parent of a few school aged children.

    Students only ask “when are we ever gonna use this?” if they find the material uninteresting and uninspiring, and can’t imagine anyone else finding it interesting. Unfortunately, that happens a lot in mathematics classrooms.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Theron,

      Do you find that students ask it more, less, or the same in an IBL class? Bret

      • Hitchman Says:

        It is less about the structure of class, and more about the audience. Math and mathed majors at UNI don’t tend to ask this too much unless things get really boring.

        It is more prevalent in classes aimed at “non-math students.” But I have a terminal liberal arts class this term which I am running as a “low stress” IBL environment, and I haven’t heard it once. I’m not sure why.

      • bretbenesh Says:

        Have you blogged about what a “low stress” IBL class would look like? Bret

      • Hitchman Says:

        No. My semester has not been “low stress,” so blogging has dropped off the radar. Only one more week! maybe blogging will resume…

      • bretbenesh Says:

        I would love to read about that when you get a chance.

      • Hitchman Says:

        I was planning a bit of a semester “post mortem.” Next week!

  4. Jason (@jybuell) Says:

    I am sad that nobody has linked XKCD yet http://www.xkcd.com/1050/ Although at this point maybe we all can assume that every XKCD comic is common knowledge.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      I saw that comic a couple of days after the post! I think that you are the only one who is both aware enough and motivated enough to connect the comic to this post. It is nice having you around for that!

  5. Painters and Pure Mathematicians | Solvable by Radicals Says:

    […] am also annoyed at the double-standard. I have written about this before. But it still bothers me that mathematics is held to a different standard than other school subjects […]

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