On mathPosted: July 30, 2012
Please excuse this non-anime article.
A New York Times article has been making the rounds on the Internet recently. In it, a retired professor of political science says that algebra should not be taught in schools, and that math in general has very few real-world applications. He goes on to say that knowledge of math is used as a deciding factor in otherwise un-mathy environments (college applications, for example), and that this bars brilliant people from achieving their full potential.
These arguments hinge on two key claims:
- Math in school is useless.
- Math is not a good measure of intelligence (brilliance, etc.).
As I said on twitter,
Come September, I’m going to be a third year in college. I’ve only just entered the world of upper division physics, so I haven’t had the decades of experience others might have. But even I know that math is not useless.
Firstly, the more minor reason: math inspires. Science is the single most important field of study in all of human history, to the point where we equate knowledge with science. And to just imagine somebody proposing we cut out the very foundation of science from education… it’s infuriating.
Math is a subject that makes children interested in STEM-related fields. And if not that, it’s an Honest-to-God prerequisite for everything in science. Biology, medicine, physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science, and more. Without algebra (or calculus), students would be denied the opportunity to move into these fields. And in the middle of a technological revolution, these jobs represent the future of white-collar employment.
Secondly, subjects like math and science give students invaluable tools to handle all sorts of problems in life. This ranks up there on the list of overused cliches, but it’s really true. The mathematics/science courses I took in middle school and high school were:
- Algebra 1 and 2
Now let’s omit the extra courses I took, since I ended up majoring in physics. The required courses to graduate from high school were:
- Algebra 1 and 2
- Chemistry or Physics
Algebra covers things like equation solving, polynomials, trigonometry, systems of equations, everything Excel can do, exponents and logarithms, and more. Geometry covers the laws of basic shapes, with a focus on circles. It also has a lot of table-ish proofs, or at least my class did. Biology is the study of living things, and Chemistry is the study of atoms, molecules, elements, compounds, and the interactions between them. Physics is a very broad term, the science of matter itself. In high school, mechanics (and sometimes electromagnetism) is taught, and this focuses on the laws governing motion of macroscopic objects.
Okay, flomu, what’s your point?
What do all of these subjects have in common?
Yes, it’s their structure. There’s a well known term called the “scientific method” that generally refers to objective techniques for conducting scientific research and experiments. This is similarly reflected in mathematics, where proofs and conjectures serve a similar purpose. These are in stark contrast to subjects like Literature, English, etc., where persuasion is more important than documentation.
Learning this structure allows students to view the world from an objective viewpoint. First, set up a hypothesis. Next, test to see if it’s true. If your results contradict your hypothesis or previous results, then something is up. Now apply this to the real world. Presidential elections. Your friend’s stories. A New York Times article. This is a format that is completely different from the ideas of “voice” and “audience” that we all learned in English class, but is very complementary.
The goal of education is to create a well-rounded society, capable of thinking critically and weighing facts against opinions. Classes like English and History allow students to voice their own opinions on matters, whether it be in a class discussion or in a term paper. These subjects nurture students’ voices, helping them develop into people who can speak their mind and do it in a coherent way.
On the other hand, Math and Science classes force students to learn the system and abide by the system. This kind of iron fisted objectivity helps students see the difference between fact and opinion. It allows students to stop and think back to the basic axioms that they believe in, and derive their own result from there. This ensures that whatever comes out of a student’s mouth isn’t garbage, that they have mulled over their opinion before shouting it out.
Thirdly, let me fight a dumb article’s opinion with my own dumb argument: What would you replace math with? There is nothing that could take its place. You want science courses? Oh, you don’t know algebra? Too bad. You want more down-to-earth math courses? Too bad. You need algebra to understand the very basics of Statistics.
So what are we left with? English, Foreign Language, and Physical Education.
Mankind has declined.