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Teaching, Mathematics and Teaching Math.

Why is Mathematics a core subject in school?

Posted by forumjoe on January 1, 2011

Mathematics contains much that will neither hurt one if one does not know it nor help one if one does know it.

– B. Mencken, 1715

In order to get my students to think a bit more about what they’re studying and why they’re studying it, I’m going to ask them the above question… Why do we study mathematics?

And I’m going to get them to really think about this. First individually, then in groups, but not in the way that can be brushed of with “Because its important”. However, if I’m going to ask my kids this question, I’d better have some idea about what the answer is, so I decided to do some research and discuss the results here.

It is my belief (though I can find no factual evidence of this) that 90% of careers and occupations use no maths higher than Year 8 level. Beyond addition and subtraction (which cash registers and calculators can do anyway) how much maths do you really need to survive in society these days? Why do we force students to study maths beyond this level? Sure, there should be maths classes covering calculus and algebra and trigonometry in highschool for those students who WANT TO BE THERE, and these should be wonderful, happy places where students creatively solve problems and learn about the world, like Lockhart envisioned.

Mathematics is looked at by society at large as a “necessary evil”. Why is it necessary? Do schools make Mathematics a compulsory subject because society sees it as necessary? Or does society see it as necessary simply because “everyone has to do their dues” in the mathematics classroom as a child. Parents expect their children to study maths because they themselves studied maths as a child. But if they’re not going into a career that requires maths, why do they need to study it?

The SIN rule
The Mode of a dataset
The Volume of a right prism

When will people ever need to use these things unless they get a job in a field that requires it? The only reason to understand these concepts in maths is because they’ll need to build on their understanding next year. It’s a repeating cycle. “You need to learn [x] because it will help you learn [y] next year”

Cut The Knot’s manifesto – – has a great collection of quotes on this issue from throughout the ages, for both sides of the argument. Here are some interesting ones that I’ll be showing my kids to start discussion on this:

J. B. Mencken, De Chralataneria eruditorium, 1715 (quoted in C. Fadiman, The Mathematical Magpie, p. 256):
Mathematics contains much that will neither hurt one if one does not know it nor help one if one does know it.

Has anything changed since 1715? I think many people would agree with this statement today.

Fran Lebowitz (b. 1951), Social Studies, “Tips for Teens”, 1981.
Stand firm in your refusal to remain conscious during algebra. In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra.

Phwoar, no such thing as Algebra!? But what about… oh. How about… hmmm. Surely… no, ok. Maybe you’re right.
Algebra is a great mathematical tool. It’s great for solving mathematical problems and it is a fundamental building block for many subsequent mathematical concepts. But if someone doesn’t learn it, or doesn’t understand it, will it affect their ability to contribute to society?

R. P. Boas, Jr., If This Be Treason…, Amer Math Monthly, 64(1957), 247-249.
When I was teaching mathematics to future naval officers during the war, I was told that the Navy had found that the men who had studied calculus made better line officers than men who had not studied calculus. Nothing is clearer (it was clear even to the Navy) than that a line officer never has the slightest use for calculus.

So now, perhaps, we are approaching the crux of the problem. Why is this so? Why does studying calculus help in an occupation that has no use for calculus? I can think of a whole bunch of possible reasons, but I don’t really know. Hopefully this is where my research will lead next.

There are lots of great quotes in Cut The Knot’s manifesto, and I encourage you to check them out. Many have anecdotal evidence about how studying mathematics helps develop the mind in ways useful for many careers. I shall leave you with one of my favourites. Benjamin Franklin, in 1787:

It seems to me, that if statesmen had a little more arithmetic, or were more accustomed to calculation, wars would be much less frequent.


3 Responses to “Why is Mathematics a core subject in school?”

  1. alwaysjan said

    I was cruising Tag Surfer and came across your post. I love the way you Brits say maths. My friend from England came to visit my third graders this year and they hooted when she said maths. I was a total twit when it came to math/s. “If a train leaves the station at…and another train going in the opposite direction leaves at…” In a cleaning out for the New Year frenzy today, I came across my report card for algebra. I barely passed. My parents might have greased some palms. Your blog post got me to thinking as at my school the number of middle school students who are able to pass algebra is sad indeed. They’ve taken to placing them in pre-algebra. I heard someone say the other day that you wouldn’t be able to graduate school unless you could do algebra. Holy crap! I’d still be sitting at the back of the class praying not to be called on. On the upside, as an adult I overcame my fear of math/s and enjoy teaching it now. But I agree that few professions require such advanced knowledge. Geez, we’ve been trying to teach them the metric system since I was in school and that hasn’t exactly been a smashing success. This is the first year I’ve taught a GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) cluster, so it’s been interesting to see some of the boys who live and breathe math/s. It’s kept me on my toes, but where will it take them? I wonder if Steve Jobs was good at this? I tend to get other people to do the stuff that I’m not interested in. 🙂 Your quotes are great. I’ll add one, “Don’t let your schooling get in the way of your education.” -Mark Twain. Cheers from across the pond.

  2. forumjoe said

    Not Brit, Australian actually. But yeah, it’s interesting the whole Math vs Maths dialect, not that it makes any difference in the bigger picture. Thanks for your comment, I love that Mark Twain quote.

  3. Mazil said

    As someone who has studied around maths a lot, I appreciate some of the core skills it has instilled in me. Logic, problem solving and abstraction have been crucial to my computing, philosophy and history studies. I can easily see how they would help with strategy, organisation and planning (military and otherwise). I think you could develop those skills through other means, but I suspect maths might be the easiest way to get a good foundation.

    Also, I think whenever you learn something, your knowledge will almost certainly degrade over time. My piano teacher would say that, if someone took a break for a few years, they would lose at least 2 grades of skill level. Maybe teaching maths to Grade 10 means you are more likely to carry away a Grade 8 level. Not sure if that’s an appealing way to put it to the kids though.

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