During 24 years as a Math teacher and tutor, one of the most common questions students have asked me is “when am I ever going to use this?” Sometimes this has an easy and direct answer; “you use proportions any time you want to adjust a recipe” or “Pythagorean Theorem has been used for thousands of years in construction, surveying, and architecture,” for instance. However, some topics – especially at higher levels – can be harder to justify. A few years ago, I had a revelation on this which has guided my thinking on the matter ever since. Three excellent general reasons show the value of Math education: it shapes the big picture of our world, it teaches people how to think, and it provides protection against being misled.
The Big Picture
Firstly, mathematical modeling regularly figures into business, governments, sports, and criminal investigations. The 2005-2010 TV series NUMB3RS highlighted potential uses in criminal investigations and the 2011 movie Moneyball showed using statistics to assemble winning sports teams. Math modeling also figures heavily into how the insurance industry (among others) operates. Studies ranging from economic forecasts to predictions about the financial impact of a new law also use mathematical modeling. No other recent event brought this more to the forefront than the appearance of COVID-19, however. Math modeling traces the spread of the disease, determines when reported casualty figures and infection rates are improbably high or low. It makes estimates about when the disease is likely to peak and/or at what point local health services are in danger of being overwhelmed. Math plays a key behind-the-scenes role in the big decisions made by politicians and health officials around the world.
How to Think
Secondly, Math education plays a heavily undervalued role in developing thinking skills. For instance, Geometry trains students how to think logically. Proving theorems develops skills in establishing cause-and-effect relationships, determining necessary evidence, and assembling that in orderly fashion. Algebra, on the other hand, develops abstract thinking skills. It forces students to look for patterns, seek out ways to substitute and manipulate things that cannot be physically touched, work backwards to find solutions, and understand symbolic representations. It also encourages meticulous error-checking. Statistics, by comparison, helps a student understand the relationships among various factors in the bigger picture of the real world. The more Math you learn, the more it expands your mind. In other words, the thinking behind the Math counts even more than the practical applications.
Don’t Get Fooled
Finally, Math has become more important than ever in recent years for protecting against being fooled. I regularly follow response threads to articles and opinion pieces on major news web sites, and the level of ignorance and shameless twisting of data I see regularly astounds me. Someone with a proper Math education can more easily spot bad comparisons, inaccurate calculations, and logic errors. Those who know how margin of error (an Algebra 2-level statistics concept) works will understand that occasional failures do not harm the usefulness of polling. They will also understand that overlapping margins can still allow a candidate behind in the polls to win. Those well-educated in Math also know that polls only estimate overall public opinion rather than provide a sure thing. On a smaller scale, Math can be used to determine when pricing is not fair. I still recall going to a gas station a couple of years ago and seeing a chicken tenders combo meal overpriced by 50¢ compared to buying the items in it separately. How many other customers got bilked by that because they didn’t notice?
Overall, Math education can have a lot of value even to those who do not expect to pursue a Math-oriented career. No, a student may not directly use much of what they learn in an Algebra or Geometry class, but Math is more a part of the modern world than most people appreciate.