The Duality of the Math Teacher and Student Pt 1: Utility

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When I was in High School I took a lot of math.  Far more than I had to in order to meet the requirements.  At the time, looking forward with the prescience of youth, I figured Math would be largely useless in my life.  But regardless, in some odd nihilistic and masochistic impulse, I took math all through high school.  I even doubled up algebra and geometry my sophomore year in order to take calculus my senior year.  Looking back on it I didn’t have have a particularly good reason to take math.  Like most adolescent decisions, a girl was involved.  A year or two earlier, at an impressionable age, the “older” and therefore “cooler” kids were taking calculus and I wanted to demonstrate my intellectual superiority over them.  I had a math teacher who inspired me.  I thought I would gain the esteem of others.  It was all of those reasons and none.  I can only say that I made oddly good decisions for incredibly shallow and dubious reasons.  But never once did I think it would be practical.  Who needs geometry or algebra?  Kids always ask this. I asked this. Even adults ask this sometimes.  I have found my life has been impacted by my math decisions in two important ways.

The first reason is that almost every job I’ve ever gotten I’ve gotten because of my superior math skills.  If I’ve forgotten something about how math works it’s been much easier to relearn.  Not only that but it’s made acquiring other intellectual skills a little easier in ways I can’t fully describe.  If I didn’t have math I probably would have found something else.  But I know without any doubt or reservation that if I hadn’t taken math in high school I absolutely would have wasted any extra time I might otherwise have gained just lazing about.  Looking back on it would have been an incalculable loss for  me now.

The second is more difficult to describe than job prospects and skills acquisition.  It’s something far more ephemeral.  It changed me.  It changed the way my brain works.  You do anything long enough; if you expand any skill past a certain point, you’ll feel something shift in your head.  It’s almost a physical sensation.  For an event that lacks any physical sensation at all it’s almost painful.  After taking calculus, my view of the world was subtly different.  It was more complete.  I find this to be true once you get past a certain point in any discipline.  It happened for me with science, biology in particular, and with history. This is one of the hardest things to communicate to my students.  You don’t really begin to understand the world until after you reach a certain skill level.  Take history.  This example is a little more intuitive than math.  What’s the point of memorizing names, and dates, and places?  By itself there is none.  Men with guns don’t jump out of alleys threatening to shoot me if I can’t recall the salient details regarding the Battle of Hastings.  But once you get past the names, and dates, and places; once you learn them and move on, then important connections about how the world functions from a socio-political-economic perspective begin to form and it has huge relevance to everyday life.  No one peice of the puzzle makes the picture, but without enough puzzle pieces your picture will never form.  Learning is like that.  It’s all about getting enough puzzle pieces, but you can’t describe the picture to students since it’ll look a little different to each person.  So they continue to believe there isn’t a picture and continue to believe that school is an exercise in nihilism.  Which, when I was their age, I was, apparently, ok with that.  But learning math, and thinking like math has opened the doors and different kinds of doors to other ways of thinking about numbers and relationships.

No person who wants to meaningly affect the world will be able to do so without a rudimentary understanding of math.  I could be wrong, but I doubt it.  Small math?  small effect.  I think it didn’t always used to be this way.  I think this is new.  And I think this concept is only going to get stronger the further along we get.  Culling examples from the civil rights era, Rosa Parks made her mark by refusing to get off the bus.  Ruby Bridges just walked into school.  I don’t want to minimize their struggles or accomplishments, but if people want to fight for civil rights in the next generation they are going to have to understand and communicate vast amounts of data and statistical information.  No matter what battles are to be fought in the coming days I can’t envision a single one that won’t use math as a weapon.  Students may very well ask, what’s the point of a gun?  There isn’t unless you’re going to war.


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