Why study math?

November 17, 2012

Mathematics classes are required of all students in American public schools, from kindergarten through graduation.  Why does our society require students to learn mathematics?  Are there excellent reasons for this requirement?  Does our society require mathematics just to frustrate the student who sometimes thinks ... "Who cares about math and when am I ever going to need it?"

            According to mathematician John Allen Paulos, "As a mathematician, I'm often challenged to come up with compelling reasons to study mathematics.  If the questioner is serious, I reply that there are three reasons, or more accurately, three broad classes of reasons to study mathematics.  Only the first and most basic class is practical.  It pertains to job skills and the needs of science and technology.  The second concerns the understandings that are essential to an informed and effective citizenry.  The last class of reasons involves considerations of curiosity, beauty, playfulness, perhaps even transcendence and wisdom."  [Paulos, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper]

         Mathematical situations abound in daily life:  balancing a checkbook, calculating a tip, choosing a cell-phone plan, using a recipe, playing pool, building a deck, and investing for retirement.  These task demand proficiency with arithmetic, geometry, and estimation.  Furthermore, mathematics connects directly and indirectly with many other domains of knowledge.  But most of all, mathematics is INTRIGUING and CHALLENGING!!!