|Home Page Commentary 19 June 1997|
A couple of nights ago, I was listening to a local radio talk show host saying that he hadn´t learned anything useful in higher math courses, and that all his math courses past sixth grade were useless.
This talk show host said he hadn't needed any of the math in his career as a congressional aide, a teacher (and coach of a football team, I believe), or a talk show host. Here's the commentary that I sent him:
I think you have confused the vehicle with the destination. Let me explain what I mean:
When you were in grade school, you were taught the alphabet song. Why? I´m
fairly sure you´ve never been asked to sing the alphabet song in a business
meeting. So what was the use of learning the alphabet song? This is an obvious
case -- the alphabet song is the vehicle to get you to the destination
of "learning alphabetical order," a useful skill for using the dictionary or phone book,
sorting lists, etc. It so happens that the vehicle was amusing in and of itself,
and so you had no objection to it.
Again, an obvious case -- the exercises are the vehicle to get you to the destination
of "being in shape," a useful skill for winning football games. Although the vehicle
isn´t very pleasant, the destination is something the players want, so they are
willing to use the vehicle.
Most students will either conclude that there is no destination (thus rendering the vehicle useless) or they will conclude that the vehicle is the destination, and it´s a useless destination. Because the vehicle isn't all that much fun, students naturally object violently to it. So, what is the destination?
When you do a geometric proof (or just about any higher math), you are learning to do these things:
As a talk show host, you seem to use those skills quite often. It is my contention
that those skills are useful in the business world, or, in fact, any arena where
there are problems to be solved.
Insisting that math always be relevant is as ridiculous as insisting that students read "Moby Dick" so that they can be ready for careers in whaling. Instead, students read "Moby Dick" because it is a great adventure novel, fun to read just for itself, and, by the way, it happens to have a lot to say about the futility of obsession and vengeance.
I see nothing wrong with framing advanced mathematics as "let´s see what we can put together with these numbers and facts," and, by the way, it happens to improve your planning and logical skills.
In summary: geometry and advanced algebra, if learned purely for the mathematical techniques (the vehicles), are of little value. If you use the vehicles to get to their intended destination, they can be very valuable indeed.
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