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Do We Really Need to Learn Math?

Date: 11/19/2002 at 11:31:33
From: Natalie Espinosa
Subject: Math is not needed....

I honestly think that Math is useless subject. How many people use it 
unless they REALLY have to? I'm sure that most people if they had a 
chance would let a computer do it. Isn't that what they're for - to 
make our life easier? 

My high school just let us start using calculators, but we still need 
to show our work, which I don't know how if we didn't do any.

It may just be me, and I hate Math, but why do we need to know Math if 
we can have a calculator do it?


Date: 11/19/2002 at 12:35:45
From: Doctor Ian
Subject: Re: Math is not needed....

Hi Natalie, 

You could make the same argument about reading, couldn't you?  Why
learn to read, when you can just get other people (and eventually
machines) to do your reading for you? But you're starting from a 
couple of interesting premises.

The first premise is that you can just 'let' a calculator solve a
problem for you. I don't know about _your_ calculator, but mine won't
do a thing unless I tell it exactly what to do, step by step. Which
means I have to know what steps to tell it to do. If I tell it to
divide when I'm supposed to be multiplying, it will go ahead and
perform the wrong operation. If I key in 12.3 instead of 1.23, it
will go ahead and use the wrong number. It won't complain, or ask me
if I'm sure about what I'm asking it to do, because it hasn't a clue
about what problem I'm actually trying to solve. One of us ought to
be keeping track, to make sure things are being done correctly, and
that the final answer is at least in the right ballpark, and guess
what? It's not going to be the calculator. That means it has to be me. 

The second premise is that there will always be a working calculator
around. They do break, you know, and batteries seem to run out at the
most inconvenient times. I suppose you can argue that you'll always
be able to borrow someone else's calculator, or ask someone else for
help, but this is a little like arguing that you don't need your own
fire extinguisher, because you'll always be able to borrow one when
you need it. 

In the end, what makes math 'useful', even for people who don't do 
lots of calculations in their daily lives, is that it's very easy for
people who are comfortable with math to lie to people who aren't
comfortable with it.  

Think about some very young children that you know. You can tell them
practically anything, and they really have no choice but to believe
you, because they have no way of figuring out whether you're lying or
not. To borrow a memorable phrase from Tennessee Williams, children
have no choice but to 'depend on the kindness of strangers'. 

Guess what? If you don't understand math, then you're in exactly the
same boat relative to other people who do understand it.  They can
tell you anything, and if you don't have the skills to evaluate what
they're saying, you have no choice but to accept it.  

To the extent that you believe that once you get out in the world,
you'll be able to trust other people to look out for you, and act in
your best interest, you're right - you won't need math at all.  So I
guess the question is:  To what extent do you believe that? 

- Doctor Ian, The Math Forum
  http://mathforum.org/dr.math/ 
Associated Topics:
High School About Math
Middle School About Math

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