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When Do We Need to Know Roman Numerals?

Date: 08/26/2003 at 11:40:07
From: Trudy Burner
Subject: Practicality of Roman Numerals

Dr. Math:

I am a new teacher in Maryland, USA. I have a student who does not see 
how learning Roman numerals will benefit her, other than reading 
clocks and the Super Bowl. What advice can you give her to make this 
learning experience more relevant to her life and needs? When do we 
need to know Roman numerals?


Date: 08/26/2003 at 12:20:26
From: Doctor Peterson
Subject: Re: Practicality of Roman Numerals

Hi, Trudy.

That's a valid question. Let's see what we can do for her.

First, there are other places where Roman numerals are used; we have 
a section on that in our FAQ:

   Roman numerals
   http://mathforum.org/dr.math/faq/faq.roman.html 

And see:

   Roman Numerals - History and Use
   http://www.wilkiecollins.demon.co.uk/roman/intro.htm 

You'll find that they are more important in our life than you might 
think. (A good question is, why have they remained so common, and how 
long will it be before we stop holding on to this antiquated system?)

Second, we can consider the purpose of learning ANYTHING. Do we learn 
only what we expect to use directly, or does most of what we learn 
come into our lives in indirect ways?

For a closely related example, why do we learn ancient history? We 
aren't going to meet any Roman soldiers and need to know their 
strategies for conquering Gaul; but we may find it useful to be aware 
of what has gone wrong in ancient governments and what kinds of 
solutions were found. And knowing that there have been different ways 
to live can broaden your appreciation for such systems today. The 
application to modern life is indirect.

Similarly, it is useful to be aware of different ways to write 
numbers, in order to better understand the advantages of our modern 
system. I can imagine some students thinking that place value is too 
complicated, and inventing a "new" system in which there is a 
different symbol for each place. If they don't realize that they are 
reinventing a system that was used long ago and found wanting, they 
could waste a lot of time. But more typically, people might live 
their lives assuming that the way we do arithmetic is the only way 
there is, something that was decreed by some authority long ago. 
Knowing that new discoveries have been made, and new methods 
invented, can at the least help you see that the "hard" techniques 
kids are taught today are really far easier than the equivalent 
methods in the past, in large part because better notations were 
invented. Consider that at one time very few people learned how to do 
arithmetic, because it was far beyond normal minds! To know how much 
easier we have it changes your perspective on math.

If you have any further questions, feel free to write back.

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

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