Associated Topics || Dr. Math Home || Search Dr. Math

### 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
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 History/Biography