“What’s the point of mathematics….?” is a question I’ve been asked countless times, along with “when am I ever going to use this stuff?” There are so many answers I could give, but I’m not sure how convincing they are to the student struggling with calculus or conditional probability.
I try to point out that probably 90% of what you learn at school is not necessarily going to be “useful” in everyday life. When are you going to use the History, or the Physics, that you have learnt. “Ah”, you reply, “but at least you can relate History to real people, and Physics to the real world.” True, Pure Mathematics can be very abstract and often only relevant to itself: I think, by the way, that’s why even children under 10 can become extremely good at advanced mathematics – they don’t need real-world experience to be able to understand it, just the right connections in their brain.
All right then, how about the fact that education for its own sake is very valuable – not just teaching you “useful things”, but a smattering of knowledge in a range of subjects, and also teaching students how to learn. If you only learnt things that were going to be useful in everyday life, valuable though such knowledge is, what a boring and narrow person you would be. Students can appreciate this argument, but still find it unconvincing when faced with solving a trigonometry equation, or how a sequence can tend to infinity when infinity doesn’t seemingly exist.
“Well then”, I say, “it’s useful to be able to compare prices in the supermarkets, calculate ratios in cooking recipes, do financial calculations on tax and mortgages, and so on.” Yes, but that’s really just numeracy – you don’t need advanced mathematics for those things.
I could argue that many, many careers require mathematics, often to a very high level. Such as architecture, insurance, financial analysis, economics, many disciplines of science – and maths teacher, of course! But how about this for a powerful reason why mathematics is so important. Without it, the civilised world as we know it today just wouldn’t exist. No cars, no television or radio, no computers, no internet. No jet aircraft, no large civil structures such as bridges and tall buildings. No weather prediction, nor analysis of climate change. The list is endless, and encompasses all fields of human endeavour: even art would not have been able to develop without an understanding of the mathematics behind perspective. Nor could we analyse the world around us in the detail we need to help make it a better place.
All of this requires the practical application of mathematics, and it is therefore crucial that everyone builds up basic skills at school – you never know when you might apply them!